Facing anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, high school students find safe spaces in support groups
The Ohio Senate will soon consider a bill that would ban gender-affirming healthcare and transgender girls’ participation in sports. The Ohio House of Representatives recently passed the same measure. If voted through by the Ohio Senate this fall, it could become law.
Miriam Escobar, a ninth-grader who attended Cleveland Pride, had only questions when asked their thoughts about anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.
"Why, I guess. Why?" Escobar asked. "They shouldn't feel scared to be who they are because, and especially like the government, aren't they supposed to protect us? Why make people feel scared?"
Miriam said they can be themselves at school and at home, but students at less supportive schools find safety and community in student groups called gender and sexuality alliances (GSAs).
The GSA at Shaker Heights High School organizes student events including a year-end Pride Mixer. Hayden, a graduated senior and former leader of the school’s GSA, explained how important the group was for their coming out.
"I would walk home super fast so I could get to the GSA meetings as quickly as I could," Hayden recalled. "So I would like run upstairs and open my computer, and be like, 'Yes, GSA,' because I think it's nice to have a consistent space where I'm like, OK, I can just breathe. I can be safe."
Activism and safety
Found in rural, suburban and urban high schools across the U.S., GSA groups provide safe spaces for students to discuss coming out, plan Queer Proms and make friends.
The first of these groups came in 1988 at Concord Academy in Massachusetts. From the beginning, GSAs have been supportive and educational spaces, but they’ve also been political with many fighting for more progressive laws affecting LGBTQ+ people.
Jason Tout is the advisor of the GSA at MC2STEM High School in Cleveland. At the group’s final meeting before summer break, members competed in LGBTQ+ pop culture trivia and prepared to attend a Cleveland City Club forum the next day. He says that most of the group’s members don’t focus on the more than 500 pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation proposed this year.
"The majority of our students don’t want it to be on their radar. I think in some ways, it's a defense mechanism to just be like, that's what the adults are doing off in D.C. or down in Florida," Tout said.
He summarized the predominant attitude among students as: "Here, I've got my friend group. I've got my support group. I've got the members of my family that I trust and I've got the members of my family that I don't tell anything."
That’s not to say that all students don’t care about the politics around them. For ninth-grader Kyle Williams, also a GSA member at MC2STEM High School, the dangers are clear.
"It feels like, 'Oh, I can't be myself. Oh, I feel like I should be trapped in this little box.' And being trapped in that little box feels like you can't be yourself, protect yourself," Williams explained.
Pending legislation like Ohio’s House Bill 8 could require school staff to notify parents of students’ sexual or gender identities without exception. That has some people worried GSAs may no longer be the safe spaces they’ve been for the past 35 years.
Both students and advisors say that GSA groups can be life-changing. Jennifer Oehler is an English teacher and the GSA advisor at Medina High School.
"I just feel that it's so important for students to be treated with integrity and to know that they have dignity, and that they are accepted for who they are. I have had students who even are not members of the GSA tell me how important it is for there to be a GSA. Just knowing that the club exists is affirming to them," Oehler said.
Studies find that the mere presence of a GSA is tied to less harassment of LGBTQ+ students, more supportive staff and more student and staff intervention to bullying.
Clovis Westlund is a student at the Ohio State University, pursuing a dual degree in public affairs and sociology. He is a graduate of Ideastream Public Media's "Sound of Us" audio storytelling training program.
This story is part of Ideastream Public Media “Sound of Us” community storytelling initiative.