GSA flying high at A&M Central Texas

FionaFlyerTameca Harris-Jackson, co-advisor for the Gay Straight Alliance Warriors at Texas A&M University Central Texas in Killeen, wrote that good things are going on at her campus for the LGBT community.

While the main A&M campus in College Station is digging out from its perennial “most homophobic” label by the Princeton Review, TAMUCT’s GSA is forging ahead.

On April 5, the group hosts Fiona Dawson on campus. Dawson is producer and the host of TransMilitary, a series contrasting the lives of U.S. and British transgender service members. For the 2012 Democratic and Republican conventions, she hosted for HereTV. She began her career in Houston and has served as Grand Marshal of the Houston Pride parade.

Gay Straight Alliance–Warriors meets the second Wednesday of the month at 4:30 p.m. in Founder’s Hall, Room 203.

The group began meeting in the spring of 2012 by a group “passionate about the idea of equality and acceptance for all persons — regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity” and about promoting an inclusive community.

When there’s anti-gay activity on Texas campuses, we’re quick to point it out — like last year, when A&M’s student body president had to veto an anti-gay bill passed by the Student Senate. But lots of good things are happening on campuses around Texas and that’s even better to report.

The Reality of American and British Transgender Military Service, Bernie Beck Hall, Texas A&M University Central Texas, 1001 Leadership Place, Killeen. April 5. 1–3 p.m. Open to the public. For more information, call 254-501-5874 or email Dr. Tameca Harris-Jackson or Dr. Michelle Dietert.

—  David Taffet

Community leaders speak to high school gay-straight alliance

Bryan Adams 2

From left, the Rev. Nancy De Stefano, Michael Cruz and David Taffet (Photo by Steve Ramos/Dallas Voice)

About 30 student members of the Gay-Straight Alliance met in the library at Bryan Adams High School on Friday. Three speakers talked about the community resources available to them, and then took part in a question-answer session. Some students talked about the bullying they’ve endured and others asked how to untangle the religious confusion after they’ve been told they’re going to hell for being gay.

“When you say you’ve been told you’re going to hell, I feel like I’ve been stabbed in the heart,” said Nancy De Stefano, pastor of St. Stephen’s Methodist Church in Mesquite. “The God I know doesn’t hate anyone, and you’re not going to hell.”

The club has been meeting for eight years at Bryan Adams and is sponsored by Danielle Jones and Ronald Mart. In addition to De Stefano, Michael Cruz from Youth First and David Taffet from Dallas Voice also spoke to the group of students.

—  Steve Ramos

Fort Worth middle school forms Gay-Straight Alliance club

teens-gay-rights2FORT WORTH — Students have long formed clubs to discuss hobbies, politics and myriad other topics that occupy a young person’s life. Add GLEE to that list, a group students formed this year at Daggett Middle School.

Members of Gay, Lesbian, Everybody Else meet on Friday mornings to talk about their feelings without worrying about being judged, the Fort Worth Star Telegram reported.

“They wanted a place where they felt safe,” said Lisa Earley, a seventh-grade social studies teacher and the club’s sponsor.

The Star Telegram article says GLEE is one of about seven gay-straight organizations on Fort Worth school campuses that promotes respect of others. The Fort Worth school district has been working with students to address societal ills such as bullying/cyberbullying, sexting and teen dating violence. Much of the work centers on the district’s “It’s not okay!” initiative, which encourages young people to seek help when they are troubled.

The Daggett GLEE club gives middle school students a place to talk about the pressure of being a teen, plan activities and work with other community organizations, the article says.

—  Steve Ramos

TCU day with Chick-fil-A sparks upset

Texas Christian University is partnering with Chick-fil-A today to give free food to TCU fans sporting their Horned Frog attire.

Patrons who visit two Fort Worth locations near the university wearing TCU attire will be given a free original chicken sandwich or an eight pack of nuggets.

The event is part of TCU Athletics Big 12 Days of Summer series and drew some debate on the athletics department’s Facebook page.

Alumnus Marlon Figueroa, who is gay, said the event shouldn’t have occurred because it is inappropriate during the recent controversy with the chicken chain over gay marriage and President Dan Cathy’s anti-gay comments. He said he wants TCU to end its relationship with Chick-fil-A and not partner with the company in the future.

“I think that TCU represents a lot of people and by partnering with TCU it’s alienating a lot of people,” he said. “Our values to be inclusive are not in line with Chick-fil-A.”

Aaron Hampton, president of TCU’s Gay-Straight Alliance, told Instant Tea that the partnership sent the wrong message to students.

“It’s not just about local businesses partnering with TCU, it’s about TCU working with an organization that works to deny equal rights to citizens,” he said. “So by working with them it sends a message to TCU students that while TCU is supposedly ‘open,’ they appeal to the masses and do not stand firm in their assertion that the campus is a safe place to discuss ideas and not have some ideas shoved down people’s throats.”

TCU’s Director of Communications Lisa Albert told Instant Tea in an email that the event was to promote the university’s entry into the Big 12 Conference.

“TCU is promoting its entrance into the Big 12 through a variety of events planned months ago,” she wrote. “The University does not support political or personal statements associated with any of our event hosts.”

TCU, which is affiliated with but not governed by the Disciples of Christ church, has been progressive recently and made strides with LGBT students, said the Rev. Steve Sprinkle, an openly gay professor at Brite Divinity School on TCU’s campus.

Sprinkle said the event comes at an interesting time when Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary announced it would attend the company’s appreciation day Aug. 1. LGBT advocates have planned kiss-ins across the country for Aug. 3. He said the company is partnering with institutions that would help it sell its products.

He added that TCU can choose what companies to partner with for events and that the event could’ve been planned before the controversy.

Chick-fil-A will also be giving away products Saturday at Texas Rangers ballpark. Spokesman John Blake said the company is a corporate sponsor of the Rangers and the possibility of disassociating from them “hasn’t been addressed.”

The Texas Rangers were considering filming an “It Gets Better” video last year but Blake said nothing has been planned.

“We’ve talked about doing something that would target bullying but it’s not been one yet,” he said.

—  Anna Waugh

Brookhaven GSA puts call out to local musicians and bands for inaugural Poverty & AIDS Benefit

Last week I spoke with Adrianna Thompson, a student at Brookhaven who is also the president of the community college’s gay-straight alliance. She has announced on the group’s Facebook page that she is organizing the first Poverty & AIDS fundraiser to be held May 1 on campus benefiting Resource Center Dallas. She did tell me she’s handling it all on her own and did say she could use a little help.

“I want to have local bands there and even a drag performance,” she said. “The thing is I just don’t know a whole lot of people in the community.”

Thompson is looking for all kinds of help while she balances her class schedule and homework. While she has said she’s refocusing some of the event, she has lined up students to contribute art for sale and Brookhaven’s Urban Dance Crew will join the lineup of entertainment. Dallas County Health and Human Services director Zachary Thompson is also on board to speak. Thompson is still looking for musicians and drag performers to donate time to the Tuesday night event and an additional speaker to touch on topics of safe sex. Initially the event was to be catered but she said that Raising Cane’s pulled out for reasons she deemed suspicious, so she has been forced to take money from the group’s account to offer drinks. With a full schedule of classes and classwork, Thompson has still maintained an air of enthusiasm for the event to really put the GSA on the map. And to think, she’s trying to get this done before she graduates May 10.

“There was a club a while back but it stopped,” she said. “When I found out they needed a student to be the president, nobody wanted that position so I decided to take it on.”

The Poverty & AIDS benefit will have a $2 cover or a food donation of two cans. All proceeds will go to directly to the Resource Center Dallas. For anyone wishing to donate their time and/services, email me here and I can put you in touch.

—  Rich Lopez

Dan Savage: It’s ‘never been worse’ for LGBT youth

Founder of It Gets Better Project says higher visibility combined with anti-gay forces can make growing up gay as hard as ever

SAVAGE  LOVE | Dan Savage, shown here at an appearance at the Kessler Theater last year, will appear at UNT on Feb. 7. (Rich Lopez/Dallas Voice)

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

Sex-advice columnist Dan Savage, known for his It Gets Better Project, will keynote the University of North Texas Equity and Diversity Conference next week.

“I’ll talk about how it’s gotten worse in some ways,” Savage said.

He said that kids can’t fly under the radar anymore like when he came out in 1981.

“Everyone is hyper-aware in a way they weren’t before,” he said.

He called that a result of the Reagan Revolution, when anti-gay rhetoric became organized.

“Mom and Dad beat up on gay people at the ballot box so it became OK for kids to beat up on gay kids at school,” he said.

This week, Savage said he received a letter from a father whose 13-year-old son recently came out.

“How do I know I’m parenting him correctly?” the dad wanted to know.

As a father with a 13-year-old son himself, Savage gets aggressively protective. He tells parents to make sure there’s a Gay Straight Alliance in school. If the school has anti-bullying policies in place, make sure they’re being enforced and let the principal know you’re watching and “you’ll create holy hell.” And make sure the child has gay role models and friends.

GETTING  BETTER AND BETTER | Dan Savage, right, and his husband Terry Miller started the It Gets Better Project to help LGBT youth. Their original goal was 100 videos but they have more than 50,000 that have gotten 50 million views. (Photo courtesy of Dan Savage)

He advises that when the young teen’s straight friends start dating and they have no other out friends in school, reassure them that their time will come. And don’t be afraid to give an LGBT child the same advice you’d give a straight child. That’s not homophobia, he said. It’s parenting.

But Savage called this “the best of times and the worst of times” for LGBT youth to grow up.

“If you grow up in a rural area, go to a Christian school, are bullied from the pulpit and there’s no GSA, it’s never been worse,” he said.

Savage said that when he began the It Gets Better Project, he and husband Terry Miller hoped for 100 videos. A day after posting that first one, he had topped that number and within a few days had 100 more. He said that at last count there were more than 50,000 It Gets Better videos that have been viewed more than 50 million times. That includes one of the most popular — the City Council speech made by Joel Burns that has been seen more than 2.7 million times.

Two of Savage’s favorite pieces that were included in the book It Gets Better, which will be released in paperback in March, were contributed by A.Y. Daring and Gabrielle Rivera. Daring, who identifies herself as black and queer, grew up in rural Canada. Her simple story tells of moving to a bigger city and entering a university with the oldest LGBT support group in the country. Rivera, a gay Latina from the Bronx, tells youth that, “It doesn’t get better.” But she says that you get stronger.

It Gets Better has been incorporated as a nonprofit organization. Savage said as soon as the videos took off, they trademarked and copyrighted the slogan and “people started throwing money at us.”

“We created a brand,” he said.

He said they’ve had to protect that brand and were able to shut down an anti-gay group that tried to co-opt the phrase.

That money raised has been redirected to GLSEN, the Trevor Project and the ACLU LGBT project. And he would like to see It Gets Better merged into another organization rather than continue as a standalone. Talks with other groups are ongoing.

Savage commented on the presidential campaign and the image of one of the candidates he helped create.

In 2003, in response to an interview in which Sen. Rick Santorum’s called gay sex a deviant behavior, Savage wrote, “There’s no better way to memorialize the Santorum scandal than by attaching his name to a sex act that would make his big, white teeth fall out of his big, empty head.”

As a result, the definition of Santorum that pops up first in an online search of the name has been dubbed the candidate’s “Google problem.”

Savage dismisses Santorum’s campaign, however.

“He’s not running for president,” he said. “He’s running for a Fox News contract just like [Mike] Huckabee.”

On Rick Perry, he wonders how Texans feel about the general impression that Perry’s not smart enough to be president.

“He’s just dumb enough to be governor?” Savage wonders. “I love that Barack Obama is now more popular in Texas than Rick Perry.”

After the George “Rentboy” Rekers scandal, Savage helped popularize the term “lift the luggage” to mean supplying your partner with sexual pleasure. He said studies have shown that homophobic men are turned on by gay pornography.

“Every time a [Ted] Haggard or Rekers comes along, it makes homophobia look gay,” he said. “So we celebrate when they come tumbling out of the closet.”

……………………….

Savage at UNT

The Equity & Diversity Conference at University of North Texas University Union, 1155 Union Circle, Denton. Feb. 7 from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. 940-565-2711. Dan Savage will speak at 10 a.m. in the Silver Eagle Suit.

Registration is free for UNT students, $100 for UNT faculty, staff and alumni, $150 for non-UNT students and $275 for others. Onsite registration, available the day of the conference is $350.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 3, 2012.

—  Michael Stephens

Forging new Alliances

Giancarlo Mossi organizes a GSA Summit in Dallas so other students can have the lifesaving resource he never did

Cover

Giancarlo Mossi (Photo illustration by Kevin Thomas)

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

Giancarlo Mossi said that after spending time in hospitals and institutions for destructive behavior such as cutting, the day he attended a Youth First Texas meeting in Collin County was the happiest day of his life.

Mossi believes he might not have attempted suicide if his high school had a Gay Straight Alliance where he could have talked to other students. He credits a Plano police officer with saving his life.

As a child, Mossi was raped and abused. By the time he reached high school, he said he couldn’t take it anymore and began “cutting,” making large gashes in his arms. He was hospitalized several times.

After one suicide attempt, the police officer handed him a card from the Youth First Texas.

“You’re like me, aren’t you?” Mossi asked the officer. The officer said he couldn’t answer but flashed a big grin.

In the hospital, a licensed therapist outed Mossi to his mother and recommended “reparative therapy” to make him straight. When it was time for him to be released, his mother refused to pick him up.

Although Mossi has since reconciled with his mother, he lives with a gay couple who took him into their home.

Mossi graduated from Plano Senior High School. He recently began acting classes and has a new job. He knows not every LGBT student can get to the YFT centers in Dallas and Collin County, so he wants students in high schools throughout North Texas to have access to Gay Straight Alliance clubs on their own campuses. And he wants existing GSAs to flourish.

To help accomplish his goal, Mossi is coordinating a GSA summit at YFT in Dallas on Feb. 4.

Andy Marra, a spokesman for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, said there were at least 360 GSAs in Texas when the last national survey was taken in 2009. GLSEN is in the process of conducting a new national count.

GSAs are especially important in a conservative state like Texas where, according to GLSEN, 88 percent of students who identify as gay or lesbian have been verbally harassed, 46 percent physically harassed and 23 percent assaulted.

Truett-Davis

Truett-Davis

Equality Texas Executive Director Dennis Coleman said GSAs let LGBT kids know they’re not alone.

“GSAs give them a support system, a safe place to be,” Coleman said. “Not just LGBT kids but their friends. And if they’re not getting support at home, they have a group they can turn to.”

But Mossi said starting GSAs in some schools isn’t as easy as it should be.

When he was in 10th grade at Vines High School in Plano, he spoke to administrators about starting one there. The principal told him he’d need a faculty sponsor.

Mossi said finding a sponsor can be tricky in a school whose principal opposes having a GSA. Teachers without tenure are afraid of losing their jobs. Others don’t want to make waves. And some are afraid that if they sponsor a GSA, teachers, parents and students will assume they’re gay.

But Mossi broached the subject with a number of teachers and found one willing to sponsor the group. So he proudly went back to the principal with the name.

The principal told him he would need 100 signatures from students stating they wanted to have such a group in their school. Mossi collected the 100 signatures and presented them to the principal. That’s when the principal told him it was too late in the year to start a new club and he’d have to wait for the next year. The principal knew Mossi would be leaving Vines to attend Plano Senior High for his last two years of school.

By the time he got to Plano Senior High, Mossi was active at Youth First Texas, where he made many new friends, and devoted his time to performing with Dallas PUMP!, a youth chorale.

Ray-Dawson

Ray Dawson

Although Mossi’s experience wasn’t unusual, some schools are more supportive of GSAs.

Dawson Ray said when he and his friend Shelby Friedman formed a GSA last year at  Greenhill School, a private K-12 school in Addison, they met with “zero controversy.”

He said two teachers immediately agreed to sponsor the group and the only question the administration had was “when we’d meet and what room we wanted.”

He said the group is called True Colors because the school has a rule against student groups having affiliations with national organizations. But he said True Colors is regularly referred to as the GSA.

Each week, 50 to 60 students — more than 10 percent of the 440 high students at Greenhill — attend the GSA meeting.

He said the group holds discussions on various topics, participates in events such as the National Day of Silence and brings in speakers. When British rugby star Ben Cohen was in Dallas for gay Pride Week last year, he spoke to the Greenhill GSA. Earlier this week Cohen sent the group a check for $2,500 for club activities.

Truett Davis attends Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in downtown Dallas. He said his GSA has about 40 to 50 members and was already in existence when he came to the school.

Davis said his group sets up booths at school activities. At one, the GSA officiated mock weddings and had students sign a petition for marriage equality that was sent to Congress.

Although Booker T. is considered a safe school for LGBT students, Davis said some students’ families aren’t accepting and the club is a place for those students to talk about their situation.

Both Davis and Ray are planning to attend next week’s GSA Summit at YFT.

“I hope to get some programming ideas,” Davis said.

Ray agreed. “I want to see what other GSAs in the area are doing,” he said. “What problems they face. Offer suggestions to us.”
While some students face little resistance in forming GSAs, other schools have openly opposed allowing the clubs on campus. Under federal law, that’s illegal.

The federal Equal Access Act passed in 1984 stipulates that any public secondary school that allows non-curriculum-related clubs to meet on campus cannot discriminate due to the content of the proposed discussions. To get around this, some schools have gone so far as to disband non-curriculum-related clubs, from the chess club to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Some administrators don’t want the word “gay” used in a school group name — sometimes out of their own prejudice, sometimes out of fear of parent or community reaction. They require students to change the names of GSAs to a euphemism such the Tolerance Club. But this is also against the law. (Greenhill is a private school, so the Equal Access Act doesn’t apply.)

At R.L. Turner High School in Farmers Branch, students formed a GSA in April 2011. While they encountered no resistance from the school district, Farmers Branch Mayor Tim O’Hare attacked the group on Twitter saying, “Friday, R.L. Turner H.S. Hosts 1st meeting of the RLT Gay-Straight Alliance an org. that promotes homosexuality and transgender lifestyles,” and “To our children. It is sponsored by a teacher at Turner. Parents of CFB kids and members of the community: what do you plan to do about it?”

Although a mayor in Texas has no power over an independent school district, vocal opposition from an elected official can be daunting for a group of high school students.

But the Carrollton-Farmers Branch School District did respond to the mayor and made it clear what they planned to do about the GSA — they planned to support it. Angela Shelley, a CFBISD spokeswoman, told Dallas Voice at the time that the group had already met three times and that it wasn’t the district’s first GSA.

But she said, “The GSA met all the requirements, they have a great mission and a constitution, and they’re an active group.”

And she said that despite the mayor’s protests the district didn’t want to become another Flour Bluff. Earlier in the school year, when a GSA formed in Flour Bluff, a school district in Corpus Christi, it made national news.

When 17-year-old student Bianca “Nikki” Peet tried to start the GSA, the district denied her application. To keep the group from meeting, Superintendent Julia Carbajal announced she would disband all extracurricular clubs.

Hundreds of pro-LGBT protesters gathered at the school.

After the American Civil Liberties Union intervened, threatening to file suit against the district, the superintendent relented and allowed the group to form. The faculty sponsor backed out, however. Instead, the principal “monitored” the meetings and the ACLU promised to monitor the situation.

But once the group began meeting, there was little to monitor. Gay and straight students met and discussed issues of interest to them.

In Keller, a Facebook group appeared in October 2011 called Abolish the GSA, Gay-Straight Alliance, at Keller High School.

When the school district learned about the Facebook group, it issued a statement that said, “Keller ISD prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, national origin, disability, or any other basis prohibited by law.”

But discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity isn’t prohibited by law.

The founder of the Facebook group wrote that it was not intended to be a hate group and when he saw the reaction to it, he took it down. But he vowed to continue battling the GSA unless a conservative, straight group was also formed. Had he been serious about it, nothing would have stopped his group from finding a sponsor and petitioning the school.

As a result of the controversy, the Keller GSA grew and had to move from a classroom to a lecture hall to accommodate all of the students who wanted to show support or participate.

Meanwhile, Mossi is on a one-person campaign to bring students together for the Feb. 4 meeting. He has contacted restaurants and coffee shops about providing lunch, coffee and snacks. He pulled together a list of contacts and made calls. He sent fliers to schools he knows have GSAs. He contacted the media to help spread the word. And he researched topics and put together curricula to make the Summit a worthwhile meeting.

He said he expects about 40 to 50 students, representing almost as many GSAs across North Texas, to attend. Students who would like to participate don’t have to already belong to a GSA. He said he hopes some teens who attend have no clubs in their schools and will go back and form one.

GSA Summit

Feb. 4, 10 a.m.–3 p.m.
Youth First Texas
3918 Harry Hines Blvd.
To register, contact
giancarlo.mossi@youthfirsttexas.org.

…………………

HOW TO START A GSA

1. Follow Guidelines
Establish a GSA the same way you would establish any other group or club. Look in your Student Handbook for your school’s rules. This may include getting permission from an administrator or writing a constitution.

2. Find a Faculty Advisor
Find a teacher or staff member whom you think would be supportive or who has already shown themselves to be an ally around sexual orientation issues. It could be a teacher, counselor, nurse or librarian.

3. Inform Administration of Your Plans
Tell administrators what you are doing right away. It can be very helpful to have them on your side. They can work as liaisons to teachers, parents, community members and the school board. If an administrator opposes the GSA, inform them that forming a GSA club is protected under the Federal Equal Access Act.

4. Inform Guidance Counselors and Social Workers About The Group
These individuals may know students who would be interested in attending the group.

5. Pick a Meeting Place
You may want to find a meeting place which is off the beaten track at school and offers some level of privacy.

6. Advertise
Figure out the best way to advertise at your school. It may be a combination of your school bulletin, flyers and word-of-mouth. If your flyers are defaced or torn down, do not be discouraged. Keep putting them back up. Eventually, whomever is tearing them down will give up. Besides, advertising for your group and having words up such as “gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning” or “end homophobia” can be part of educating the school and can actually make other students feel safer — even if they never attend a single meeting.

7. Get Food
This one is kind of obvious. People always come to meetings when you provide food!

8. Hold Your Meeting
You may want to start out with a discussion about why people feel having this group is important. You can also brainstorm things your club would like to do this year.

9. Establish Ground Rules
Many groups have ground rules in order to insure that group discussions are safe, confidential and respectful. Many groups have a ground rule that no assumptions or labels are used about a group member’s sexual orientation. This can help make straight allies feel comfortable about attending the club.

10. Plan For The Future
Develop an action plan. Brainstorm activities. Set goals for what you want to work towards. Contact Gay-Straight Alliance Network in order to get connected to other GSAs, get supported, and learn about what else is going on in the community.

Source: GSAnetwork.org

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 27, 2012.

 

—  Kevin Thomas

Thanks to opposition, Keller High School GSA outgrows its old digs, moves into Lecture Hall

(From the KHS Gay Straight Alliance's Facebook page)

Just days after we published Andrea Grimes’ cover story about Gay Straight Alliances in the Fort Worth school district, WFAA-TV aired this report about the controversy over the formation of a GSA just up the road in Keller. Turns out some students opposed to the new GSA at Keller High School recently launched a Facebook page called, “Abolish the GSA, Gay-Straight Alliance, at Keller High School.”

“This page is for Keller High School students who disagree with the recent formation of a GSA, or Gay-Straight Alliance, at our school for religious, personal, political and various other such reasons,” states the FB page, which currently has all of 49 fans.

The page claims it isn’t a hate group, but the creator later acknowledged it had offended people and apologized for the misunderstanding. The creator also stated that the page will be taken down — but not for two weeks because Facebook won’t allow it to be removed sooner:

“Just cause I’m shutting the page down doesn’t mean I won’t stop battling the GSA at Keller, this was taken as a hate page, of which it was NOT intended to be, so therefore a page with a misleading message should not be allowed. The GSA WILL be abolished, unless a counteracting straight/heterosexual/conservative club is organized. If y’all think y’all have won, you haven’t. Have a nice day! : )”

Another anti-GSA Facebook page, “Straight Club,” has also popped up. But the Keller school district says the creators of the pages won’t be disciplined because they were created after school hours.

So, how has all of this affected the Keller High School GSA itself? Well, it would appear as though the anti-GSA pages have backfired quite miserably. On Tuesday, the KHS Gay Straight Alliance wrote the following on its own page: “We are growing, and hopefully continue to grow as time moves on. A side effect of this though is we no longer fit in room 145. Meetings will now be held in the Lecture Hall, same date and time, new awesome location.”

Watch WFAA’s report below.

—  John Wright

Safe haven

For 10 years, Gay-Straight Alliances in Fort Worth schools have given LGBTQ and their straight friends a place to go for support and safety

GATHERING | Rebecca Cooper, front center, opens her classroom at Southwest High School to LGBT students and their friends looking for someplace where they feel safe enough to talk openly, and where they can find friendship and support from others like them. (Andrea Grimes/Dallas Voice}

ANDREA GRIMES  |  Contributing Writer
editor@dallasvoice.com

It’s been 10 years since two high school boys started the first Gay-Straight Alliance club in Tarrant County at Fort Worth’s Southwest High School, and membership is way, way up.

This year, on any given Friday, dozens of kids show up to Rebecca Cooper’s classroom in a cramped, low-ceilinged portable building to do what a lot of kids do — braid each other’s hair or practice gymnastics in the grass outside.

But they also do what a lot of kids will never have to do: trade phone numbers so that when they come out to their family, they’ve got a place to go and a support group if the conversation ends in a fight, or worse — homelessness or even a suicide attempt. (An estimated 20 to 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.)

Between the hair braiding and the back flips, Gay-Straight Alliance clubs save lives. It’s as simple as that.

Southwest High School sponsor Rebecca Cooper says she’s seen it with her own eyes: GSAs serve as safe spaces where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning students can feel empowered rather than intimidated.

“Because there’s a lack of fear [at GSAs],” says Cooper, students are confident in sharing their own personal experiences to help their peers.

At a meeting, says Cooper, you might have a kid who says, “I thought about suicide three days ago.” But “before you know it,” she says, “You’ve got six, eight, 10 kids around him, like swoosh. They’re going, ‘Here’s my phone number, I’ve been there.’”

Anti-bullying efforts have moved to the forefront of the national conversation in the past couple of years, thanks in part to high-profile campaigns like Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project, which inspired Fort Worth City Councilmember Joel Burns to tell his own story, during an October 2010 City Council meeting of contemplating suicide after being bullied.

But every week — and every night, and every day, really whenever a student needs a help or a hug or a sounding board — since December, 2001, students in Fort Worth’s Gay-Straight Alliances have been telling each other that it gets better, that there’s someone out there who cares.

As of this year, there are three active GSAs in the Fort Worth Independent School District: Southwest High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance, Western Hills High School’s Q-Status and Paschal High School’s G.L.O.W. (Gay, Lesbian or Whatever), with two more inactive high school groups seeking sponsors.

Cooper estimates that up to 70 percent of her club is straight. The unity and cooperation between straight and non-straight students is part of what makes the simple existence of GSA’s so impactful.

Not only are GSAs safe spaces for LGBTQ students, they also build rapport and trust between the LGBTQ community and the straight majority.

“Straight people want to be part of the change,” says Western Hills’ Q-Status President Italia Salinas, a junior. “You don’t have to be gay to help others have respect and support.”

Often, hurtful and hateful speech comes out of what English teacher Marvin Vann calls anti-gay individuals’ sense of a “mandated right” to denounce homosexuality because of their religious beliefs. He says Gay-Straight Alliances help give strength to students who might otherwise feel swamped and surrounded by Christians with “loving” messages — like the employee who told Italia Salinas’ friend she was going to hell for being a lesbian.

Last year, recalls Salinas, a school employee — not a teacher — told a friend of hers that she’d go to hell because of her sexuality.

While Salinas and her friend were walking down the school hallway one day, an employee asked the two girls where they were headed. When they talked about going to a Q-Status meeting and explained what it was, the employee asked Salinas’ friend if she went to church. She said she did, a Catholic church.

Salinas remembers the employee, someone they’d laughed and joked with since their freshman year, telling her friend, “I love you, but being gay is not okay, and I care about you so I don’t want you to go to hell for doing that.”

Salinas says her friend was “in shock” that a school employee would say such a thing to a student.

Cooper says she’s had to correct other teachers who would tell students it’s not okay to be gay — teachers who didn’t even realize that Cooper herself was gay.

Tensions between teachers, administrators and school employees have heightened in Fort Worth over the years, so much so that Sharon Herrera, an out lesbian herself, was brought in to teach training seminars and handle complaints.

But, as reported by the Fort Worth Weekly, Herrera was perhaps too good at her job.

Her position was eliminated at the beginning of this year, and although she’s still an employee of the district, she’s no longer conducting the seminars and handling the multitude of complaints that came across her desk, which included instances of anti-LGBTQ bullying as well sexual and racial harassment.

Everything, it seems, has gone silent. But that doesn’t mean everyone’s problems have been solved.

Herrera says that quality training that is LGBTQ-specific is vital in Fort Worth, and programs like their “It’s Not Okay” campaign, launched in June of 2010, simply do not address LGBTQ issues in a meaningful way — or at all.

Instead, it is often left up to the more-than-capable students to stand up for themselves when something goes wrong. That’s one of the wonderful things about GSAs, say participants: They get to learn real-world activism in high school.

This year, Italia Salinas says, Q-Status has not been allowed to make public announcements and hang signs in the hallways, ostensibly because they’re a non-academic group. However, a conservative Christian extracurricular group for boys at the school has been able to do those things.

Salinas and her group will have to actively fight to get their school to respect the Equal Access Act, which guarantees that if one extra-curricular club has access to school resources, all of them must.
Nine students from Fort Worth ISD marched in the city’s recent gay Pride parade, and when the Dallas Voice stopped by Southwest High School to talk to their Gay-Straight Alliance, the room positively lit up when the march was brought up.

Hands shot into the air, attached to squirming bodies, each student anxious to talk about the amazing feeling they got from being accepted in an adult space.

In fact, says Western Hills’ Q-Status teacher sponsor Bernardo Vallarino, showing kids that the LGBT community is more than just dance clubs and drugs — something he was exposed to very early on as a young man — is an integral part of what GSAs do for students.

In forming GSAs, he says, “it creates a right way of learning about the LGBTQ community that doesn’t include drugs, alcohol or inadequate sex.” The biggest take-away from GSAs, says Herrera, is that they prevent bullying and, again, save lives because of their specific focus on the needs of LGBTQ students.

Inclusivity, says Herrera, is not enough; LGBTQ kids need programs tailored to their specific challenges — challenges that are made ever more apparent every time the local news reports on yet another bullied teen’s suicide.

Southwest junior Ryan McCaleb says being gay “is the way we live, think, breathe.” But because of the social stigma and pressure from religious and conservative students and teachers, he says, “You’re the talk of the school, and everything that’s said comes back times 10.”

The Gay-Straight Alliance is a place where kids understand what that feels like — that unique feeling of shame and pain that LGBTQ kids deal with, especially LGBTQ kids in conservative cities like Fort Worth, and that their straight friends want to help alleviate. As president of Q-Status, Italia Salinas says her GSA “gives [her] hope for humanity,” that hatefulness and bullying can be prevented before it begins.

Vallarino says that in 10 years of Gay-Straight Alliance clubs in FWISD, some goals may have shifted. Last year, they successfully focused on getting written policies in place against workplace and schoolharassment and supporting equal treatment, while this year they’re hoping to get a GSA in every high school and middle school.
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MISSION STATEMENTS

• Q-Status: “Q- Status is a group built on the human differences of its members, a safe place where everyone is welcome and no one is turned away. Our focus is centered on the education of our members and the community around us. We thrive by making new friends and by accomplishing our goals of informing and educating others of the cultural and legal inequalities faced by many groups including the homosexual community and their families. Everyone is welcome (heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, questioning, confused, curious, etc.)”

• LGBTQ Saves (district-wide): “LGBTQ  S.A.V.E.S. (Students, Administrators, Volunteers, Educators Support) fosters the well-being of LGBTQ K-12 students, administrators, volunteers and educators in Tarrant County by eliminating discrimination, bullying and retaliation on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. S.A.V.E.S. is an autonomous, all-volunteer group and not affiliated with any local school districts.”

• Southwest High School GSA Vision Statement: “The Gay-Straight Alliance GSA at Southwest High School is a student-led and -organized club that aims to create a safe, welcoming and accepting environment for all youth regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. The GSA brings together gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered and questioning (GLBTQ) youth with their straight peers to address issues such as bullying, harassment, discrimination and bias. GSA allows youth to build coalitions and community that can work towards making a safer school environment for all people. Motto: Come as you are.”

But ultimately, “One thing that has never changed is that GSA’s are a safe haven.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 14, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

SMU gets 4 stars for gay-friendliness

The group Campus Pride has given Southern Methodist University 4 out of 5 stars in its LGBT-Friendly Campus Climate Index. This stands in stark contrast to the Princeton Review’s ratings, which ranked SMU among the 20 most gay-unfriendly campuses in the country.

Karen Click, director of the SMU Women’s Center for Gender and Pride Initiatives, said of the Campus Pride rating, “What we’re doing, we get graded very high on.”

Click said Campus Pride is helpful with suggestions, and a faculty and staff LGBT group began as a result of a comment from last year’s survey.

She said that with housing, for example, other campuses offer to match a gay person with an LGBT-accepting person. SMU doesn’t offer that service yet.

Princeton Review bases its score entirely on student surveys. Campus Pride looks at school policies and activities. But in student life, the group gave SMU 5 stars. Below is the breakdown of SMU’s rating from Campus Pride:

—  David Taffet