Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Becky in Australia: Starting a Community GSA

It was spring of 2010, and I was just beginning to understand what the term "activism" really meant. Through a friend, I found out about the annual protest held by youth around the world called the Day of Silence, in which youth would keep from speaking all day, in order to spread awareness of the bullying and fear that is faced by struggling LGBT youth. Printing out 'speaking cards' and coming to school armed with determination and rainbow duct tape, I wanted to help spread that awareness. However, I was shocked and saddened by the results. A school I had always viewed as, if not open-minded, at least tolerant, all of a sudden became a place where people looked at me and other protest participants, sneered, and called us names. My friend ended up having to have a male friend of hers walk with her between classes, because she was afraid of getting beaten up.

Angry and fueled with the passion that comes from it, I started searching for ways to end the oppression of youth LGBTs and their allies, which I had not paid attention to much before. I came across the idea of gay-straight alliances in a fictional young adult novel about a teen discovering her homosexuality. When I read that, it hit me: I can create a gay-straight alliance. How groundbreaking. How earth-shaking. How mountain-moving! I envisioned a safe space for youth to express themselves without fear of judgement or ridicule - a place where no matter who you were, you would be accepted.

But how was I going to do that? I thought to myself, overcome by the sudden realization of the task I had just sat before me. I had never been a leader before. How was I going to get started? I ended up talking to my mother about this one day, stricken by the sheer difficulty of the prospect. She thought for a while, and suggested looking for adults in the community who could help me. “Who was that one woman who came into your health class a couple of years ago?”
It didn’t take me long to remember. There was a social worker in our town who, every year, would come into the freshman health classes and teach not just about sexuality, but about bullying and open-mindedness and similar topics. I remember that was where I first came out as a Pagan and a bisexual - hardly knowing what “bisexuality” meant, but only knowing that I was feeling things for females that I thought I could only feel for males. This social worker had a talent for creating a space that took away fear of judgement.

So, I called her up to ask for her advice. The first thing she did was express her complete support of my endeavor - and that boosted my confidence incredibly to hear her say that. We later would meet up at the local library, where she offered me a few starting points, and a few questions - one of them being whether or not I wanted to make it a school club, or something independant.

I was stumped by this, and at first tried to establish it as a school club - I talked to the principal about it, who was supportive. However, not everyone in the school was supportive - namely, the vice principal - who, on the following Day of Silence, ripped down our posters - and also the students. Although making it a school organization would have given us some amount of funding, a place to meet, and the ability to spread awareness of our group - ‘our’ being me and my couple friends who were interested - having the GSA be in our school would pose difficulties. For one, we would have people like the vice principal breathing down our necks. For two, we knew it would be harder to gain members - if we hardly had anyone participate in the Day of Silence because of the fear of ostracization, then it would be impossible to get attendance in our group. It’s much harder to be discreet, walking into a classroom where a GSA is known to meet, than it is to walk out of school and go to a public venue - and a key aspect we wanted to keep in the GSA was anonymity.  
Thus, the search for a public venue for our group began. We asked around places, seeing who would be supportive of us meeting there - but we ourselves felt uncomfortable with, say, meeting in a local cafe, where anonymity wasn’t garanteed. Our first meeting, in which there was an attendance of three as we worked out the details and the structure of the GSA, was held in the conference room of our local library. It was a nice spot, but felt too impersonal - plus, the reservation wasn’t garanteed. So, we still needed some place to have regular meetings.

But our search didn’t take long. One day, as I was chilling with friends at a local teen coffeeshop, I got a call from a woman at our local family planning center, telling us that not only did they have resources that they wanted to provide us with, but a place to meet: the just-being-established youth Resource and Enrichment Co-op, or REC Room for short. It wasn’t yet being used, as it was in the middle of being painted and furnished, but it was there when we needed it.

Boom. One phone call to a local social worker, who spread the word all over the community. Within no time, we had a venue, we had community support, and we had resources. Giving a near-stranger a call asking for help was worth it, and I’m forever happy that I did.

Finding a place to meet was the easy part. The hard part was getting the group off its feet. To be quite honest, hardly anyone came to the first few meetings. The max attendance was two - me, and one girl who came to one meeting, and then I never saw again. I kept trying to put awareness out there not just to adults in the community, but to teens as well - I put posters up on bulletin boards in town, and we tried word-of-mouth. But no one seemed to be interested. There were many times that I cried to my then-boyfriend, saying that all the hard work was all for nothing, I’m wasting my time and money, no one comes to the meetings because I’m a freak and everyone hates me, blah blah blah. My friends and my parents and my boyfriend kept telling me, just be patient, these things take time, but it will happen - and it did.
Things didn’t pick up until after the fourth of July parade - in which we marched in a not-welcomed-by-the-Homer-community pride float with the local chapter of PFLAG - but they did pick up. We started getting people attending. Discussions were no longer one-sided - we got multiple views. Once school started, and as my senior year progressed, nearly every meeting was getting to be filled with heated discussions on homosexuality and spirituality, air hockey challenges, movie days, planning for future endeavors, support, wild art projects, and field trips to meet drag queens. Most of the meetings were planned ahead of time - particularly the discussions - and worked fantastically (I’ve got the posters scrawled with discussion topics to prove it). But some meetings were only planned part way, and still were a ton of fun.

By the time my senior year ended and my last summer in town began, the GSA had become established in the town as a safe space for teens. We still didn’t have a huge attendance, but even people who didn’t attend were changed by it. When our second fourth of July parade rolled in, we created our own pride float, and were astounded by the amount of people who not only came to walk with the float, but walked off the sidelines of the parade to join us! Our very presence in the town had changed the perceptions of the whole population. When I left Homer to go travelling, I left the GSA in the capable hands of my best friend. I looked back on the journey I had walked - from the seed of an idea, to the changing of a whole community. Just because I had decided that I wanted to change something - that I didn’t want to sit on the sidelines anymore, no matter how scary taking charge would be. I’m proud of myself, and the courage I had to summon to do something I knew a lot of people would be against: creating the first GSA in my town, and the first completely youth-run and youth-organized GSA in the state. The experience taught me more than I ever thought it would.
My point here, the point of this entire guest post, is to encourage you to dare. It doesn’t matter if you’re a shy introvert who hardly talked to anyone before - if you want to make a difference, you can. All it takes is a deep breath, and diving right into the deep water. No tip-toeing in the shallows. Dive in, and immerse yourself. Ride your wild donkey. You might cry - I did, plenty. You might feel like giving up - I nearly did, many times. It may seem like you’re not making any difference at all - and often, it won’t be visible. I knew that I was making a difference for myself, and for my friends, but I had no idea how much my one action changed an entire community until that fourth of July parade, where the amount of support we got would rival any gay-friendly city.

No matter how small you are, you can induce change. In the words of the little penguin Eric on Happy Feet 2...”You don’t need to be colossal to do something huge!”

Want to start a gay-straight alliance? Here are the websites that helped me wrap my head around all this crazy leadership and planning stuffs:
GSA Network -

Becky -- thank you so much! This girl is one of my nearest and dearest friends, and I am so excited to be a part of this mad crazy whirlwind that she created. (I, by the way, am the friend she referenced as the new GSA leader.) If you are in or near Homer, Alaska, I definitely invite you to come to a GSA meeting or write me for more information at!  -- Kayte

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