A revived GSA cheers and challenges high schools sexual-minority students

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - The GSA (left to right): Amina Sheikh, Jaymie Parrish, Maggie Cornish, Elizabeth Burnard (an ally) and Claire Buhler regularly attend GSA meetings at Forest Grove High School. Sheikh, a lesbian, moved here this year from Lincoln High in Portland, which she described as more open and friendly to gay people. But Forest Grove just needs a little encouragement to open up, she said.The first eraser came flying across the classroom toward Claire Buhler just three days into her freshman year at Forest Grove High School. It was accompanied by a one-word explanation: “Dyke!”

Buhler knows she should have been outraged. “I wish I could say it made me mad and frustrated, but it doesn’t even get on my nerves at all,” she said. “I seriously feel bad for these people.”

Despite some harassment, Buhler says the high school in general has a “pretty good climate” for those outside the heterosexual norm.

One of the good parts is the resurgent Gender and Sexuality Alliance, a club which revived this year after an aimless period following its official approval in June 2009. The GSA wants to provide a safe social home for students across the sexual spectrum, including straight "allies," while also sparking discussions and strategizing about how to help people better understand the variety of sexual orientations represented in the acronym LGBTQIA (see sidebar on page X).

“We don’t want to use the word ‘tolerance,’” said Maggie Cornish, the senior who jumpstarted the club this fall and is now its president. “You don’t want to be ‘tolerated.’”

It was Muslims who sparked Cornish’s decision to restart the GSA. Over the summer, some of her Muslim friends were talking online about the prejudice they faced. The discussion sparked Cornish to read and think more deeply about prejudice and she realized she herself was probably guilty of stereotyping Muslims.

Reading more, she thought about how prejudice is unconsciously internalized and how it must be counteracted by getting to know other types of people.

As a lesbian, that hit home with Cornish.

Five 'allies'

When school started this year, she spoke to teachers Dawn Nelson and Laurel Black, who had volunteered to advise the GSA Club. Then she made some flyers to get the word out. The first meeting drew Buhler and a few other people. The third meeting was their largest, drawing a dozen, including five “allies,” (straight people who embrace their LGBT friends).

But Cornish says support is far broader at the school.

“A lot of kids who want to do GSA are in the musical and other play stuff, so they’re busy,” Cornish said. Five to seven committed members regularly attend the after-school meetings, which take place in Nelson's classroom.

Outside the classroom windows, heterosexual couples kiss and nuzzle with no fear of being harassed, while inside the GSA presses forward with plans for T-shirts, videos and pride activities. Among sexual minorities, pride refers not to pure ego, but to their need to embrace and affirm themselves in a sometimes hostile society.

Nelson is impressed with the group’s generous outlook. They’re “not just talking about LGBT pride, but pride across the board,” she said. “About giving people who are different from you the benefit of the doubt.”

That’s hard to do in a high school the size of Forest Grove’s, said Nelson: “Kids that go to large schools stay in their own circles and don’t get to know other kids.”

At a small school, such as the charter school in Santa Cruz where she taught for two years, Nelson said, “people get to know each other and understand each other a lot better.”

That was Buhler’s experience at the Forest Grove Community School, the district’s small, 200-student, first- through eighth-grade charter school, where Buhler came out as lesbian in seventh grade.

“My teacher was out,” said Buhler, referring to Shannon Perry, who was not only out as lesbian, but also had a partner and was pregnant with the couple’s first child.

“You kind of knew who was OK with the issue by how they reacted to her,” Buhler said.

Out of the roughly 50 students in the charter school's entire junior high, about four had a problem, Buhler said. And by the end of the year, “those four warmed up to her.”

'That's so gay'

The high school is not nearly as cozy. Harassment continues in three of Buhler's classes, where erasers seem to be the weapon of choice. She said she had rocks thrown at her once while walking in a neighborhood near Highway 47.

Senior Jaymie Parrish, a transgender male, regularly had food thrown at him and his lesbian girlfriend at school several years ago. “Apple cores, Craisins,” he said. Some kids tried to spit on them.

Then there are the endless “That’s so gay” comments, with the implication that “gay” is the last thing anyone would want to be.

Almost as bad is the word “tolerance” and its subtle message that people outside the sexual norm are somehow blameworthy, Cornish said.

GSA members are working on how they might get a message across that could stop hurtful comments without condemning their classmates, especially those who use those words more because “everyone around them says it” than because they have strong anti-gay feelings, Buhler said.

To that end, the group is planning some Public Service Announcements in the spring. They had shot an introductory GSA video and planned to run it last week during announcements, but the files got corrupted and they decided not to re-shoot it.

"We've already been growing (in size) and introducing, so we're just gonna make shirts and jump right in," Cornish said. They brainstormed T-shirt ideas at last week's meeting.

Whatever the design, the shirts are likely to raise questions, continuing the endless, piecemeal "coming out" process for GSA members.

“You come out every day,” Cornish said — every time a classmate casually asks, “’Oh, isn’t that guy hot?’

“I have to say, ‘Well, I’m not really into that.’”

At other schools, Nelson knew many students who were scared to come out, "and their lives were pretty miserable,” she said. Years later, after they'd gone public, “They were totally different people," she said. "That kind of transformation is amazing.”

Those transformations may be on the uptick.

Both Buhler and Cornish take heart from what appears to be society’s rapidly changing — and improving — opinion of LGBT people, which was perhaps best exemplified in President Barack Obama’s recent inauguration speech, where he became the first president to refer openly to the gay community and spoke out passionately for their civil rights.

“That was awesome. I’m proud of him,” said Buhler, who watched the speech.

Obama's references to equality, love and "our gay brothers and sisters" inspired Buhler, especially compared to the old calls for "tolerance."

“I don’t want to be ‘tolerated,’” she said. “I want to be loved.”

Alphabet song

You can sing the opening of the alphabet song to the acronym describing alternative sexual orientations — LGBTQUIA — and letters keep being added. There are so many now it’s hard for some people to figure out what they all stand for. Here’s a primer:

LG: Lesbian and Gay. That’s an easy one, for people attracted to members of the same sex.

B: Bisexual, for people who are attracted to both sexes.

T: Transgender, for people who belong to a gender that is contrary to their anatomical gender.

Q: Queer, an umbrella term embracing people with orientations and preferences outside the heterosexual norm. Q can also stand for Questioning, for people who aren’t sure where they stand sexually.

I: Intersex, meaning someone whose physical sex characteristics are not exclusively male or female. Some, such as hermaphrodites, are born with dual sex organs. Others suddenly develop opposite-gender sex characteristics when they hit puberty.

A: Asexual, for people with no sexual orientation or attraction. A can also stand for Ally, meaning a straight (heterosexual) person who supports LGBTQIA people.

GSA itself has undergone a change. The club name used to refer to Gay Straight Alliance, but with more people aware now of the variety of sexual orientations, it has changed to Gender Sexuality Alliance.

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