Thursday, April 18, 2013
Teagan Coleman’s generous smile straightens a bit at the memory and her shoulders fold toward each other.
She was 13, the Walla Walla High School senior recalled, when a close friend came out to her as lesbian. She was unprepared to hear the news about someone she had known her whole life.
“At first it made me extremely uncomfortable,” said Coleman, now 18.
It took some time and maturity for her to push past that fact there was a difference between her friend and herself. The lapse in the relationship still feels bad to her. But knowing how her friend must have experienced it feels worse.
“I don’t want anybody else to feel the way I felt,” Coleman said.
Which is why Coleman said yes when fellow student Rosa Tobin approached her about starting up a school-based Gay Straight Alliance Club.
“I didn’t even know what it was, but I knew I supported LGBT rights,” Coleman said, using the collective acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
Under the umbrella of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, such clubs work to improve school climate for all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity and expression, according to the organization’s web site. In schools across the country, 4,000 gay straight alliances are registered with GLSEN.
The idea was raised 25 years ago when a straight student wanted to do something to educate fellow students about bullying and harassment of non-heterosexual kids at school, according to GLSEN. The student approached her history teacher, the networks’ founder Kevin Jennings, and proposed a club, saying, “You’re gay and I’m straight, so let’s call it a Gay-Straight Alliance.”
Now in its second year, Wa-Hi’s Gay Straight Alliance meets weekly, and on Monday club advisor Casey Monahans’s classroom was a swirl of out-loud thinking and energetic enthusiasm.
School was out, but students here were just getting started for a work session — just one kind of meeting the members hold, Monahan said.
“We also talk about deep issues, I bring in articles for them to read,” she said.
“We should work on a definite design for Spirit Walk,” Coleman announced to the others gathered. “One group is doing posters today. The posters are going up Wednesday.”
She serves as co-president of the club, along with Tobin, 18, and Zachary Chlipala, 17.
Everyone was gearing up for Friday’s annual “Day of Silence,” sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Educational Network. Launched in 1996, the event is a national, grassroots movement to emphasize the silence non-heterosexual people and heterosexual allies feel when they are harassed and bullied.
The meeting on this day was to begin the creation and distribution process to let the school and larger community know of the event. On his way out the door for poster-hanging duty, Ian Davidson gathered this year’s T-shirt displaying a cloud of purple surrounding “WA-HI GSA.”
Last year was the club’s first experience with the event and Coleman found herself “pleasantly surprised,” she said. “It was great, seeing all the people in purple shirts and hearing the quiet.”
Her entire lunch group observed the silence, noted this year’s T-shirt designer Kate Schaffer, as she quickly outlined letters on butcher paper from an overhead projector template.
Her goal was to be silent the whole day, Coleman said with a grin. “I’m really chatty. It’s difficult, definitely difficult.”
The goal is to get others to notice the silence, but also to grow individual awareness through the exercise. Observing can lead to ending harassment, which can then lead to change, the students said.
And things need to change, they added.
An article published in January in the school newspaper reported data from GLSEN that says more than 72 percent of high school students across the country heard homophobic remarks frequently at school.
Early in its existence students were discouraged from writing about the club, noted member Erik Dohe. “Yes, we were, because we’re in a conservative area. We wanted to make sure the club would make it.”
Wa-Hi administrators have been greatly supportive of the alliance, Monahan explained, but everyone was wary of stirring unnecessary controversy.
They’ve all been cautious, Coleman agreed.
“It’s not about pushing our beliefs on others,” she said. “That’s the exact opposite of what we would want.”
The initial meeting of the club brought 50-plus people interested in finding out more, Coleman and Monahan said.
“There was not enough room, I had to go borrow chairs,” said the English and language teacher.
Club meetings have now evened out to about 25 students on average, although special occasions bring more. No one, it seems, can resist coming to an video-game-based “Just Dance 4” party, Coleman said with a laugh. “I just love ‘Just Dance 4.”
Parents and others counseled the alliance’s founding members to be respectful other perspectives, Schaffer said. “I was told just not to take things personally if I experienced backlash.”
She and the others are optimistic about progress the Gay Straight Alliance has made in less than two years.
“There is no way of measuring if this school is more accepting, but I know for a lot of these students this has changed their lives,” Coleman said. “They know — they know — they have friends to support them.”
Monahan has seen proof of that first hand. Club members have knit tightly together, watching out for and worrying over one another, she said. “But they are also really accepting of every new person who comes. They make a real effort to include them early on.”
The sense of community in the alliance formed early but has solidified, she added. “I do think they feel a little bit of empowerment, they feel like they belong to something important.
“That they are doing something that is helping others.”