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Gay-straight alliance creates Ôsafer school climatesÕ for all

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October 26, 2010 | Leave Comment

Enterprise staff writer

When Geoffrey Winder arrived at Davis High School as a sophomore in 1999, he was the only gay person he knew.

He had recently come out to his parents, and while that process had gone extremely well, he knew that wouldnÕt necessarily be the norm for everyone else.

ÒI was feeling like I had had a really positive experience coming out with my parents, and I knew thatÕs not how it would be for everyone, so I wanted to create a safe place,Ó he said recently.

Winder approached the DHS administration about creating a gay-straight alliance and was told there had actually been one at the high school years before his arrival. For whatever reason, the alliance had dissolved, but it would only be a matter of getting it going again, which Winder did.

ÒIt was just a leap of faith,Ó Winder said, explaining that he really didnÕt know what to expect.

About five students joined that first year, and the club continued to grow after that. Students didnÕt necessarily identify themselves as gay or straight, Winder said, but they were mostly straight, and there were also many children of gay and lesbian parents in the club.

For Winder, the harassment he had experienced in junior high lessened in that first year at the high school.

ÒThe harassment I received definitely diminished after I came out,Ó he said.

And within a couple of years of Winder reestablishing the GSA at the high school, students at all of the Davis junior high schools started alliances of their own.

Flash forward a decade and Winder is now the administrative manager for the GSA Network, a San Francisco-based youth leadership organization that connects school-based GSAs with each other and provides resources and training.

Meanwhile, the club he revived at Davis High is still going strong, with between 20 and 30 students meeting at lunch every Friday. Current co-president Anna Eckert-Kramer even joined the GSA for some of the same reasons Winder envisioned back in 1999.

ÒItÕs an issue thatÕs really important to me because I have two lesbian moms,Ó Eckert-Kramer said. ÒAnd I wanted a place I could feel safe.Ó

Whatever the reason a student joins a gay-straight alliance, research shows an allianceÕs mere existence on campus does indeed make students safer.

According to the ÒSafe Place to LearnÓ report published in 2004, Òstudents whose schools have a gay-straight alliance or similar student club felt safer at school, reported safer school climates in general, and were less likely to be harassed based on actual or perceived sexual orientation.Ó

The report, published by the California Safe Schools Coalition and the 4-H Center for Youth Development at UC Davis, found that was the case whether students belonged to the club or not.

ThatÕs not to say, however, that harassment doesnÕt still exist.

The most recent California Healthy Kids Survey, which asked seventh-, ninth- and 11th-graders if they had been harassed at school in the last year, because they were gay or lesbian or someone thought they were, found between 3 and 7 percent of respondents had been harassed one or more times.

Numbers for the Davis Joint Unified School District were slightly higher at some grade levels Ñ 9 percent of ninth graders said they had been harassed two or more times in the preceding year Ñ slightly lower in others.

The issue of bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation has been all over the media, particularly because of a number of suicides by teens attributed to bullying and harassment. But Winder notes that while the issue has been prominent in the media lately, Òbullying and harassment have always been there, and thatÕs why we exist.

ÒGSAs definitely help,Ó he explained. ÒThey support gay rights on campuses and the people who will help stand up for them.Ó

In Davis, alliance members report a generally supportive environment, both from school administrators and fellow students.

During last FridayÕs lunchtime meeting, student Rachel Klassen said she was encouraged by the number of students who had worn purple on Wednesday, Oct. 20, in honor of youth who had committed suicide after being bullied or harassed for sexual orientation. People all over the country were encouraged to wear purple on that day in a campaign promoted via Facebook, Twitter and other outlets.

ÒI saw a lot of purple out there,Ó Klassen noted, Òand it wasnÕt just people in this club, so that was nice. I think it was pretty successful.Ó

ÒI would say this campus is fairly open and accepting,Ó said adviser and DHS teacher Bill Wheeler, who has worked with GSA members for about eight years now.

HeÕs also pleased with the large number of 10th-graders who joined the alliance this year.

ÒThat bodes well for the future,Ó he noted.

Many of those students say they were active with their junior high school GSAs so it was natural to continue at the high school level.

During their meeting last week, students sat in a circle, munching on lunch and discussing plans for upcoming events like national Day of Silence, Harvey Milk Day and Transgender Day of Remembrance. They talked logistics and scheduling, and briefly discussed a movie night, too.

When Eckert-Kramer asked club members for their thoughts on the current school climate, discussion focused primarily on language, and in particular on the use of several words: What Eckert-Kramer referred to as Òthe gay F word,Ó as well as ÒgayÓ and Òqueer.Ó

Some students said they ask family, friends and fellow students not to use those words; other said theyÕd thought the words, particularly Ògay,Ó had lost their original derogatory connotation.

Said one girl: Ò ÔThatÕs gay,Õ is now just a phrase thatÕs negative, but has nothing to do with the subject.Õ Ó

There was no mention of bullying.

For his part, Winder said he has kept in touch with folks affiliated with the Davis High GSA and has heard the climate has improved over the years.

ÒThereÕs definitely less isolation,Ó he said.

And in his new position with the GSA Network, he is doing his part to improve the climate at schools everywhere.

ÒOur focus is on (teaching) young people how to teach other young people that you have the right to be safe in your school right now, and you can demand the right,Ó Winder said. ÒFour years seems like a really long time when youÕre young, but you donÕt have to wait to survive high school. You can stand up and say, ÔEnough. This is who I am.Õ Ó

Ñ Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at (530) 747-8051 or aternus@davisenterprise.net. Comment on this story at www.davisenterprise.com

Anne Ternus-Bellamy

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