High school is where emerging adults learn about their world, their peers, and themselves. It’s a place where it should be safe to delve into learning and feel secure in expressing and exploring identity. Unfortunately, for some, the experience of attending high school proves contrary. This is experienced by an inordinate number of LGBTQ students. My story is one that reflects the importance of having active gay-straight alliances in high schools. Over the course of a school year, I witnessed the dramatic change that was made in a school that started with no gay-straight alliance and ended the year with an active and enthusiastic one. It is a story that has moved me to do things that I never thought I could. It has inspired me to see the deepest care and willingness to create change that I would have never discovered in my peers and teachers.
During my first three years at Mount Horeb High School, a system of interactions developed towards LGBTQ students that was tolerant but not necessarily inclusive. The most common attitude about expressing sexuality and gender identity was to keep “hushed” about it. As a young student coming out to myself about my sexual identity, it was difficult to be honest about how I felt and what sort of individual I was developing into in this sort of climate. To hear students mutter homophobic statements to each other in class and to discuss family life styles excluding the family that I envisioned for my own future became very distracting. It made me uncomfortable. When I began to date my first girlfriend, I incessantly felt sheer fright at holding her hand or giving her a hug in the hallway. Attending a dance openly with her for the first time has been one of the greatest obstacles in my life. I can distinctly remember the alarmed stares and questioning glances as I put my arms on top of her shoulders for a slow dance. Soon the school grew used to my public relationship with another female, but I was never welcome to discuss it or acknowledge it publicly.
The years passed without any substantial change in the culture of our school. It was an election year and soon I found myself immersed in the activities of the 2006 election. My heart and soul were channeled instantly and completely into efforts to defeat the marriage ban and to elect supportive officials. The politics surrounding the amendment were talked about around the school profusely. It felt nice to have my issues and concerns recognized and discussed in school. I was adamant about my stance on many issues and took many lessons away from the election and what fighting against the ban meant. From this experience I gained the strength and understanding that I would need to begin the journey of establishing a Straight and Gay Alliance—a SAGA.
The day after the election when the amendment passed, I was resting in a coffee shop on State Street pondering the incredibly heartbreaking decision that Wisconsin had just made to constitutionally ban gay marriage. Considering the effort, trust, and hope that we had all put into defeating the ban, it was easy to feel powerless in the situation, even helpless. During the course of these thoughts, Tim, a mentor of mine that I had met through my involvement in Fair Wisconsin, sat down next to me to share his outlook on the election results. It was during this conversation that I was reminded that there was in fact something I could do to influence change in the world and make things safer for LGBTQ people. The creation of change and the powerful tool to influence was to be found in my own generation, in my hometown, in my school. To change the minds and attitudes of my generation was to change the minds and attitudes for future generations. As a result of this empowerment, our SAGA was born.
Shortly after the decision to organize, it was obvious to me and the executive board that had been quickly created, that there was a lot of work to do. “That’s so gay” was heard frequently and consistently in our hallways and classrooms. Prejudice against anomalies in gender expression and perceived sexuality made teasing and bullying common. Students all but ignored the existence of LGBTQ people. With the support of our advisor, Mr. Sauer, we began advertising ambitiously for our first meeting. When the day came for our first meeting I waited with the rest of the officers at the front of the room for our new members to arrive. Cautiously, as not to disappoint ourselves, we estimated a meeting attendance of about 20 people. To our great surprise, students continued to walk through the doors far past the 20th person. At the conclusion, 50 members had shown up to offer their support for SAGA. I felt elated and incredibly excited by the end of the night. My peers truly did care about the culture and safety of our school. It was in the days following this first meeting that I knew we were on our way to profoundly changing our little piece of the world.
After the first meeting we dove in head first. We knew that visibility was incredibly important. SAGA had decided upon a mission statement encompassing the need to change our school climate and so concluded that outreach to the various cultures within our school was essential. A SAGA bulletin board was placed in the hallway, a newsletter was made publicly accessible to both students and staff. SafeZone posters were placed in many classrooms around the school, and announcements were made frequently to publicize our meetings and activities. The school was buzzing with talk about us. Some controversy arose around the newness of our group, but the majority of feedback was very positive and even a bit thankful. Little by little it was visible that LGBTQ students in Mount Horeb High School were becoming more comfortable with their identity. A few same-sex couples held hands affectionately in the hallway and students were noticeably becoming more confident with their individual gender expression.
A very important issue to SAGA was to constructively change the homophobic dialogue between students. We found the term “that’s so gay” to be very damaging and offensive to all students. We adopted a very effective idea from the Madison middle school GSAs and placed posters in numerous places around school that stated alternative things to say besides “that’s so gay” that were not offensive to any particular group of people. Simply making ourselves and the issue visible created a high degree of awareness in the student body about speaking respectfully to one another. Teachers were an essential element in the success of the posters. Their eagerness to enforce the boundaries of our mission and to be an incredible tool to climate change made everything we did possible.
The true essence of the change that SAGA made culminated on the Day of Silence. This was a project that we spent months working on. The importance of it was deeply discussed and we engaged in many conversations about what it meant to each of us individually. While Day of Silence has come to mean different things to different GSAs around the country, our primary goal in participating was to honor the silence that LGBTQ individuals and other oppressed groups of people face every day, through being silent for an entire day. We wanted this day to be a school-wide event in order to set a precedent for the years that would follow.
The morning of Day of Silence finally arrived and the members of SAGA gathered in our advisor’s classroom. We spent a portion of time creating posters, distributing SAGA ribbons to the members, and smiling in eagerness and solidarity. The community that we formed during the course of the year could be felt tangibly that morning. In united silence we walked to the flagpole and shared a moment of serenity before the difficult and trying day was to begin. However positive the message that we were trying to send, it was certainly not easy to remain soundless for an entire day. What we witnessed that day was unbelievably inspiring. An overwhelming majority of the school participated in one way or another: teachers and administrators were wearing “Day of Silence” shirts, students of all backgrounds were wearing black shirts to show their support, many other students bombarded us with requests for ribbons, and the general atmosphere of the school was very supportive and eager to make change.
At the end of the school day we gathered at a nearby park for a silent picnic. There was food, games and a banner anyone could sign to explain what Day of Silence had meant to them. Our advisor and another teacher attended the picnic to show their support. A camera crew for a film series called democracy it is! filmed the picnic. The members of SAGA were incredibly proud of the recognition they received for their hard work. We knew that we had not left that school year behind unchanged.
Looking back on my high school years and when I was afraid to hold my girlfriend’s hand in the hallway, it’s hard to believe that is the same place that engaged in the activities that SAGA initiated so enthusiastically—how warmly everyone embraced the Day of Silence events. That year and what it meant has forever changed me. What is more important reflecting now, though, is that I know we changed Mount Horeb High School in lasting ways that will make it a safer and more inclusive place for LGBTQ students. It is with this knowledge that I can honestly say gay-straight alliances are not only helpful, but essential to all of our high schools today.