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Gay-straight club 'raised awareness'

January 22, 2009|By JENNIFER FITCH

SHIPPENSBURG, Pa. -- "It's definitely not a club for the weak-willed."

Jake Tolan has hopes that Waynesboro Area Senior High School students can successfully start a Gay-Straight Alliance, but his advice for them is that they develop a thick skin and conduct themselves in a mature manner that is above reproach.

Tolan's school, Shippensburg (Pa.) Area Senior High School, has had a Gay-Straight Alliance in place for four years. The launch of the club wasn't easy and the years since have been no less tumultuous.

Club members say they've encountered resistance from students and faculty, hateful messages in cyberspace, and even a bomb threat.

Yet, they still believe in the cause of equality and tolerance.

"If nothing more, we've definitely raised awareness. People know there's a fight for equal rights," Elizabeth "Diza" Rule said.

A group of students in Waynesboro is attempting to start a Gay-Straight Alliance through the same national network as Shippensburg's. The Waynesboro Area School Board listened to residents' opinions for more than an hour Tuesday and delayed a decision on forming the student club until its Feb. 10 meeting.

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Shippensburg's club has grown to more than a dozen members, but Rule and Tolan said they fear others have a desire to join and don't for fear of repercussion.

"The perception is that if you're in the GSA, you're gay," Tolan said.

"Ninety percent of the kids in my group are straight," said Beth Dickinson, one of the faculty advisers.

Neither Tolan nor Rule is homosexual. Fellow club member Tia Wolfe, 15, says she's unsure of her sexual orientation, as she continues to mature and experience self-discovery.

Wolfe grew up in a Christian household in which she was taught that homosexuality was bad.

"That just never seemed right," she said.

Tolan, 18, said the club has been restricted in talking much about hate crimes and sexual matters. Instead, it is allowed to emphasize a message of unity.

"We really have to focus on tolerance, diversity and bringing everyone together. ... We really just work to educate," said Rule, 18.

Club members participated in the national Day of Silence on April 25, 2008. They made white T-shirts with the words "Stop Hate" and did not speak in an effort to bring attention to name-calling, bullying and harassment.

"There was a districtwide movement to wear black T-shirts to oppose this. ... People came in with the Leviticus code taped on their shirts," Rule said.

Wolfe said her younger brother worried whether wearing any white that day would prompt other students to label him as gay.

Other initiatives of the Shippensburg club include their weekly meetings for current events discussions, guest speakers, volunteerism at an animal shelter, assistance with the school play, and the purchase of a tree in memory of a Shippensburg University student who committed suicide.

"We try to get involved in the community doing simple things but representing a bigger issue," Rule said.

"We need to get out there and show people this is what we're doing and this is why we're here. Our group has a lot of potential," Wolfe said.

Dickinson said she would recommend that Waynesboro's students and adviser ignore the hatred experienced when forming a club like GSA. She doesn't understand the continual verbal attacks and letters against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

"It's not like the more they complain it's going to go away," she said.

Often, people fail to understand that the most discussed sin in the Bible is self-righteousness and they grasp onto stereotypes, according to the Rev. Janice Bye, a United Methodist pastor who serves as a campus minister for Shippensburg University.

"There's no place for dialogue because they're dehumanizing them," she said.

To start from a position of faith, all people are valued by God regardless of whether you like them or not, Bye said.

Bye said Christianity, with its message of grace and transformation, can only benefit from respect and healthy discussions about different perspectives. She believes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people were created by God as part of his diverse tapestry.

"My experience has been that kids are just kids," she said, asking people to remember that Jesus taught that "let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

"We're not promoting homosexuality. People think we're trying to turn people gay," Rule said. "We're promoting tolerance and equality."

"Diversity is not just the color of your skin or where you came from," Wolfe said.

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