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Gay-Straight Alliance flap stuns students

January 25, 2009|By JENNIFER FITCH

TRI-STATE -- When they left their first Waynesboro Area School Board meeting on Jan. 13, little had been said to the teenagers hoping to start a Gay-Straight Alliance.

The only substantial conversation was prompted by a recently retired staff member who had concerns about a young boy struggling with gender issues. She asked whether the older children would be able to host a mentoring event, like a picnic, if the club formed at Waynesboro Area Senior High School.

"Stuff like that, we can definitely help with," one of the club's founders said.

The second school board meeting just a week later presented a much more challenging situation for the three students who attended. The public comment portion of the meeting stretched for more than an hour, as people spoke for and against the club's formation at the high school.

The school board was expected to make a decision that night, but delayed further discussion until its Feb. 10 meeting.

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Although the three students said they expected some controversy, they were blown away by the magnitude of response. They've chosen to use the coming weeks to plan their responses to questions and concerns raised by the school board and community.

"I don't think a lot of them have been exposed to homosexuality," said a 16-year-old, whose mother asked that his name not be published.

Alexis Goodreau, 17, said classmates have expressed support for the efforts when they talk in some of the other 10 clubs with which she's involved. She hopes that a Gay-Straight Alliance would promote tolerance and create a more organized response for national events like the Day of Silence, a springtime event designed to bring attention to bullying and harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

"Since we haven't had a club, people have loosely participated," she said.

A draft of the club's bylaws states that members would meet for 45 minutes after school every other Wednesday. The meetings, which promote confidential discussions, would establish "a 'safety net' for LGBT students who feel shut out, alone or a sense of not belonging in an intolerant environment," according to the draft bylaws.

The idea to form some sort of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender tolerance club developed around the time that Rachel's Challenge visited the school district, the 16-year-old said. That program -- in memory of Rachel Joy Scott, a victim of the Columbine High School massacre -- encourages young people to "start a chain reaction" of compassion.

"I kind of see it that way with the GSA. It takes one voice," the 16-year-old said.

"I have a lot of gay friends and I don't like to see the way they're treated," said Goodreau, who is heterosexual.

Nathan Goldman, 16, thought it was helpful to have his name mentioned by the superintendent several times at the last school board meeting in recognition of his academic feats. The heterosexual junior hoped community members would hear some of his accomplishments and realize the teenagers trying to form the club are upstanding students.

"It's really hard ... to start a club that the topic or purpose is such a debate in society. It's really tough to run something when so many people are against what you're doing," Jessie Webb said.

Webb, 22, helped form a Gay-Straight Alliance at Hagerstown Community College during the 2005-06 academic year.

Webb, a heterosexual student who later transferred to Shippensburg (Pa.) University, developed an interest in the club because of her social work studies and passion for equality. She also wanted to create a resource for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

"We thought it was really beneficial to reach out to that community on the Hagerstown campus," she said.

In its first year, Hagerstown Community College's Gay-Straight Alliance hosted fundraisers, as well as an awareness day in which informational booths were displayed with topics like same-sex marriage and AIDs. An open forum in the evening involved a movie and discussion about Matthew Shepherd, who was murdered near Laramie, Wyo., in 1998.

Webb said she would encourage the Waynesboro students to never give up trying to form a Gay-Straight Alliance.

"High-schoolers are dealing with the same thing as people are out in the greater population," she said.

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