Friday, November 16, 2018

The thing about Gay-Straight Alliances...

Image result for Gay Straight Alliances
Borrowed from the GSA page of
Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School
The thing about Gay-Straight Alliances is NOT that they are "ideological sexual clubs" (to quote the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms). They are NOT designed to promote queer lifestyles. They ARE friendship support groups -- for kids who usually already know that they live somewhere in the spaces beyond the heterosexual male and female boxes into which our unenlightened society insists all sexualities and genders fit -- and for their allies. Kids generally don't join GSAs for the purpose of sexual education and experimentation -- they are looking for supportive friends who won't bully them.

Our youngest young adult was a leader for a school GSA. Most GSAs are places where kids can simply be themselves, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender, without being afraid of the consequences should their parents find out. They can hang out with peers from different places on the gender spectrum, queer and straight. Jay's group held bake sales to support student-organized activities. I've never seen so much baking in my life!

While many parents insist that teachers should tell them whether their child is part of a GSA, I would argue for the kids' point of view. The timing of "coming out" to family is a personal thing that should never be decided by a teacher/overseer whose participation in a GSA depends upon the trust of the kids, and it should never be decided by court action. Some kids take longer than others to figure out how to tell the world who they are, and it's important to give these kids the time and space they need to test the waters at home and determine how or when they can come out to their parents.

And this is because, to put it simply, not all parents understand that gender is a continuum. In my own Catholic upbringing, I absorbed the idea that homosexuality was contrary to scripture and decent human behaviour. It wasn't until I reached university that I made some gay and lesbian friends and realized that nothing about them or their lifestyles posed any sort of danger to my understanding of life. My friendships showed me that they were all good people who deserved the same kind of happiness that I experience, and that they should not be discriminated against in any way.

More recently my experience translates to those of different genders, too. In January I read a helpful book called The Transgender Teen: A Handbook for Parents and Professionals Supporting Transgender and Non-Binary Teens by Stephanie Brill and Lisa Kenney (2016, Cleis Press ISBN 978-1-62778-174-9). I learned that human beings are much more than the Bible's stock phrase of "male and female, God created them." God makes people in more gender categories than we can dream of, and God does not make junk. It's we human beings who create and dispute categories.

But it's hard for some of us to allow for a wider gender spectrum because, too often, we are afraid of things that seem to be beyond our own conscious experience. We stay within our comfort zones, our narrow ways of thinking. It's hard for us to put ourselves in the shoes of a 13-year-old who looks around math class and realizes that their life experience doesn't seem to clearly connect with either the boys or the girls there. But imagine for a minute -- what would that be like? And how could it be expressed in a safe way?

And if that 13-year-old has homophobic parents, and teachers "out" the child who attends a GSA, and the parents kick that child out of the house for being queer, how is this helpful? That's the painful question that some of the kids at the Youth Empowerment and Support Services Shelter could answer for us. They're likely to say it's not helpful at all. We need to remember that some parents simply haven't got the capacity to even try to deal with gender difference because it's not part of their life experience. It wasn't part of mine.

But now it is. And I can't help but think back to Jimmy A., a kid I knew in Junior High. Long before anyone even dreamed of Gay-Straight Alliances, he was a likely candidate for one. Instead, he was teased, tormented, and bullied. Some days, he was able to fly under the radar, but other days, he spoke up in his own defense and received a lot of verbal or physical abuse from other kids (some of whom, I suspect had their own gender issues). I was a foolish bystander who felt powerless to do anything about any of it, afraid of the other kids and a little bit afraid of Jimmy and the ways he was different from "the rest of us." But had GSAs existed in the late 70s, I know that Jimmy wouldn't have been the only one to spend time at meetings. There were other kids in my class who turned out to be members of the LGBTQ+ community, and maybe I could have been an ally at a GSA. I don't know what happened to Jimmy when Junior High ended and we went to different High Schools, but he was planning to leave home the minute he turned 16. I really hope he's living his best life.

The real beauty of Gay-Straight Alliances is the A word. Alliance. It speaks to unity for the sake of mutual benefit between those who hold basic things in common despite their differences. All human beings want acceptance, community, encouragement, friendship, and to be loved for who they are. And in my mind, a GSA should be a place where our young people, no matter their sexuality or gender, can express kindness and support for one another, share stories and helpful information, and rejoice in their common humanity.

The world is a hard place for those on the margins, and a supportive Gay-Straight Alliance should be a safe space where judgment is left at the door, and where the sharp corners of fear and mistrust can be softened for the sake of those who need the friendship of supportive peers until they are sure they can trust their parents to also accept them. A good GSA is a place to gather strength and confidence for life's challenges, and heaven knows our LGBTQ+ kids have enough of those.

Sorry parents, but your time to be in the know will come. For now, leave the confidential aspects of the GSAs for the kids who need them the most.

I have been wanting to moodle about this for some time, but it took an article about John Carpay's comments this week to finally light the fire under me.


Betty Ann said...

Thank you Matia. So well articulated. I hope many read this and take time to reflect and act in love.

Maria K. said...

Thanks, Betty Ann. I hope so too.