LGBTQ students say high school support groups are life changing. Why does Philly only have a dozen?

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In high school, Chayla Smith led a double life. At her West Philadelphia home, she was the busy teenager who arrived late every night thanks to a two-hour commute after volleyball practice, orchestral rehearsals, or model UN meetings. .

At her school in northwest Philly, Smith had another identity: founding president of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance, or GSA. She was gay and open to her entire college community, but no one at home knew that.

“My personal life and my school life were completely different,” said Smith, now 21, at West Chester University. When she attended GSA meetings, “all the teachers knew that if my mom asked, I was just in the group.”

Fortunately, Smith had a supportive community to build on. The Hill Freedman World Academy GSA met weekly under the direction of a queer teacher. They talked about their feelings and the evolution of their adolescent identity. They have organized events and fundraisers. Each year, the counselor took the kids to OutFest and Pride events in Center City.

Smith says the group made her the person she is today.

“I wouldn’t be like this without the GSA,” Smith said. “These are the moments that led me to find power in myself and in my identity. It built me ​​up, especially as a queer black woman.

In Philly, these LGBTQ groups not only provide a safe space for gay and trans children to discover their identities, but they also encourage support from school administrators and make heterosexual students allies. Teacher-counselors told Billy Penn that the group discussions also helped heal their own old wounds.

With benefits almost universally recognized, why is there only 12 alliances of gender and sexuality listed in the Philadelphia School District?

A spokesperson told Billy Penn there were more, but couldn’t provide an exact number – and didn’t explain why GSAs are listed at just 5% of 215 high schools in the neighborhood.

Teachers and students told Billy Penn that with more support they believed GSAs would thrive.

“It’s not just gay kids sitting together,” said Alisha Hagelin, an art teacher who runs GSA at George Washington High School in Somerton. “I feel like it wouldn’t take much to put in place something that gives schools a structure to work with.”

Courtesy of June Freifelder

Young homosexuals considering suicide at three times the rate that heterosexual peers, and GSAs can have a huge impact, said Mike Nakkula, professor in the Graduate School of Education at UPenn, who has included a chapter about them in his book “Understanding Youth”.

“Being locked up and hiding are major risk factors,” Nakkula said. “Creating spaces in schools where students feel they have the opportunity to express their concerns is an essential act of development. “

Previously known as gay alliances, GSAs were first developed around 30 years ago, Nakkula said – but they weren’t popularized until years later, and they’re still not universal. .

When 16-year-old Vi Nguyen came out as non-binary in her freshman year at Palumbo Academy, they suffered constant gender errors that left them with intense social anxiety.

Although the school’s GSA declined after the upper class students who ran the club graduated, Nguyen teamed up with a few of their LGBTQ friends to bring it back.

“The year of freshmen, even though I knew other gay people were in the school, it was so frustrating because I continually felt isolated,” said Nguyen, now president of the club. “[The GSA] certainly makes it easier. It helps because I have people there for me.

Senior at Hill Freedman World Academy, Andrea Rogers did not join his GSA with such goals. At least not at first. “Initially, I joined the GSA to have a girlfriend. It didn’t work, ”she said. But like other students, Rogers found a well of support and community she never expected,

Hill Freedman World Academy students at OutFest in 2018
Courtesy of June Freifelder

Even if they want a GSA at their school, getting it is another story. Usually a student has to ask for it to be started, which is not always easy if they are fighting homophobia.

“There’s someone in each of these schools who needs an outlet,” said Jess Soriano, former GSA president and George Washington graduate. “I think it would be perfect to be in each school. There would be less fighting, less murder.

When asked why so few schools in Philly have these support groups, school district spokesperson Monica Lewis did not respond directly but insisted it was a priority . She said there are more than what the website shows and the district is “in the process” of updating it with the correct number – but could not provide that information.

School officials have made recent progress. During the pandemic, they partnered with Big Brothers Big Sisters to deliver a virtual district-wide GSA.

Lewis also said they were working to form a GSA council to lead work on gender and sexuality across the district. We do not know when this will materialize and what its objectives will be.

George Washington High School GSA
Courtesy of Alisha Hagelin

To make GSAs more common, UPenn researcher Nakkula recommended that the district seek out advisers who already do it well and develop best practices based on their work. Teachers echoed the sentiment, suggesting that the district keep up-to-date information on its website – not just a list of schools that have them, but also guidelines on how to manage them.

Students think there must be a district-wide awareness that groups like this exist. It could make all the difference, they said, for a struggling teenager.

Many LGBTQ teachers say they have never had the opportunity to find this kind of support.

“I don’t know if there is a justification,” said Ron Paulus, advisor for the Palumbo GSA, “but there is definitely a feeling of“ I suffered 40 years ago when I was in high school. so you don’t have to. ‘ I use the pain I felt to try to ease yours.

Hill Freedman World Academy GSA members at OutFest in 2017
Courtesy of June Freifelder


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