By Alexa Stanard
In a year of news reports about suicides by LGBT youth and the bullying that targets them, metro Detroit LGBT teens are banding together to support each other, educate their communities and push for concrete change.
Gay-Straight Alliance groups have popped up at high schools and colleges all around the region, providing peer support, adult resources and an entry point into community activism for LGBT and allied youth. They’re actively pushing the adults in their lives to form and enforce policies that protect and support them. And they’re finding strength in numbers by networking with each other and forming a region-wide alliance of their individual groups.
“My goal was to take GSA leaders, those who were most active, to meet monthly to share ideas, things that have been most effective, and give each other help resolving issues,” said Cassidy Creech, 17, a student at Canton High School who helped form the GSA Alliance. “We basically get a stronger team for GSAs in schools and make our GSA stronger.”
The drive to form the regional alliance came after the loss of a key member of Canton’s GSA. Marie Friedow, a senior and native of Germany, was “someone the GSA relied on for emotional support,” Creech said. “She was someone everyone went to with their problems. If she knew someone was being bullied, she would miss part of her class and would walk with them to stop it.”
Last April, Friedow was killed in a car accident. Students already worn out by the school year fractured apart after the loss of their friend.
“We all changed and matured a lot, but at the same time felt distant from each other,” Creech said. “It was difficult to hold meetings because no one wanted to be there any more. I started to feel like my GSA was falling apart.”
Creech had been attending meetings of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network of Southeast Michigan, and he spoke with Jane Kelley, GLSEN’s co-chair, about the lack of a forum for metro Detroit LGBT students to connect with each other. GLSEN connected Creech with staff at Affirmations; the organization offered him a meeting space, and the call went out to GSA leaders from around the region.
The first meeting, held last November, drew more than 45 attendees from a dozen schools and “was fantastic,” Creech said. “Everyone had this amazing energy that we wanted to get stuff done and work together.”
The GSAA meets every month. The alliance’s goal is to be a support system for new GSAs and LGBT teens in high schools that lack such groups. For example, Rochester High School lacks a GSA because the school requires a payment and a minimum number of members; Creech’s GSA, through its work in the GSAA, is going to pay for them to get started. And Creech, fellow GSA students, Canton High teachers and administration are working to meet with the administration of a school in Jackson County to smooth the path for a group of students who want to start an alliance there.
“They’re really enthusiastic and energetic,” Kelley said of the GSAA students. “They really know who they are and they’re willing to express that. They’re bright kids. They work hard. This is something they’re doing on top of school.”
Area schools vary widely in support of their LGBT students; by bringing students from across the region together, the GSAA gives students the chance to compare notes about what works and what doesn’t.
At Canton High School, for example, the GSA met with the administration regarding the school’s policy on public displays of affection. The existing policy was not being equally enforced, Creech said.
“Straight couples were given a voucher to do whatever they like, but as soon as you see an LGBT couple (showing affection), they’d get written up,” he said. “We had our members draw up a possible replacement for the policy. They turned it down because they said it created loopholes, which I don’t understand because right now the whole thing’s a loophole and serves no purpose. We’re going to keep pushing it.”
At Groves High School in Beverly Hills, bullying is not a major issue – which Groves sophomore Chase Stein attributes to a progressive anti-bullying policy that includes gender identity and sexual orientation.
“A lot of schools don’t have that,” Stein said. “I’ve noticed that at schools who don’t have a strong policy, bullying is at a greater level.”
Stein is a member of Groves’s GSA and represents his group at the GSAA. He said participation in the GSAA “exposes me to the entire LGBT community and allows me to get involved at the highest level I can. It’s one of the best ways as a teen to get involved in the civil rights front that’s developing in America right now.”
The students are hoping to make an Alliance-wide contribution to that civil rights effort through a summit for LGBT youth, parents and teachers, to be held March 26 at Groves. Stein said the Alliance is hoping for more than 100 attendees, and expects to be able to offer a professional development credit for teachers. Trainers from GLSEN will host a workshop for parents and educators, while students will attend seminars on topics like religion and being LGBT, event planning and political rights. Creative workshops and film screenings are also on the agenda. Visit http://www.lgbtsummit.weebly.com for more details.
“A lot of students, a lot of teachers really want to know about (the summit), and I think that’s really cool,” Stein said. “I definitely think the summit is going to increase visibility across southeast Michigan. Parents and teachers will see what kids really are facing at schools, and I think that’s a great thing.”
The GSAA hopes to continue to expand its outreach beyond the summit, Creech said, and help GSAs form statewide.
“We’re just southeast Michigan. Maybe we could have a statewide connection,” he said. “We’d also like to have more influence on policies affecting LGBT kids. I just feel the LGBT movement has been dead in Michigan for a long time. We want to show other teens they’re not alone. They’re growing up with no positive role models.
“If we present ourselves as a statewide organization, that will show LGBT teens that there are role models,” Creech added. “That you don’t have to worry about your future because you’re gay.”