By Crystal Proxmire
When tenth grader Francisca Ibarra told her father she was joining the Cesar Chavez Academy High School GSA, he was not exactly thrilled.
“My father was mad. He thought that I would go lesbian, which is not true. I like boys and you can’t go lesbian just by being around someone. You like who you like,” she said.
“I argued with him. I was speaking up and giving him reason and evidence that it’s not right to judge. He was really Catholic so not really accepting. It hurt me a lot. I’m Catholic too, I love God, I go to church and I read the Bible, but I don’t believe how everybody sees it. If the Pope reads wrong and people depend on him, then sometimes religion is not the best influence on gays. If religions are more accepting, then maybe people would listen to them more.
“We argued a lot about it and I felt bad,” she said. “I said ‘Didn’t God say he loved everyone? Jesus died for gays. Why would God hate them if he made them?’
“In the end he listened. Because I reacted really strongly, he said I had a really big heart and that it was okay to join.”
Ibarra is one of about a dozen active members of the charter school’s Gay Straight Alliance. The GSA meets afterschool one day a week, where they talk about issues that affect them, play games, watch movies and in general are just there for each other. She says it’s important that other students know there are people who will respect them and let them be themselves.
“In my opinion, a lot of people have things that are different about them. Not just gay people, but everyone. It’s not a defect to be different,” Ibarra said. “What affects people the most is when they know they’re not how they (the parents) want them to be. When I see a friend like that, that’s gay, how they are really dependent on their family – at least in the GSA they can know that we want to know them better. We get to know each other and support each other. It’s a place that’s open for them to laugh or cry and have another family to count on.”
Sonia Ponce de Leon, a social worker, has been the staff adviser for the group since it started in 2006.
“As counselors and staff we see these kids through the years. Many cannot come out while they are in school because their families won’t accept them, but often we can tell the ones that are gay or not. But of course we can’t say anything. We just give them support and let them know there is a safe place if they want it. We see these kids suffer all those years in school because they can’t be themselves but we see them on Facebook later, when they are moved out, and they come out. That always makes us feel so proud. Like yes, they made it!”
In the heart of Mexicantown
Cesar Chavez Academy High School is in southwest Detroit, in the heart of Mexicantown. There are 740 students, many of whom come from traditional Hispanic backgrounds. Paperwork sent home with students is often in English and Spanish, and Catholic symbolism is prevalent in the neighborhood surrounding the campus.
Students in the GSA work to fight stereotypes among other students, and among parents and teachers. One of the GSA’s co-leaders is senior Marcos Carrillo, who takes part in Empowerment Sessions with Latino Family Services as part of their outreach to the young gay and trans community. He also helps come up with activities and discussions for the group.
“I want a mixture of fun and serious,” he said. “We pick one topic each month as a theme. Like this month is self-acceptance.” Other group activities include games, ice breakers, and an upcoming display about Presidential candidates. The group has also developed a non-discrimination pledge, participated in Day of Silence, created a special Allies Week, and helped raise funds to fight cancer and AIDS.
For Carrillo, activism is a big part of his involvement with GSA.
“For those that don’t accept us, hate us, or try to contain us, just know that we’re here, and the force you try to contain us with we will respond with ten times more,” he said, referring to the social pressures that society and family put on gay youth.
Another GSA member, junior Hector Torres, gave an example of pressure that his well-intentioned mother put on him. “I did have a boyfriend,” he said, “but my mom kept pushing me to date girls. My mom set me up on a date with a female friend and it was really awkward. But we were friends already so we just laughed it off.” Torres has faith that his mother will “figure it out,” but that his uncle who “just doesn’t get it” continues to ignore the fact that he is gay even though he came out in the eighth grade.
Torres said he “just wants people to understand what we are trying to do here. We’re here for people who have nowhere else to go, so they don’t have to talk to a teacher or their parents.”
Michael Sepulveda, a junior, keeps an easy-going attitude with relatives.
“Either they accept it or they don’t. Those that don’t, I don’t trouble them and they don’t trouble me,” he said. Sepulveda is the group’s co-leader who believes that GSA should spread to other schools. “This school is really accepting, not like Detroit schools that don’t have GSAs. Here you know there are people who don’t like it, but they keep it to themselves. Before I joined I was really scared if I talked to gay people I’d be beat up, but I feel safe when I’m here.”
Sepulveda hopes to study philosophy at University of Michigan. “I want to understand people and use it to prove our point. I want to get GSAs known and expand it to every school. GSA has helped me because I have met people and heard their stories. Other people have struggled just like I am and it helps knwoing that people have gone through the same things as me.”
Studies have shown that GSAs are beneficial to students and to fostering a more welcoming environment for all. To learn more about Cesar Chavez Academy High School, go to http://www.chavezacademy.com. To learn more about GLSEN, a network helping jump-start GSAs, go to http://www.glsen.org/cgi-bin/iowa/all/news/record/2226.html.