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Cut/ Sonia Ponce de Leon (center) and the students from the Cesar Chavez Academy Gay Straight Alliance. BTL photo: Jason Michael
DETROIT – They meet every Monday after classes end, from 3:20 to 4:30 p.m. The Gay Straight Alliance at Cesar Chavez Academy high school – the first GSA in the city of Detroit – is still finding itself, but now a few months old, it’s doing so pretty quickly. The average meeting attendance is about a dozen, and though everyone comes to the group for the same reason – to learn more about gay and lesbian issues, to promote tolerance and diversity and to help make the school a safe place for all – each of the students came to the group through a different path.
Freshman Cynthia Vazquez, 15, has identified as a lesbian since she was 13. Everyone at school knows, and she’s ok with it.
“[I figured] if my family knew, like, everybody else could know,” she said, noting that her family didn’t support her at first, but “now, they’re used to it, I guess.”
Not all the students at her school are supportive. Some kids pick on her (“I think some of them are, like, gay and they’re scared to come out,” she said. “That’s what I think.”) and the best part of the GSA for her is “getting to know other people that are supportive of gays and lesbians.”
Lenise Rodriguez, an 18-year-old sophomore, is one of those people. She joined the GSA because she “wanted to know more about people and their gender and sexual orientations.”
Rodriguez has a friend who is a lesbian, and “she’s more my closer friend than anyone else. She’s like more open and closer to me and we tell each other a lot of things.”
She said some kids at school pick on gay students “probably because their family raised them that it’s not right, or they don’t want to admit that it doesn’t really bother them because they’d probably be made fun of, too.”
Jesus Davila, a 17-year-old junior, is not the type of teenager you make fun of. He’s 5 feet, 10 inches of budding machismo. Muy macho, as they say in Spanish, he joined the group because Rodriguez is his girlfriend and “she just told me go.”
Now, Davila said he’s cool with gays.
“As long as they don’t come on to me, I don’t mind,” he shrugged. “I have no problem with them.”
Not everyone is as open-minded as Davila and his girlfriend, though, and that’s why Sonia Ponce de Leon, the school’s school worker, agreed to facilitate the group.
Kids who are gay or perceived to be gay “do get harassed,” she said. “I know at the beginning of the year there was this kid who came in from another school and he was being beaten and harassed and he came here because it’s a smaller school and he thought we could keep an eye on the kids better. And they did kind of start picking on him here and we addressed it right away and they seem to have left him alone and he was fine.”
Ponce de Leon is hoping that the GSA can help the school cut down on such harassment even further. But her expectations are also realistic.
“I’m not expecting drastic changes because kids are going to be kids,” she said. “I’m hoping that at least it creates this awareness that [gay kids] are not these weirdoes and these are people who are not out to try and do something to them because that’s what I get a lot here. ‘I don’t want to talk to them because what if they try to come on to me,’ things of that nature. But I’m hoping that at least it will make them realize that hey, they’re just like anybody else. Respect them for who they are just like you respect the other peers you hang with. So that’s what I’m at least hoping, that they’ll see them just like the other kids. There’s nothing different about them.”