Pandemic-Era Pride: Michigan Schools Rise to the Challenge

Pride in the time of Zoom-school more important than ever

By |2021-06-23T14:03:02-04:00June 23rd, 2021|Michigan, News, Pride|

The 2020/2021 school year was definitely an unusual one. Zoom school, hybrid school, half-time school, full-time school, alternating schedules. Michigan’s public school districts tried just about everything to keep students engaged while reducing risk during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic

June Pride celebrations in 2020 and 2021 were also unusual. Virtual Prides, Pride at home, canceled events, rescheduled celebrations, scaled-down festivities.

At the same time, the election of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris ignited newfound hope for the LGBTQ+ community, perhaps most of all for LGBTQ+ youth.  It’s quite possible that 2020/2021 would have been the biggest Pride year for schools had the pandemic not gotten in the way. 

The festivities may have been different this academic year, but some schools still found creative ways to celebrate Pride and LGBTQ+ students and staff.

Allegan — L.E. White Middle Schools

At the L.E. White Middle School in Allegan, the GSA dyed their Pride. “Our GSA celebrated Pride by creating tie-dye t-shirts with a rainbow pattern,” Counselor Melissa Grimes wrote in an email. “It was an awesome experience, and all of the students wore their shirts for the last day of school.”

BCS teachers Joe Leibson, Chris Emmi, and George Mixon. Photo by Rick Joseph

Birmingham Covington School

The Birmingham Covington School (BCS) also celebrated Pride. 

“BCS hung up the rainbow pride flag and the transgender pride flag the entire last week of school, in the main hallway for all the kids to see,” says Angela Lemont, a parent and volunteer who is very involved in LGBTQ issues in the district. 

Pride swag at the LGBTQ+ Discussion Panel at BCS. Photo courtesy Angela Lamont.

The school posted 11 photos on the school Facebook page with a number of staff and students posing in front of the display with props like small Pride flags, rainbow decorations, capes, and fans. Many of the photos were taken by Rick Joseph, a teacher at the school who leads the BCS Diversity Committee. 

BCS also hosted an LGBTQ+ Discussion Panel on May 25 with five LGBTQ+ students, Michigan Teacher of the Year Owen Bondono, two PFLAG parents, and an LGBTQ+ identifying therapist. “It had great attendance,” Lemont says, “both in person and virtually.”

Carman-Ainsworth High School

The Carman-Ainsworth High School LGBTQ+ group, called C-A Prism, was determined to do something to recognize Pride this year since they had to scrap 2020 plans due to COVID-19. The school includes students from Flint Township, Burton and Mundy Township and has between 10 to 20 C-A Prism members at a given time, says group advisor Frank Burger, a biology and physical science teacher.

“It was a little hard to celebrate Pride this year because our school was teaching hybrid,” Burger explains. The student body was split in half and attended on alternating days, thus all C-A Prism meetings were virtual.”

“[C-A Prism members] researched the history of Pride, and we have a really great, supportive principal who let them do an announcement about the history” to the entire school, Burger says. “I was very pleased with what the students came up with,” Burger says. “They realized it was a small celebration this year but used it as a springboard for next year.”

There was also a day where students and staff donned rainbow colors. “It was really cool to see a lot of our staff members dressed up in rainbow shirts,” Burger says. “Some of them said ‘ally’ on them.”

Constantine High School

“At Constantine High School, for each day of June we were in school, members of the GSA did the school announcements and included an LGTBQ fact or information each day,” writes Anthony Mulvey via email. “Members and allies were also allowed and encouraged to ‘dress up’ to show off their pride.”

Detroit Public Schools Community District

On June 6, 2021, Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) account posted a rainbow image on Twitter reading “LGBTQ+ Pride Month” with a background consisting of an inclusive Pride Flag, a rainbow that includes black and brown stripes for LGBTQ+ people of color and the white, pink, and light blue stripes of the transgender Pride Flag. 

The Tweet invited people “to join DPSCD’s LGBTQ+ Support and Advisory Council” for their “first Virtual Pride Festival!”

According to Naomi Khalil, Deputy Executive Director of the Office of Equity Advocacy and Civil Rights for DPSCD, celebrating Pride is part of a larger project — celebrating the “heritage and identity of our community.”

Khalil tells Pride Source that they had wanted to do their first Pride event last year but “decided to take a breather” because of COVID-19.

Over 150 staff, students, and community members attended the June 11 festival, which included visits from State Representative Abraham Aiyash and Sen. Stephanie Chang’s Chief of Staff as well as break-out sessions with organizations such as Common Ground, Affirmations, The Michigan Organization on Adolescent Sexual Health (MOASH), and the University of Michigan. The festival offered games, an online DJ, trivia, and a “family-friendly drag performance.”

Heidi West, a 6th grade English Language Arts and Spanish teacher at DPSCD’s Academy of the Americas in Detroit, attended the event. “It was awesome, especially for being the first one,” she says. “It was very inclusive of the Black and brown communities.”

West says she was excited to see so many of her students there, calling the event “really inspiring.”

Khalil says DPSCD is planning more expansive programming for next year. 

Holland High School

The Holland High School GSA, called Students 4 Social Justice, organized a “Pride Week,” GSA advisor and English teacher Ashlyn Rowell says.

Photo: Holland Public Schools.

“Students in my club created themed days as well as lesson plans about LGBT history and issues for all teachers to teach during the daily morning meetings and daily advisory classes,” Rowell writes to BTL. The themed days were Ally Day, Pronouns Day, Wear Your Pride Day, and Rainbow Day. They also passed out over 600 “Ally” and pronoun stickers to staff and students.

“We had a lot of support from [the administration],” Rowell continues. “The assistant principal made announcements each day stating the theme and explaining the lesson, and also emailed the staff to explain the importance of participating in Pride Week.”

Milan High School

In Milan, the Milan High School GSA had a pride picnic on June 10. Writes Annie Kiser, a counselor at the school, in an email: “It was open to the community, and in total we had about 60-70 people come. It was really fun.” Kiser also says it might be the first Pride event to have happened in Milan.

“Our GSA at Whitehall High School put on a Pride Day and Pride Week,” Alydia Jura, a student from the school, writes in an email. They also started a book club. Jura says that she has even reached out to the regional health coordinator to talk about making changes to the sex education curriculum throughout the district.

Northville High School

Maureen Schneider, a counselor at Northville High School (NHS), said the NHS GSA had a Pride Picnic on June 13. “It is a strictly social event and not externally advertised,” Schneider writes via email, “and it is the first time GSA members will hang out as a group all year.” 

According to Peter Tepatti, co-president of the GSA, NHS also held a fundraiser that raised $1,600 for the Trevor Foundation.

Okemos High School

Emily Feehery, the PRISM GSA advisor at Okemos High School, says the pandemic impacted their Pride activities. “With COVID, we didn’t do MUCH this year besides our Zoom meetings,” she writes in an email, “but we did have Daniel Burns, a mental health therapist who specializes in the LGBTQIA community, come as a special guest to answer questions and talk with the group.” 

Feehery says her students have a goal to start a GLSEN chapter in the Lansing area after Burns mentioned the lack of one. She adds, “Some parents came to the meeting Daniel attended as well, and they are very supportive and are wanting to help in any way possible.”

Reed City Area Public Schools

In Reed City, students celebrated with a good old-fashioned pizza party. Natasha Bancroft, Social Emotional Wellness Coach for Reed City Area Public Schools and the advisor for a GSA that began in April, wrote in an email, “We are still very young as an organization, but we celebrated with a pizza/dance party at the end of the year.”

Royal Oak Schools

Royal Oak Schools took the recognition of Pride to a new level when the school board passed a resolution on June 10 to recognize June as LGBTQ+ PRIDE month. Royal Oak Middle School’s sign was lit up with a rainbow flag and “#PrideMonth.”

Photo: Royal Oak Schools.

Pride postponed in some districts

Some schools were open to celebrating Pride even if they didn’t have the bandwidth to do so this year. For example, Brandon Schools had an active LGBTQ Club at one time, but it is “dormant for now,” according to Michael Brennan, a counselor at Brandon High School.

“We love supporting our LGBTQ students, though, and are hopeful it may start up again in the future,” Brennan tells Pride Source. “Also, this year was a bit overwhelming and we were stretched too thin to actively plan events for various months like this. Looking forward to next year!”

Plymouth Canton is another school that would have liked to celebrate Pride in some way but was unable to manage it this year.

“There hasn’t been much community this year of any kind at most schools I know of, certainly not at ours,” writes Plymouth Canton Educational Park GSA Advisor Larry Price in an email. Even after students returned to in-person learning, “that was with half-day schedules and seeing kids every other day,” he said. “Our GSA organization tried several times to meet online, but screen fatigue had set in, and the students agreed to cancel further meetings.”

For students who are not out at school, Zoom GSA meetings presented some unique problems. Price explains, “There were issues at some homes where kids were not out, and parents were monitoring computer use. I have been addressing individual situations with kids in need as they arose, but that was a small number; at least, a small number reached my attention.”

Price emphasizes that this is not how the district usually recognizes Pride. “We have had a GSA for about 20 years here, and our leadership and membership have been active in many ways,” he says. “But this year, we’re all just trying to get to the end and reset for next year.”

About the Author:

D'Anne Witkowski is a writer living in Michigan with her wife and son. She has been writing about LGBTQ+ politics for nearly two decades. Follow her on Twitter @MamaDWitkowski.