Although Grosse Pointe is shedding its reputation as a conservative bastion, it’s still notable voters in the Grosse Pointe Public School System (GPPSS) just elected their first LGBTQ+ school board trustee. Even the winner herself doubted her ability to pull it off.
“I still wasn't sure that the community was ready for an openly gay person on the school board,” said Valarie St. John, who made it a point to feature her family in her campaign literature. “But I figured just running would be a good example because when I was a kid, I didn't have any role models or anything. In the '90s, the only gay people I saw in the media immediately lost their jobs.”
But St. John said she didn’t run for the position just to make a point. She did it in part to be a visible adult who’s supportive of the identities of students who might not get that support at home. It’s commonly known that LGBTQ+ youth who report having at least one accepting adult were 40% less likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year.
The feedback from her campaign was largely — though not entirely — positive.
“Someone even said that their 9-year-old told them to vote for me,” St. John said. “And I was like, how does your 9-year-old know who I am already? But I guess they had seen campaign literature or something and were so excited to see an openly queer person running for school board.”
At the same time, far-right wing ideology certainly affected the race, with two of the top three candidates having run on campaigns hostile to the expression of diverse gender identities and supporting other conservative causes like book bans. But there were three seats to fill, and St. John was the second highest vote-getter in a field of 10.
St. John remembers the time she and her wife weren’t able to live openly: They were married the day Don't Ask, Don't Tell was repealed. “Before that, she was not allowed to exist basically in the military because she's in the Air Force,” St. John said of her wife. “We were very stressed out all the time that someone would find out about us.”
Now the negativity rarely bothers St. John, although she says it’s troubling that people would accuse her of hurting kids. When she entered the race, St. John said she was prepared to deal with the opposition’s talking points and scare tactics.
And she can expect to face more of that, as a contingent from Moms for Liberty has been coming to school board meetings to read from books with main characters who are LGBTQ+, insinuating that teachers are using books to “groom” students, “whatever that means,” St. John said.
“I have made public comments to the effect that representation is important,” St. John said, “and these books aren't convincing any kids who weren't already thinking about being different, and now they can see themselves in these books.”
“But I look forward to being on the board and being able to say from that seat of authority that this is not the issue that we need to be focusing on,” she continued. “Because honestly, it's just a distraction tactic. We need to make sure that our kids feel safe and welcome at school. I trust our librarians to screen books appropriately and select age-appropriate materials that are really interesting for our kids.”
Looking back at her own childhood, St. John says her win is deeply personal. “I experienced a lot of suicidal ideation in my teenage years because I couldn't see a future for myself,” she said. “I thought that being a queer adult was a life of just sadness and being unemployed and everybody hating me.”
Now, community members are taking notice of what St. John’s win represents.
Michael Rowady is a former chair of Equality Michigan who was born and raised in Grosse Pointe. He practices law (Rowady Law PLLC) in Grosse Pointe City.
“I am thrilled to see my incredible home town have a strong woman of high intellect [and] skill elected to the always-interesting GP school board,” Rowady said. He said he’s impressed with her goals to serve the community by making schools safe and welcoming for all families and stabilizing enrollment while providing teachers with the tools, appreciation and incentives needed to stay in Grosse Pointe.
“It is a great story,” Rowady added. “She will have a tremendous impact on improving the overall stability and social inclusivity of the GP Public Schools.”
When all the votes were tallied, St. John pointed out that of all five-and-a-half cities that the Grosse Pointe Public Schools System represents, she was number one in the city in which she lives. She called that “huge.”
“I hope that a lot of youth who are maybe feeling badly about themselves can see that and say, ‘You know, it's not as if [she is] some big business owner who has a lot of money and influence,’” St. John said. “I have actually only lived here for four years, so our communities are also usually not super welcoming to newcomers. They usually favor people who have been here for four generations.”
“I don't try to hide my identity,” she continued. “My wife is also a big part of the community. We're respected members of the community. I'll be a trusted authority in our district. I think that that kind of representation can have a big impact on kids who are struggling in an environment that might not be so supportive of them.”