For almost 20 years now, the Gay-Straight Alliance at High School North and Spectrum at High School South have acted as a safe space for students to explore social issues such as gender identity and sexual orientation in order to help students connect with the LGBTQ community.
“We mainly discuss current political events, such as new laws, comments from famous individuals or petitions that are intended to affect the community,” says Lucy Mixson, 16, a rising junior at South and president of Spectrum. “We also pose discussion questions, most often based around these events, or play games, like ‘take one step back if this applies to you’, or ‘draw a timeline of your life.’”
Mixson, who joined the club as a freshman, says she became involved with Spectrum because she was interested in social activism from a young age. “A lot of that interest has been centered on topics relating to the LGBTQ struggle for equality.”
“Initially, I thought Spectrum would be a far larger club, more well-known by the student body. I also believed that we would be tackling more personal issues than we ended up doing. Most of our meetings center around overall problems, not ones involving our school,” Mixson said.
Meanwhile, at High School North, GSA co-president Jacqueline Li, a 17-year-old senior, says she joined North GSA because she hoped to learn more about the LGBTQ community and how to be a better ally.
Li says that her involvement in the club has educated her about a number of issues. “I’ve learned so many things from becoming a part of GSA; not only about the many different sexual preferences and genders, the community, and how to be a helpful ally, but also how to create a safe space and help others.”
‘I think the experience of joining and involving myself in Spectrum is one that I will always cherish.’
While both Li and Mixson believe their clubs are helpful in initiating necessary discussions, they often face misrepresented opinions from their peers.
“Most students that I’ve talked to are wholly unaware that South even has a GSA-type club, Mixson says. “When they hear about it, most seem disinterested, or very briefly interested in a flare that quickly dies down. As for the idea of GSA, I have witnessed both the negative and positive sides of public opinions, with some people using offensive language either thoughtlessly or maliciously, and others calling them out for it.”
However, as the years progressed, there has been greater acceptance of the clubs and their goals. “As times are changing, I do believe that North is becoming more accepting of the LGBTQ community,” Li said. But, as she and Mixson point out, there is still room for more improvement.
Former Spectrum advisor Alexandra Lawrence, who retired four years ago after working in the school district for 25 years, says that as time has gone on, opinions about the club among students have changed.
“LGBTQ students can be marginalized and not accepted by their peers, their parents and the community,” says Lawrence, who was advisor for 16 years. “The existence of this club for the amount of time that it has continued to run, as well as with the current climate and the more overt existence of transgender youth, in my opinion, has been a positive impact on all the student population and the community.”
“Young people in these generations, in this geographic area, seem to be much more accepting and welcoming than older people,” she says. “But much of it comes from the (club) leadership. They have always welcomed updated information regarding legal ramifications, current policy and the national climate on LGBTQ matters.”
A few years ago, the WW-P South iteration of the club decided to change its name from GSA to Spectrum in order to better achieve its message of equality, Mixson says. “GSA is a firmly rigid title: the Gay-Straight Alliance. It puts all queer identities into the single concept of gay, erasing individual identities, and names heterosexuality, an identity not included under the umbrella, instead of naming any other part of the community.”
She says that the name also gave the idea that the club’s focus was to create a link between straight and non-straight youths, rather than to tackle issues relating to queer teens first and foremost. “Spectrum is an inclusive title that, instead of bringing to mind a single identity, brings to mind the colorful spectrum of identities under the umbrella. It also shifts the focus back to the queer kids the club is intended to aid.”
“The club has helped me keep updated on current events related to the LGBTQ community. The student members have also helped to give me a mental image of the public school queer existence, a reality of which I was previously uninformed,” Mixson added.
In addition to their weekly meetings, both clubs hold events including Ally Week, GSA Week and an annual Drag Show. Ally Week happens within the first two months of the school year, and during that time the club makes slips available for students to sign to say that they’re an ally. At the end of the week, they show their support for the LGBTQ community by putting all of the signed slips on bulletin boards in the main hallway.
GSA Week, which happens in April, is made up of a series of events, which include an Equality Wedding, spirit days and the Day of Silence, a national event led by Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network where students take a vow of silence to bring awareness to the silencing effects of anti-LGBTQ name-calling, bullying and harassment in schools.
During the Drag Show, student and teacher volunteers dress up in drag and put on a performance. They charge $5 and use the proceeds towards supplies for the following year and for a donation to a charity benefiting the LGBTQ community.
At the end of last year, Spectrum also had a movie night as well and an end of the year tie-dying party.
Lawrence says that over the years, the club sponsored various events, such as a Gay Education Read-In (a collaboration with the Language Arts department, celebrating LGBTQ writers, musicians and the arts), dances, bake sales, tables at the high school flea market and craft fair, and car washes. High School South also hosted two statewide GSA Forums while she was the advisor, which featured professional presenters/speakers to educate people about LGBTQ issues.
Mixson and Li both say they believe that many other students agree with their views, even if they don’t express them.
“Others should join GSA because it is informational, it is welcoming, and it is accepting of all who take interest in it,” Li says. “The officers try to make every meeting as factual and as fun as we can. Also, this club does not require a large commitment, therefore, if there is someone who is interested but also is a part of a sport or a club with a very high commitment, they can still come to GSA meetings whenever they’re available.”
“No matter how you identify, the club is a safe space, full of friendly individuals, and no one will turn anyone away. It is intended to be a place where people can interact kindly and educate themselves, and I believe this opportunity to learn and make friends should be afforded to all who wish to take it,” Mixson added.
However, even if some may not join their club, Li and Mixson want their school communities to understand what their club truly does. “I think people should know that GSA is full of wonderful, thoughtful people that genuinely care about what’s going on in other people’s lives,” Li said.
Overall, both Li and Mixson are grateful for the clubs, and hope that these organizations continue to foster strong conversations in the coming years. “I think the experience of joining and involving myself in Spectrum is one that I will always cherish. I believe it has made me a more educated person, widened my worldview more than a little, and provided me with something I truly look forward to every two weeks,” Mixson said.
“GSA is one of the best clubs I have joined at North and I am so glad I made the decision as a freshman to join,” Li says.