At least 130 students from 17 independent, private high schools and middle schools in the D.C. metro area met on Tuesday morning in what was billed as the region’s first annual Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) Student Summit.
The event took place on the campus of the Bullis School in Potomac, Md., whose GSA group organized and hosted the gathering, according Bullis students and administrators.
“We just started the GSA this year, so I’m really proud of everybody who has been involved with this,” said Bullis 10th grader Sarah Holliday, who helped organize the summit.
“And seeing everybody come out here today is really heart-warming – that everybody still cares about this and wants to make a difference,” she said.
The New York-based Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which keeps track of and provides assistance to GSAs throughout the country, says 4,000 such groups have registered with GLSEN.
“Gay-Straight Alliances are student clubs that work to improve school climate for all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression,” a statement on the GLSEN website says.
“Found in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and U.S. military bases, GSAs have become one of the fastest-growing student clubs in the country,” the GLSEN statement says.
Among the schools represented by GSA members at Monday’s summit were Sidwell Friends School, Georgetown Day School, St. Albans School, National Cathedral School, and Edmund Burke School – all in D.C.
Others included Potomac School in McLean; St. Stephens and St. Agnes Schools in Alexandria; Landon School in Bethesda; and Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac.
The summit began with a plenary session in which Bullis Head of School Gerald Boarman welcomed both student participants and teachers and counselors that accompanied the students from their respective schools.
“It’s very important and apropos that at Bullis, where we are open in every way, embracing every individual who crosses through the hallways, that we’re hosting this event,” Boarman said.
“You are the participators,” he said. “You are the game changers. And I’m hoping you’ll take that not only as your mission but continue to do it throughout your years, not only in high school but in life.”
Tonia Poteat, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health and an out lesbian, delivered the keynote speech at the summit.
Poteat, who holds a Ph.D. in public health, told of her involvement in AIDS prevention and education programs in Africa and of her work on behalf of LGBT rights causes in the U.S.
“We must challenge what is and think about what must be so that we can look at the social forces that created inequality and make a difference in them,” she said.
Following the plenary session the students met among themselves in two separate workshop sessions in which groups of about a dozen sat at conference tables to share ideas about operating GSAs.
Teachers, school counselors and administrators conferred separately at two conference tables to share their experiences in facilitating GSA groups at their respective schools.
Cathy Chu, youth leadership manager for SMYAL, the D.C.-based LGBT youth advocacy and service group, attended the summit as an observer. She told the gathering about SMYAL’s new initiative to help coordinate GSAs in the D.C. area.
SMYAL Executive Director Andrew Barnett said SMYAL is aware of about 77 GSAs in public schools in the D.C. metro area.
In interviews at the conclusion of the summit, nearly all of the students who spoke with the Blade said their respective schools were generally supportive of the school’s GSA.
Several of the students said their schools welcomed the annual GSA-initiated “Day of Silence” in which LGBT students and their straight allies remain silent in school and in all classes. The silence is intended to draw attention to anti-LGBT bullying and violence, which organizers say has had devastating effects on those targeted for such behavior.
“I think Bullis is a great GSA environment,” said Sean Watkinson, a Bullis senior. “The GSA has a huge impact on the school. We do a lot with the Day of Silence and there is just a lot of talk about it and we have a lot of support from the school as a whole.”
Some of the students said members of their school GSAs or other similar groups remain cautious about identifying themselves as gay.
Ian Dabney of Landon School of Bethesda said that school has a group called Ally Council, which has no “set member list” but tries to accomplish the same goals as a GSA.
“We don’t have meetings very often,” he said. “But we’re trying to get it going more often and get more people involved in it.”
Fellow Landon student Bobby Bolen, a freshman, said the Ally Council was intended to be “less structured than a GSA to make it less uncomfortable.”
Added Bolen, “You can go if you’re just an ally or if you’re gay – either one. It doesn’t make you choose. The term GSA makes some kids uncomfortable.”
When asked what the gay-straight breakdown was among GSA members at Bullis, junior Rayna Tyson said the group prefers not to press students into making those distinctions.
“No, especially when we have our meetings and we’re all getting together we don’t distinguish between who are the allies and like who is gay – like raise your hand if you’re gay?” she said.
“I think it is really about coming together and everyone being treated equally no matter what. We don’t have to put it out there,” she said. “It’s just great that people are here today who are gay, straight – it doesn’t matter. They are supportive and that’s what matters.”