Area high school LGBTQ+ alliances adapt in pandemic to provide safe spaces for students

Kim Natale, a teacher at Parma Senior High School, strives to create a safe, non-judgmental space for LGBTQ+ students to feel welcome and supported. Her prime motivation? These were things she didn’t have when she was a student.

“I knew that I was different but I didn’t have any type of role model to say that I wasn’t weird-different, not bad-different—just different and it’s okay,” says Natale. “We want to let the kids know there are adults here that support them, and it gets better.” 

With these goals firmly in mind, Natale volunteered to be the advisor to the Parma Senior High School Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA). 

GSAs provide crucial support for LGBTQ+ students: a safe space they can congregate, adults they can trust, and supportive peers who understand their experiences.





But as with everything else, COVID-19 has changed that reality of GSAs, dramatically affecting the way LGBTQ+ students can access their communities.

As schools shifted to online learning in the spring of 2020, student clubs like GSAs went online too. Some GSAs in northeast Ohio were able to maintain their usual levels of engagement and meeting frequency, while others had setbacks that ended their meetings —at least temporarily.

The importance of GSAs for Ohio’s LGBTQ+ students
The school environment continues to be a minefield for LGBTQ+ students. According to the 2019 National School Climate Survey conducted by GLSEN, a national education organization working to ensure safe and inclusive schools for all students, Ohio schools are “not safe for most LGBTQ+ students.” This determination includes two key points derived from the research:
 
  • The vast majority of LGBTQ+ students in Ohio regularly (sometimes, often, or frequently) heard anti-LGBTQ remarks.
  • Most LGBTQ+ students in Ohio experienced anti-LGBTQ victimization at school.

Specifically, Ohio students reported widespread discrimination, including experiencing punishment for public affection, using the bathroom or locker room that aligns with their gender, using their chosen name and pronouns, or employing LGBTQ+ themes in extracurricular activities or assignments.

Only 7% of Ohio high schools have a comprehensive anti-bullying policy that includes sexuality and gender protections.

The bright spot in GLSEN’s research is that the presence of GSAs can make a real difference in addressing these hostile climates. Students with a GSA in their school are less likely to feel unsafe due to their sexuality or gender identity, and they miss less school than LGBTQ+ peers at schools without a GSA. 

Despite these benefits, only 57% of Ohio schools have a GSA.

How Ohio GSAs have changed due to COVID-19
To get a sense of how COVID-19 has affected this landscape, The Buckeye Flame created a short survey and received responses from 10 advisors and 18 students at 10 northeast Ohio schools with GSAs.

Four of the schools reported holding virtual GSA meetings, another four meet in-person, and two offer hybrid options. The results revealed a mix of feedback regarding how the pandemic has affected the GSA meetings:

 
  • 30% of advisors reported increased meeting frequency during COVID-19, while 20% reported decreased frequency. 
  • 30% of advisors reported increased quality of meetings, while 50% reported decreased quality (less participation or amount of conversation/engagement). 
  • 60% of advisors shared concerns that virtual meetings are hard for students who aren’t out to their parents at home.
  • Over 70% of students responded that meeting quality has stayed the same.
  • 55% of students said more students can attend virtually, and 33% said students feel safer and more confident attending virtually.
  • Nearly 40% of students reported significant challenges related to deadnaming, the use of the birth name of a transgender or non-binary person without their consent. Students shared that the forced use of legal names has resulted in less attendance at GSA meetings and increased difficulty in getting to know their peers when the wrong name is on the screen.





The Changing Face of GSAs
To carefully balance the needs of the students with the health and safety precautions brought on by the pandemic, schools have employed a variety of approaches to convening their GSAs.

At Parma High, Kim Natale created a GSA Google Classroom as an archive of videos, articles, and resources discussed in their virtual meetings. However, attendance has been lower. “Now that we’re online, not everyone knows that GSA is still happening,” says Ollie Everett, a Parma student.

For those GSAs meeting in person, social distancing requirements and assigned seats mean students aren’t able to move around to hug or sit near their friends, and students shared that these distanced settings can make the meetings feel lonely or clinical.

Despite these changes, the executive board of Hoover High School’s GSA in Canton has tried to keep the meetings engaging and fun—including putting on a Thanksgiving art contest to illustrate the “gayest Thanksgiving” since they couldn’t have their annual Thanksgiving celebration together.

“Last spring, when we were remote, we stopped meeting,” says Hoover GSA advisor Gretchen Leckie-Ewing. “We’ve been lucky as a school and as a club to [now] be in person.”

At Medina High School, students initially had virtual meetings, which presented a welcome alternative to the rest of their school day. Ainsley Culp, the GSA’s student publicity officer, says of the virtual meetings, “We could be ourselves and didn’t have to hear our deadname and the wrong pronouns like we do all day. It was 45 minutes of actual acceptance.”

Jennifer Oehler, Medina’s GSA advisor, says that she was overwhelmed by the first virtual meeting the club held. “I didn’t know if there would still be a GSA, but 25 people showed up to our first meeting and everyone had their camera on.”

Medina’s GSA transitioned back to in-person meetings beginning in February. Though Culp found solace in the virtual meetings, there’s no denying the camaraderie that in-person meetings present, providing a sense of community that is so desperately needed among Ohio’s LGBTQ+ students.

You come in and there’s immediately a sense of love,” says Culp. “It’s so supportive to walk into an atmosphere where you can be unapologetically yourself.”

This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is composed of 20-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets, including FreshWater.

Caitlin Fisher is a queer, non-binary writer in Cleveland, author of The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation, and prone to random acts of pep talk.  
 
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