LGBTQ students say high school support groups will change their lives. Why does Philly only have dozens?

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In high school, Shayla Smith led a double life. In her West Philadelphia home, she was a busy teenager who arrived late each night thanks to a two-hour flight after volleyball practice, band practice, or typical UN meetings.

At her school in Northwest Philly, Smith had another identity: the founding president of the Gender and Gender Alliance, or GSA. She was gay and open to her entire academic community, but no one at home knew her.

“My personal life and my school life were very different,” said Smith, now 21, an undergraduate at West Chester University. When she was attending GSA meetings, “all the teachers knew that if my mom asked, I’m just in the band.”

Fortunately, Smith had a supportive community to turn to. The Hill Friedman World Academy GSA meets every week under the leadership of a teacher like myself. They talked about their feelings, and the development of their identities in their teens. They have held events and fundraisers. Each year, the counselor takes the kids to OutFest and Pride events in Center City.

Smith says the group made her the person she is today.

“I wouldn’t be that way without the GSA,” Smith said. “These were the moments before I found strength in myself and my identity. It helped me, especially as a gay black woman.”

In Philly, these LGBTQ groups not only provide a safe space for gay and transgender children to find out who they are, but they also encourage support from school administrators, and make allies of straight students. Counselor teachers told Billy Benn that group discussions also helped heal their old wounds.

With benefits almost universally recognized, why are there only 12 gender and gender alliances listed in the Philadelphia School District?

A spokesperson told Billy Benn there was more, but couldn’t provide an exact number — and didn’t explain why GSAs are included in only 5% of 215 high schools in the area.

Teachers and students tell Billy Benn that with more support, they believe GSA will thrive.

“It’s not just about gay kids sitting together,” said Alisha Hagelin, an art teacher who administers the GSA at George Washington High School in Somerton. “I feel like it wouldn’t take much to put together something that would give a structure for schools to work with.”

Courtesy June Freifelder

Mike Nakula, a professor in the School of Education at UPenn, said LGBT youth contemplate suicide at a rate three times higher than their heterosexual peers, and public administrators can have a significant impact.

“Being closed and hidden is a major risk factor,” Nakula said. “Creating spaces in schools where students feel they have an opportunity to voice their concerns, this is a very important development work.”

Formerly known as gay straight alliances, Nakula said it was first developed nearly 30 years ago — but wasn’t published until years later, and it’s still not universal.

When 16-year-old Vi Nguyen emerged from being a non-binary person during his first year at the academy in Palumbo, they experienced constant disinformation that left them in a state of intense social anxiety.

Although the school’s GSA dwindled after the graduation of the VIPs who ran the club, Nguyen gathered with a few of their LGBTQ friends to bring it back.

“Novice year, even though I knew there were other gay people in the school, it was very frustrating because I constantly felt isolated,” said Nguyen, now the club’s president. “[The GSA] It definitely makes it easier. It helps because I have people there for me.”

Andrea Rogers, a senior at Hill Friedman World Academy, did not join the GSA with such big goals. At least not at first. “I originally joined the GSA to get a girlfriend,” she said. But like the other students, Rogers has found a great deal of support and community that she would not have expected,

Hill Friedman International Academy students at OutFest in 2018
Courtesy June Freifelder

Even if they want to get a GSA in their school, actually getting it is another story. Usually a student has to ask to get started – it’s not always easy if they are struggling with homophobia.

“There is someone at every school of them who needs the outlet,” said Jess Soriano, former GSA president and alumnus of George Washington. “I think it would be ideal to be in every school. There will be less fighting and less killing.”

When asked why there are such support groups in so few Philly schools, school district spokeswoman Monica Lewis did not answer directly, but insisted it was a priority. She said there was more than the website offered and that the district was “in the process of” updating it with the correct number – but she couldn’t provide that information.

School officials have taken some last steps. During the pandemic, they partnered with Big Brothers Big Sisters to offer a virtual district-wide GSA.

Lewis also said they are working to form a GSA board to lead gender and gender work across the region. It is unclear when this will pay off and what its goals are.

GSA George Washington High School
Courtesy Alisha Hagelin

To make GSAs more popular, UPenn researcher Nakkula recommended the area seek out consultants who actually do well and develop best practices based on their work. Echoing these sentiments, teachers have suggested that the district keep updated information on its website — not only a list of the schools it has, but instructions on how to run them.

Students believe that there should be district level awareness of the existence of groups like this. They said it can make all the difference for a teen who is struggling.

Many LGBTQ educators say they have never had the opportunity to find this kind of support.

“I don’t know if there is an acquittal,” said Ron Paulos, a Palumbo GSA advisor, “but there is definitely a sense that I had this 40 years ago when I was in high school so you don’t have to.” I’m using the pain you’ve been through to try to ease your pain.”

GSA Members Hill Friedman Global Academy at OutFest in 2017
Courtesy June Freifelder

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