I had the privilege of attending Mayor Feinen’s proclamation at Centennial High School yesterday. If you were unaware, the mayor declared June 3, 2015 Gay-Straight Alliance Day in Champaign. The event took place at the tail end of a faculty meeting for Centennial and it was meant to honor the work put in to the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) by Ondine Gross and Stacey Gross. The most touching part of the scene was the rapturous standing ovation given to these two women from each member of the staff. It was resounding and it must have lasted a few minutes. I was overwhelmed.
On my way in to Centennial I thought about my own high school experience. The familiarity of walking through some doors and seeing lockers and handmade posters and All-State athlete placards certainly brought a wave of emotion over me. I’m not the most sentimental about my high school years — a suburban kid who was more interested in playing hockey and trying to elicit laughs from my friends than I was about being heavily involved in the inner-workings of the school. My school spirit was somewhere between a four or five out of 10.
In a school with 1200-ish students, though, you kind of get to know everyone. You know their stories. You know whose parents have money, whose parents are together, whose place you can drink at, who’s dated whom, and the like. And it was about in high school when the acknowledgement of LGBTQ students hit me. I remember a GSA-type group forming in my high school, but it wasn’t widely supported by the student body. People used slurs to refer to classmates and descriptive terms as insults — it’s not justifiable, it’s just the way it was.
Before Mayor Feinen’s proclamation, Councilman Matthew Gladney spoke of his experience as a young gay man at Centennial High School in the 90’s. He finished his schooling at home because it was too hard for him. The support system wasn’t there to help a gay teenager feel safe in a place where learning and academic freedom should trump all prejudices. Instead, that’s just the way it was.
I’m in my late 20s. “It’s just the way it was” is how grandparents explain to their grandkids how segregation existed in their lifetime and nobody thought twice. It’s insane that I’m saying the same thing about my treatment and my classmates’ treatment of each other.
It hurts me to think about how many times I used those slurs and put downs. I wasn’t even a bully in high school. I wasn’t one of the super cool people. I was just a mid-carder. I should have been one to support the safety and rights of my classmates. Instead, I used slurs to insult my straight friends when they got knocked off the puck in practice or said something stupid.
I wish my school had been at the cutting edge of helping foster change like Ondine Gross and Stacey Gross. Ondine explained her role as a school psychologist and how one of the main tenets of her job is to create a safe environment for students. That base level of safety and respect helped her and Stacey come up with a way to get the GSA off the ground.
"I was identified as a safe person," Ondine says. "But that wasn't institutional. The GSA got traction when a student wrote a letter to me. It was a very compelling document and I still have it. It basically said, can we do more to help students that were — in those years we used the word homosexul — can we do more to help homosexual students and to work to educate others. I went right to the principal and we got started right away."
The GSA has been around for 10 years at Centennial, and the climate surrounding it now? Just about the same as any other club. “While it’s not perfect,” Stacey tells me. “Centennial is a pretty good place for our students. The GSA has become you know, kind of blasé. Which isn’t a bad problem for a Gay-Straight Alliance to have.”
It’s not. In 10 years, the political climate surrounding LGBTQ rights has certainly changed and it’s trickled down through families and younger generations. I’m certain my old high school’s environment has changed in 10 years. But how did it get to this point? A 20 year swing at Centennial saw a now-City Councilman leave school because the environment was so bad and now many kids are just not really thinking twice about having gay classmates?
“We had allies during those years,” Ondine remembers. “But they weren’t necessarily out as LGBT themselves and so I think people were just sort of waiting for someone to do this.”
So they did, and like any club getting off the ground that is politically charged, the administration would not allow sponsorship of the club. It was student run, and deemed an unsponsored club.
Over time, though, Ondine and Stacey decided to continue to push for the same standing as other school sanctioned after-school programs. Instead of asking for the endorsement of the school or sponsorship of the school, they just decided to act in the same manner as the other clubs.
"I think Stacey just said one day, you know, I don't want to be 'neither sponsored nor endorsed' anymore. So we did it."
Referring to both how the club operates within the school, and in terms of how students view the GSA as just another after school club, the serious-seeming psychologist describes the GSA as "like French Club now."
The hope is for schools in outside communities to acknowledge their need for GSAs as well. Ondine and Stacey mentioned that there are schools in surrounding areas that squash the founding of a club due to its “controversial” nature and the fact that students are gone after four years. Delaying the founding of a club until a student gives up is a common tactic.
Outside of that, Stacey and Ondine are looking forward to students continuing to take charge and be active within the school and community.
“We get excited when students want to enact positive changes.”
I do too. I wish I would have had a couple of educators steer me in the right direction like these two are doing at Centennial.