May 12, 2006
Volume 34
Issue 19
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Monday, Sep 28, 2020



Gay-Straight Alliances bring out the best in area schools
Gay-Straight Alliances bring out the best in area schools
Local organizations providing services to the student-led groups

by Manny Frishberg - SGN Contributing Writer

Face it, even under the best of circumstances being an adolescent sucks. Middle and high school students need all the help they can get to navigate the social and personal changes tossed at them like waves from across a sea.

At a time when acceptance is most prized and peers can be at their most demanding, it can be especially hard for kids swimming against the tide of gender and sexual identity. Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) are designed to provide a safe harbor for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) youth. In Washington, there is over 300 GSA clubs, in every corner of the state.

Joeseph R. Bento, M. Ed., of the Washington State GSA Network, a program of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) Puget Sound, says, "All GSAs have the same thing in common: trying to end bullying and harassment of LGBT students, and promoting tolerance and acceptance for everyone in an educational atmosphere."

Nationwide the GSAs are supported by GLSEN, headquartered in New York City. Bento is the education and training director for the local chapter, GLSEN Puget Sound.

"Having a GSA creates a safe place on campus that might not be elsewhere in the building," Bento said. "If you're a Gay youth having problems coming out and you know there's one person who supports the GSA, then you know there is a safe person that you can go to at school. When students know that there is a GSA on campus, it's already a safer place." In fact, he says, in the just released 2005 national school climate survey by GLSEN statistics support his claim. Bento said he had also experienced this in the Renton school where he teaches.

"GSAs are not just for Gay people. Many students that are going are the straight allies. They go because they may have friends who don't want to go. A lot of the Gay people are still afraid to go to the GSAs." Still, he said, the fact that there are GSAs present in schools "is a start.'"

Bento characterizes the GSAs as falling into three types. "There's the support group, where the students share how they are feeling - there's a lot of those groups. Then, there are the social GSA groups, where they'll go bowling or to the movies together. Finally, there are the political groups, where social issues - like the marriage stuff, the civil rights stuff-are the focus. I like to think most of the groups are a combination of the three," he said.

While a lot of the focus is on political organizing and mutual support, GSAs do know how to have fun. Last month, GLSEN Puget Sound sponsored a Night of Noise party at Gameworks in Downtown Seattle, hoping to draw in kids from around King and neighboring counties for an evening of video games, food (pizza, soda and cookies) and social networking.

The party had a duel purpose; GSAs across the state had participated in GLSEN's Day of Silence event just a couple days earlier. On April 28, students remained silent at school to raise awareness about the feelings of isolation that LGBT youth experience and the harassment they often endure. Nationwide, an estimated 500,000 students at 4,000 schools participated, making it one of the largest student-led actions in American history.

Region Seven of the GSA Network, which includes Yakima, had its own version of a Night of Noise party to celebrate their involvement with the national Day of Silence. Bento said they had DJs and dancing at that party.

Joe Bento has had some ambitious ideas. Last year, he divided Washington State into 10 regions. Each region now has its representatives who - collectively - make up the GSA Leadership Team, the governing body of the GSA Network. Each year, the regions get together for GLSEN Puget Sound's GSA Leadership Summit in October and its GSA Banquet and Awards Ceremony in May.

"The idea is that all the GSAs in the state should know about each other, so they can contact each other," said Bento. "The network allows everyone in a particular area to get together and talk about what they need to do and plan activities that are unique to that region. That way they can get the scope of what's going on in the schools."

He said they are attempting to organize regional summits for each of the 10 regions each year. This year they managed to organize several of them in January and February.

"We don't have the funds for it yet, but we're trying to get there," Bento took on a wistful look. "We're a nonprofit group and we run solely on the donations that are given to us. Someday, when we have a big grant or a lot of money we want to do leadership training for GSAs.

GLSEN Puget Sound's Banquet and Awards Ceremony will be held on Friday, May 19th at the IKEA Performing Arts Center (400 S. 2nd Street, Renton). The event, "is going to be a big networking opportunity for everybody in the state," he said. It is also one of their biggest annual fundraising opportunities. In addition to a catered meal and live entertainment, they will auction off everything from lunch with local author Dan Savage and a tour of the Capitol with State Rep. Dave Upthegrove to a signed Seahawks jersey and original works of art. Event information can be found at the GSA Network website, or by calling 206-330-2099.

On the same night (Friday, May 19th) and again on Saturday, May 20th, the nation's first GSA vocal choir, Diverse Harmony, will be presenting "Believe", their third annual concert. The event at First Baptist Church (1111 Harvard Ave., Seattle) on Capitol Hill is another opportunity to spend some money and have some fun.

The choir has been singing its way around the Sound for four years, the brainchild of musical director Rhonda Juliano, a high school choral instructor who decided that "some of the kids who were Gay needed a safe place to go and they liked to express themselves through the arts. We decided that a Gay-Straight Alliance youth chorus would be the perfect place. Having daughters myself and being Gay myself, I didn't want to exclude straight people."

The chorus has 23 regulars voicing their music. Four or five of them, Juliano estimated, have been with the group since its inception.

Elizabeth Olson, a University of Washington Chemistry and Computer Science student, has been with the group for three-and-a-half years. She says she joined in part because Juliano had been her high school choir teacher and she was looking or a choral group to join, She said the GSA in her high school did not get very far and, since entering college, choir is the only extracurricular activity she has had time for. Olson said she will go with Diverse Harmony to perform at the Gay Games in Chicago later this year.

According to Juliano, Diverse Harmony is the only youth choir to ever have been invited to participate in the opening of the Gay Games. "One reason that we're having [the concert] in a church this year is to cut back on the costs and have all the money go to getting the kids to Chicago."

For more information about Diverse Harmony and its upcoming concert, visit its website:

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