Five members of the LGBTQ+ community spoke on a panel about the importance of gay straight alliances (GSA) in a larger community.
The discussion was held at First Presbyterian Church in Mt. Pleasant on Sunday, June 23. The panel was moderated by Mari Butler Abry, the GSA Coordinator for Mt. Pleasant Community High School, who said she was excited to be able to have this discussion with such a large and diverse group of people. The panel was made up of members ranging in age from 15 to 72 holding a variety of positions such as student, author and activists for the LBGTQ+ community.
“It was so interesting to see experiences were different for our panelists,” she said, referring to a portion of the evening when the panelists all discussed their opinions on the word “queer.”
Bob Mueller, a community activist for immigration reform and LGBTQ+ issues, said he grew up knowing the word to have a negative connotation and never liked it. JB Marsden, an author, agreed, saying she had similar experiences.
Dana Van Renterghen, from Iowa Safe Schools, explained part of the work they do with their position is to help take the word back. They said that although it may have had a negative connotation originally, the LGBTQ+ community is working to change the conversation.
Liam Halawith, a student at Mt. Pleasant Community High School, said he has seen the word “queer” grow from an insult to an inclusive term.
“In a broader sense, it’s for someone who’s part of the community,” he said. “The term is used to acknowledge they’re different and they’re the way they are.”
Changing the conversation around words often begins in GSAs. The groups are designed to unite those who identify as straight and those who identify as queer in order to form a safe alliance. Mueller and Marsden explained they did not have GSAs when they were in school but are proud of their work and thankful they are available for students now.
“I would say GSAs are our success story,” Mueller said, explaining that he felt after marriage equality was won, finding ways to protect youth was the next big step.
Van Renterghen said the focus now is not on wedding cakes, but on birthday cakes, explaining the struggle is to keep children alive long enough to see their birthdays because suicide rates in the LGTBQ+ community have increased because of bullying.
Halawith, the president of the GSA at Mt. Pleasant Community High School, said to him, the GSA is a safe place to talk about difficult subject matter.
“In general, we just address a lot of gay things and we also just talk about our regular day lives,” he said, explaining the alliance is open to both people who identify as straight and queer. “Having a GSA doesn’t only help gay people. It helps everyone.”
An essential part to the alliance is having allies within the straight community. Halawith explained that within the high school GSA, they talk about how to address bullying and teach people how to stand up for the LBGTQ+ community. He said a lot of bullying happens in the classroom because the teachers are distracted and are unable to stop the problem.
Mueller said for those not in school but who still want to be supportive, there is the PFLAG (Parents and friends of lesbians and gays) that works to tackle the same issues, but is geared toward adults. There is currently a PFLAG chapter in Burlington and Mueller is working to begin one in Mt. Pleasant.