Gathered in a circle in Lorene Custer’s classroom are more than a dozen Riverhead Middle School students, some holding hands and leaning on each other for support. The group often goes from laughing at a joke to somberly discussing how society treats members of the LGBT community.
These students, who together form the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, are devoted to creating a safe space for LGBT students and their supporters within the school.
Riverhead’s GSA clubs reflect a trend that has gained traction in recent years in schools across the country as a support system for LGBT youth.
“This is the age when things are really happening, when the hate is starting,” said Ms. Custer, a middle school teacher who serves as the club’s adviser. “Middle school is actually really important to have a GSA.”
Riverhead’s middle and high school alliances were created after district administrators got word that students were interested in establishing the program locally after learning about similar clubs elsewhere in the U.S. The GSA’s primary focus is to ensure that all students feel comfortable being themselves among their peers. They meet regularly to discuss how the LGBT community is treated at the community, national and international levels, and to share personal experiences.
“It’s mostly a social club; we try and keep it light and positive and fun for the kids,” said Caitlin Jablow, co-adviser of the GSA club at Riverhead High School, which was founded in October 2014. “It’s just a place where they can come together and hang out and feel supported with each other.”
Four of North Fork’s five public high schools have formed GSA clubs in recent years, with Greenport the lone exception. Southold was the first, creating SAFER — the Southold Alliance For Equality and Respect — about 15 years ago. Riverhead, Mattituck and Shoreham-Wading River high schools all launched their programs within the past three years.
Southold Superintendent David Gamberg said, “It’s important to give a safe space to all kids. We have students who have so many diverse interests in terms of what makes them or helps them be comfortable in school.”
According to information from the Human Rights Campaign’s website, 36 percent of LGBT youth participate often in Gay-Straight Alliance clubs at their schools.
In an attempt to ensure the remaining 64 percent feel supported, these clubs dedicate a portion of their time to turning their schools into more welcoming environments.
One way of doing this involves placing “safe space” stickers in all teachers’ mailboxes, something that has been done at schools across the North Fork. These are usually accompanied by a note explaining that placing the sticker on the classroom door signifies the corresponding teacher has created a “safe space” where students can feel free to be themselves. Advisers from all five clubs said the majority of classrooms display these stickers.
The growing number of GSA clubs coincides with a national discussion about LGBT rights. On May 13, President Obama announced that public schools must allow transgender students to use whichever bathroom matches their gender identity.
During his presidency, Mr. Obama has also supported gay members of the military, prohibited federal contractors from discriminating against members of the LGBT community and supported same-sex couples’ right to marry.
Despite this progress, Riverhead Middle School students said they still see some bullying in their school — mostly in the form of people making judgmental comments and using slurs.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12 to 28 percent of LGBT youth in six polled states have been threatened or injured with a weapon due to their sexuality. Additionally, 19 to 29 percent of gay and lesbian and 18 to 28 percent of bisexual students in those states experienced dating violence.
Overall, the CDC concluded, members of the LGBT community are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide.
To help raise awareness of these realities, local GSA clubs hold schoolwide events around National Coming Out Day in October and the Day of Silence in April.
On last fall’s National Coming Out Day, members of Mattituck High School’s Unity Club — whose membership is still in single digits — joined with members of the school community service organization to set up a table decorated with rainbow flags in the cafeteria, where they handed out fliers and rainbow wristbands.
“The goal is to raise awareness of LGBT invisibility issues,” said Mary Roberts, the club’s adviser.
For the national Day of Silence last month, 75 students from Shoreham-Wading River High School agreed to go through an entire school day without speaking, and were given notepads and information to explain to curious peers why they were mute. At the end of the day, the participants gathered to break the silence together, said GSA club co-adviser Mary Mitchell. The two-year-old club, which has 15 to 20 members, more than doubled its goal for participation. The national event is designed, Ms. Mitchell said, to “symbolize how the LGBT community feels — silenced.”
Other outreach programs North Fork GSA clubs engage in include attending the Gay Pride Parade in Huntington, workshops at Stony Brook University, events at the LGBT Network’s Youth Lounge in Sag Harbor and hosting speakers from Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth and the LGBT Network.
Many said it’s events like these, coupled with the opportunity for group discussion, that make participating students thankful for their club.
“We’re able to talk about what’s going on in our lives and our sexuality,” said Gabrielle, a middle school student. “And the rest of the group is always there for us.”
Photo Caption: A number of Riverhead Middle School students participate in the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. The club works to make the school a more welcome place for LGBT youth and gives the students a place to discuss national, local and personal issues. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)