GSA stands for Gay-Straight Alliance, and it is a recurring club in many schools, including at SHS. The club, which started in 2008, is run by Ms. Shari Griswold, and co-run by Ms. Randi Spiess and Ms. Jennifer Batt. The group meets every Thursday from 2:30-4:30.
Every meeting, desks are arranged in a circular formation, so the classroom is transformed into a support group. From there, with the advisers guiding the group, students are free to talk about any concerns or problems they may have. They could be family oriented, relationship oriented, or LGBT related, to name a few.
“I know I can go into that room and no judgement will be bestowed upon me,” said GSA president Jillian Timmermann, a senior. “Absolutely no topics are off limits. The group is a safe-place. We basically have one rule: What’s said in here, stays in here. The rule, of course, has three exceptions: if you are hurting yourself, if you are hurting someone else, or if someone is hurting you,” Timmermann added.
At times, the club has gone further than just a two hour weekly session. In the past, Griswold has given rides to kids when parents have refused, and Mr. Stephen Rivera (a former co-runner), has opened his home to kids in difficult home situations. Along with that, the advisers provide students with an extensive list of contacts with community service providers, resources and such, for LGBTQ people that they can use in times of need.
“The Diversity Council and Gay-Straight Alliance has helped me in a myriad of ways,” said Timmermann. “The advisers and the other people in the group have guided me through obstacles in my life. For the past three years, I’ve had a support system and essentially, another family.”
GSA organizes several events throughout the year. For instance, spirit day. Spirit Day was created by a former student in order to raise awareness of the bullying that often occurs in schools. Another event is “The Day of Silence,” which is the national day of recognition for the silencing effects of bullying against the LGBTQ community. Students must remain silent throughout the day to recognize the voices have been lost to bullying, or suicide.
“I always encourage people to come to a meeting, even if they don’t plan on becoming a regularly attending member,” said Timmermann. “This club is not just the ‘gay group’; anyone and everyone is welcome, no matter their sexuality, gender identity, race, religion, or creed,” she added.
I sat down with Ms. Griswold one morning for a Q&A to discuss the club in depth, from the very start of the club, to what she sees for it in the future, and all the details in between.
Q: What made you first decide to start up GSA?
A: My second year here, a student approached me and asked if we could start a gay-straight alliance. At the time, there were none in any of the schools in this area, and our administration didn’t feel comfortable being the first. In 2008, the GSA was a district wide initiative, and Mr. Rivera and I were asked to be the representatives at the high school level. There was a diversity council in East Stroudsburg South. At that time, they felt comfortable incorporating it to the diversity council. That’s why our name is both ‘diversity council’ and ‘GSA’ because we not only cover gay issues, we cover all issues dealing with diversity.
Q: In what ways have you seen the GSA evolve over the years?
A: The number of students that come into the GSA fluctuate over the years, but what I have seen is more activism with students in the more recent years. There’s a better global understanding about their place in the world, and a desire to make that place a comfortable place for everyone.
Q: Have you ever felt obligated to help LGBT+ kids?
A: I’ve always felt compelled to make sure LGBTQ students feel welcome, comfortable, and safe. With the current administration and the roll backs in the current LGBTQ rights and privileges, I want to be able to alleviate the fear. I think the best thing that we can do — allies like me, or school personnel — is to make sure LGBTQ youth feel safe in the school environment and know that they do have support no matter what happens.
Q: Do you ever get criticism from students/teachers who are homo/transphobic and how do you deal with them?
A: There are always a few kids who don’t understand, who have grown up in an atmosphere of bigotry. I think the best way to deal with people like that is education and visibility. Their strength comes from intimidation. If they feel that they can intimidate someone and keep them in the shadows, then they gain power. It’s important that nobody feels like they have to hide, and people who are scared, and don’t understand, will lose that fear as they are exposed more and more to various people from all walks of life.
Q: What are some of the happiest moments you’ve seen happen in the GSA?
A: In one of our first years there was a young man who came to us in 10th grade, and he was really shy and quiet. In his senior year, he actually won King of Hearts. He was out doing his skit, in all his pride and glory, and he’s the same young man at the end of the year who said, ‘When I came here I felt like I didn’t have any friends, and now I can look around, and when I walk through the halls I see you guys, and I know I’m not alone.’
I’ve seen kids start to live their truth. Many will argue that kids cannot make lifelong decisions because they’re not mature enough, etc., but then we say, in a matter of months in their senior year that we’re going to set them out into the world. You can’t have it both ways. You call them kids, and then in the next breath you call them adults.
I’ve been to several weddings of kids who have been introduced through events that we’ve done. I saw an engagement video on Facebook from one of our kids yesterday that made me cry, and I’ve seen our kids go onto college and become real strong voices for pro LGBTQ rights.
Q: How much longer do you plan to run the GSA, and what do you see for it in the future?
A: As long as they’ll have me. I would like us to get more active politically. I don’t want to see things continue in this direction. I want them to turn around again, and the only way to do that is through activism, so I would like us to become more aware of not just what’s happening in our school, or community, but what’s happening in the world, so we can join our voices with others who are speaking up for the LGBT community.