Gay-Straight Alliance at Hampton spreads awareness, tolerance

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For two years, Hampton High School student Ally Rosenberger was quiet.

But this year, she decided she would not be quiet about her own feelings any longer, and she was going to reach out to other students so they wouldn't have to be quiet either.

In November, Ally, 18, a senior, started the Gay-Straight Alliance at her high school.

The incident that Ally says marked the beginning occurred when she was a sophomore, and had just moved from Maine.

As a class discussion turned to gay marriage, the conversation became a "giant ranting" against gay marriage, taking mean overtones, Ally said.

"I sat there and didn't say anything, but really thought the teacher should have directed the conversation toward more open discussion," she said.

Ally later wrote the teacher a letter, but felt "dismissed" by the response.

"Now that I am a senior, I decided that I would help create a more tolerable atmosphere," she said.

Ally went through the process of starting a school club, obtaining signatures, securing a sponsor and getting approval from the school board.

"Mr. [Cliff] Stevenson volunteered to be our adviser," she said. "I was so happy that he stepped forward."

When the board approved the club by unanimous vote, Ally was happy.

She wasn't surprised because she knew if necessary, the Federal Equal Access Act would support her efforts.

"I've received a lot of support, a lot of 'thumbs up' from faculty and my friends, and one of the board members told me she was really proud of me," Alley said.

Mr. Stevenson, a social studies teacher, said he is drawn to activities to raise awareness and tolerance and is matter-of-fact about his involvement.

"I believe in equal rights for everyone -- the major idea behind the club is all about tolerance and raising awareness," he said.

The first club meeting was attended by 25 students -- 22 of them female.

The high school has 1,120 students in grades 9-12.

"We didn't do a 'gay count' but I'd say two-third of them weren't gay, but there to support their siblings and friends," he said.

Ally was pleased with the turnout and has a list of activities for the rest of the academic year, working in conjunction with the national organization, Glisten.

"Our main goal is to create awareness and thus tolerance, plus provide a safe place for kids so they know they aren't alone," she said.

While the club is new this year to Hampton, Quaker Valley School District and Sewickley Academy have clubs. Quaker Valley's organization is in its second year and Sewickley Academy's Gay-Straight Alliance began in 2001.

Andrew Surloff, principal at Quaker Valley High School, said the students had participated in national events that created awareness for gay, lesbian and cross gender members of society such as the "Day of Silence," but last year a group wanted to do more.

They formed the Gay-Straight Alliance for the school.

"Non-academic clubs can be approved at the school level," he explained.

Mr. Surloff said the club has 15 to 20 members that meet regularly and host various events to increase awareness about issues pertaining to acceptance and tolerance.

Quaker Valley High School has approximately 612 students.

Like the club members at Hampton, the students wanted a "safe" place for students who may not feel like they fit in.

"I think just the fact that the club exists increases awareness and tolerance," he said.

Mr. Surloff said the students also sponsor speakers and post information through the various methods of communication through the district.

"They have brought the issue on notices that if you need support or help, we have a place to go to, a place to talk," he said.

Mr. Surloff requested that student members of the organization not be interviewed.

Jennifer Salrin, English teacher and adviser for the Gay-Straight Alliance at Sewickley Academy, said the club "fits in with our mission here that everyone is valued and respected."

The environment at Sewickley Academy is "student driven" and the group helps create a place that displays diversity and tolerance, Mrs. Salrin said.

Co-president Shannon Doyle, 17, a senior from Sewickley, said she joined the organization as a freshman to try to support classmates who may need a voice.

"For me, personally, it is important for there to be a safe haven and a place where students can go to for support," she said.

Shannon said she followed her older sister, Meredith, 18, when she joined the organization.

Meredith's interest was sparked by the Matthew Shepard Foundation, said Shannon. Matthew died Oct. 12, 1998, after being beaten with the butt of a pistol.

"I think that knowing we have a group of students who are here to accept you speaks volumes to students who may be questioning their sexuality," she said.

Her co-president, senior Tori Pawk, 17, of Sewickley Heights also was a freshman when she joined.

"I wanted to promote awareness for the gay, lesbian and cross-gender community and to create a safe environment," she said.

Although she doesn't worry about people identifying her as "gay," Tori said there are preconceived ideas about club members.

"There are stereotypes that a certain type of person joins the club, but I don't really care what people may think," she said.

"I'm not gay but that doesn't mean I don't have compassion."

Tori also said a common misconception is that the club meetings entail members "coming out," but a club member has never stated his or her sexual orientation at a meeting.

"That isn't what we are all about. We are there to combat misconceptions and create a safe environment, a place of awareness," she said.

Shannon summed up her feelings.

"It's hard enough to be a teenager. If you have issues that may not be the 'norm,' you want to still know you are accepted. I think we help do that," she said.

neigh_north

Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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