GSA: Equality, acceptance, understanding

The student-run Gay-Straight Alliance at Ashland High School provides a place for students to meet and support each other. They also talk about issues related to sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and work to end homophobia and transphobia.

"I participate in GSA because I want to do my part in making our community a safe and accepting place," says club president Caitlin O'Shea, an AHS senior. "I've seen firsthand how our awareness campaigns have made a difference at AHS, and I know that within the club we've created a wonderful place to make friends and be yourself."

Like other GSAs on campuses, this club offers activities and confidentiality to students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning (LGBTQ) and to those who are experiencing harassment at school because of their actual or perceived orientation, identity or expression.

Support is the most important aspect of the club, says adviser Allison French, as studies show that students who identify as LGBTQ are often more at risk for anxiety, depression and suicide.

"Our club benefits the members by simply providing an atmosphere where they can socialize and be themselves," says French, an AHS health teacher who shares adviser duties with art and English teacher Caroline Spear. "The other activities we participate in raise awareness to these issues. We have a strong sense of community and social justice."

As a social group, the 7-year-old club hosts movie nights, lunchtime socials and will participate in the fourth annual Southern Oregon Pride Festival in downtown Ashland this October. They will walk with AHS's Lotus Rising Project and Teen Theater members as well as GSA members from other Rogue Valley high schools.

In November, the club organized the annual Gender Bender Dance at ScienceWorks Hands-on Museum, where students dressed up as members of the opposite gender. ScienceWorks rented the space to the club at a discounted rate so more of the money raised went to charitable causes.

In previous years, the club has donated to the Dunn House, a local emergency shelter for women and children, and to relief efforts in Haiti and the It Gets Better project, a campaign that encourages young LGBT people.

Members also work on educating themselves and the broader school community about sexual orientation and gender identity issues.

In their goal to promote equality, acceptance, understanding and tolerance, they speak to freshman health classes about anti-bullying, define basic vocabulary related to gender and sexuality, and conduct a discussion about acceptance of all beliefs.

On April 19, club members will participate in the Day of Silence to commemorate people who have been silenced by violence. In the past, more than 100 students have shown their support by not talking all day.

French says, "As advisers, Caroline and I feel strongly about supporting every student at Ashland High School and helping to create an environment of acceptance and belonging."

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