Local high schoolers form gay-straight alliance

Thousands of gay-straight alliances exist in high schools across the country as a place for students to gather to promote acceptance of different sexual orientations. But one has yet to take hold at Hilton Head Island High School.

That might be changing.

Since April, a student-led gay-straight alliance has been meeting weekly after school. As summer approaches, the club has held its final meeting but is setting plans to continue once school starts again.

More than 4,000 gay-straight alliances exist in the country, according to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, which serves as a support organization to such groups. That number is just an estimate, as not all groups have to register with the organization or even call themselves a gay-straight student alliance. But it does provide a contrast to the fact that when the organization started 20 years ago, only two gay-straight alliances existed in the country.

The Hilton Head group is the only gay-straight alliance in the Beaufort County School District. Similar groups have tried to start in recent years at the high school, but quickly petered out. This is the first that has held multiple meetings and seemingly gathered any momentum, said adviser Christine Gray. About 20 students regularly attended the weekly meetings, organizers said.

The group began at a time earlier this year when much was in the news about gay rights and bullying in schools, including the ongoing story about a college freshman at Rutgers University who committed suicide after a sexual encounter of his was broadcast online without his knowledge.

"There's been a lot of bad news in the country," said Gray, a math teacher. "(The group) came at a great time. There needs to be an avenue for these kids."

The group attracted a balance of men and women, gay and straight -- which is the point. It's not a group just for gay students, but a place for everyone to come together to discuss issues that face the gay community both in school and out.

The after-school meetings themselves range in discussion from bullying to portrayals of gays and lesbians in the media. The group helped organize participation in National Day of Silence, where students decline to talk for the day (outside of class time) to draw attention to gay bullying.

But more so than what actually happens in the meetings, the alliance is about creating a place where students know they can discuss their problems or just find people like themselves.

Senior Crysta Tucci proposed the idea to her girlfriend, Courtney McGrath, earlier in the school year to start an official student group. Courtney dismissed it. The senior had come out as a lesbian at the beginning of the school year. She wasn't ready to be a leader in the community yet. But she eventually warmed to the idea after reading stories about other clubs starting elsewhere. She had become particularly attuned to taunts and slurs hurled at her and her peers after she came out.

They recruited Courtney's best friend, junior Julia Swidzinski, to help organize the group.

She is straight, but her addition made the alliance a bit more welcoming for heterosexual students to attend.

When Courtney and Crysta graduate, Julia will take over. She wants to add activities and members, bring in speakers and, overall, just make the school population know that it's there.

"The most important thing is to get students to know each other," Julia said.

Students need to formulate bylaws, find a faculty adviser and set other administrative guidlines before getting approval as a non-curricular group.

Crysta and Courtney approached Gray, who quickly agreed and recruited fellow teachers Duncan Aspinwall-Winter and Mary Beth White to serve as co-advisers. They went a step beyond simple bylaws and also developed a detailed constitution to serve as a blueprint for future leaders to follow.

The group received approval from principal Amanda O'Nan. She was aware that a gay-straight alliance could be controversial, but so far it hasn't become a very big issue within the school.

"We haven't had any issues, and if we do, we'd address those immediately," she said.

One of the first things Gray told the students was to be prepared for controversy. Bad things could be said, rumors could be spread, she said. The controversy could extend outside the school. Lawsuits have been filed to get districts to block the formation of similar groups in other districts across the country.

A principal in Irmo made worldwide headlines when he resigned after the school district forced him to approve a gay-straight alliance.

Such student groups are protected under the federal Equal Access Act, which says that if one non-curricular club is allowed to meet on school grounds, others must be allowed.

The potential for controversy didn't deter the organizers. And so far, aside from a few snide comments, the group hasn't met much resistance, just a persistent buzz at first about the fact that a gay-straight alliance was being formed.

"We knew what we were getting into," said Courtney. "But we knew we needed to start this group."