For students not in Woodland’s Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) club, it may be a mystery what it’s all about.
“It’s a club for students who believe in equality. It’s a safe place for people who feel that in other aspects of their lives they aren’t able to talk about equality, especially related to GSA issues” Woodland’s GSA club advisor, Jessica Block, explained.
GSA’s mission statement truly embodies its motivations: to accept people despite their sexuality and identifiable gender, to attract people who believe in impartiality when it comes to LGBTQIA+ youth, and to create a safe place where students can advocate for themselves.
GSA meetings are filled with diverse, open conversations and activities centered around sexual orientation, gender identity, and self expression.
“We’ve watched episodes of shows or people talking from different videos online. People talk about their own experiences,” Block said.
However, not every GSA meeting has a set agenda; most of the time it’s simply a safe place for people to connect with each other, and a time to talk about aspects of themselves that they can’t express in other parts of their lives.
“Over the years I know some students have had issues where they were some identity in the LGBTQIA world, and their home life wasn’t very supportive of that, so they were able to reach out to other people who have either had similar experiences or at least just offered their support so they could feel comfortable being themselves here,” said Block.
GSA meetings are a place where societal judgments are broken down when it comes to sexual orientation and gender. This bleeds through in many different forms: students use their preferred pronouns, they may go by different names, and share that they prefer to date a specific kind of person.
Although GSA has maintained a steady presence and support system within Woodland, they have also made lasting connections with outside organizations who contribute and share their mission.
“There is a little bit of back and forth funding because we have gotten grants from organizations, and then we in turn give back,” Block explained.
Notably an organization called Pride in the Hills has supported Woodland’s GSA over the years. Pride in the Hills is comprised of people who support LGBTQIA+ youth in the greater Waterbury and Litchfield areas.
Just this past June, Pride in the Hills sponsored a day trip to Lake Quassapaug in which Woodland’s GSA had the opportunitiy to network with Naugatuck High School’s GSA club members.
“They have given us money which we have access to to use for things like going to see the Sound School or paying our former GSA member who is in her late twenties and has an art studio and she has come and taught us little painting sessions these past years in a row. Even to reimburse those of us who go and get pizza or granola bars or juice boxes that we have at our meetings; so we have been very grateful for the Pride in the Hills people for that,” Block continued.
Glisten is another organization which faithfully stands by GSA club. Glisten donates different merchandise to them: stickers, pens, posters, and materials. They also sponsor the annual Day of Silence Woodland GSA members partake in each year.
GSA club has strong support systems outside the classroom, and there are countless ways Woodland’s student body can help add to it. It’s truly the small things that make a difference. Staying vigilant, and if the opportunity arises participating in fundraisers is always helpful. The past several years GSA has made and sold bracelets. Block knows it’s more than just money.
“What we would ask for is more support and not making negative comments about somebody trying to figure out who they are, not disparaging identities and saying that certain people don’t deserve to exist or participate in certain activities. I think Woodland is a welcoming place overall, and keeping in that spirit of the Woodland Way and letting your fellow people be who they are is the most important thing. We appreciate seeing teacher’s emails come through with their preferred pronouns, and that’s a little way to say hey you’re valid if your pronouns aren’t what they were assigned at birth or if you want to date people that are the same gender you are” Block said.
Small things add up to make big differences, and these are the types of things which have allowed Woodland’s GSA to thrive, because although Woodland’s GSA is an exuberant, active group today that hasn’t always been the case.
“GSA has a long history; it had existed before I got here but it had kind of died out,” Block remarked.
When Block first arrived at Woodland, English teacher and Woodland Worldwide leader, Megan Geary, was encouraged to rekindle Woodland’s GSA club by one of her advisees’. Geary ran GSA for the first couple of years, and soon Block became involved.
“I kept hanging out a bit, and making appearances here and there and then Geary moved on to other advisor things and asked me to take over, so I did.”
Since then, Woodland’s GSA club has grown and remained a safe-haven for many. Now it’s a matter of maintaining it.
“We want to just keep being a presence and it’s a great opportunity for students to practice leadership skills. We want to keep having meetings, networking with other GSA’s, and having visibility campaigns whether it be our occasional bulletin board about LGBTQ history or pride or day of silence which happens in April. We just want to keep being a place where students can feel ok to represent themselves how they want, talk about issues they need to talk about, and to help influence that feeling of welcome Woodland is so much about,” Block stated.
However, maintaining this special part of Woodland is no easy task and is almost solely contingent on student participation.
“Membership is important, we tend to be a small group when we meet; although on paper we are bigger because not everybody can make it every time. It’s good when we can have a solid group of students who are able to show up and commit themselves,” Block said.
As a school, Woodland must work to promote and encourage students to explore GSA. The value of being a GSA member shouldn’t be overlooked. GSA membership is meaningful and the benefits are plentiful. Being a member means you believe in equal rights, support your fellow students, and develop hard to come by leadership skills.
Block said, “it’s a great opportunity for them to practice that leadership and have something great to show for it. We have had some awesome leadership over the years, and have some really enthusiastic students this year in Finn and Anna and others. In the past, we have even had leaders who have won awards from Pride in the Hills, it was a scholarship we had a student who won that. We’d love for that to keep going, if there are students out there who feel like this is something important to keep existing and they want to have a hand in shaping it and keeping it in existence then you know I hope they will come in and lend their time, energy, and creativity to it.”
For students out there who strive for everything and more that comes with a GSA membership, it’s an easy process to join.
“They could send me a schoology message. They could show up to a meeting,” Block said.
Ultimately Woodlands GSA club is open to everyone and anyone who desires. It’s a crucial part of our school’s environment and students’ lives. It presents a place where everyone can be represented, heard, and celebrated in a world where this is not always possible.