By Sarah Adler
It was your average morning meeting announcement. Zoe Guy (‘14) and Zita Gratzl (‘14) stepped in front of the microphone, introduced themselves with a “hey guys”, and announced that SWAG would be holding a forum that Wednesday, October 30th on “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identification”. Fraught with wonderfully awkward pauses as they switched microphone speakers, and Zoe closing with the morning meeting catchphrase, “So yeah…come”, the announcement came and went like the plethora of sports announcements that followed. Perhaps there was even another cautionary tale of the HB Thief after all of it. Overall, a regular announcement during a regular morning meeting.
What we failed to realize, however, in our groggy 8:07 minds, was that despite the casualness of the announcement, the forum was of great significance. The first of its kind in ten years, it not only brought up a variety of concerns for both students and administration, but also set into motion a much bigger movement – the HB effort to be a more LGBTQ –friendly environment.
The forum had been a long-time coming. On the drawing boards since its conception last March, it was envisioned by several Upper School students who attended the Student Diversity and Leadership Conference (SDLC) in Houston in December. Specifically noting how the level of comfort surrounding LGBTQ issues differed dramatically between grade levels, as well as the lack of LGBTQ resources, they set out to create a forum where such issues could be addressed. It originally had two goals: 1) familiarize the community with terms and definitions and 2) allow an alumna to discuss her HB experience specifically as a member of the LGBTQ community. This original forum, although tabled due to not enough prep time, was picked up immediately by the newly-founded SWAG (Student Wide Activist Group) club at the beginning of this year. In fact, SWAG targeted not only this forum, but also matters surrounding sexual orientation, as this year’s focal points. Needless to say, the members of SWAG were excited when finally, seven months later, the large trays of pizza and projector were to be set up in the reception room for X and lunch.
But plans never seem quite to go as planned. The same Monday Zoe and Zita made the announcement, the SWAG members learned that the forum could no longer be a forum. An informational session instead, it would lack the originally proposed discussions and activities, concentrating on the educational presentation which Zoe, Zita, and Amber Glendell (‘16) had intended to use as just an opener. The presentation educated the audience on sexuality and gender terms ranging from “homosexual” to “panromantic” and “cisgender”, and was very informational, but lacked the communal essence of the proposed forum. Several SWAG members were outraged, stating that on Monday, it was not just a question of whether the forum would have to be an informational session, but whether the forum could happen at all. According to members Amanda Keresztesy (’14) and Fallon Gallagher (’14), when it did happen, the forum that was expected to be as lively as the SWAG group was filled with “eerie silences” and “did not feel communal.” Both noted how odd it was that they still passed out confidentiality waivers at the informational session, when no discussion actually took place.
I sat down with Dean of Students Hallie Godshall and Head of the Upper School Sue Sadler in order to figure out exactly what had happened. As neither a member of SWAG, nor an administrator, when I walked into the meeting I could see no reason for the forum’s necessary transformation. But as I spoke with the two, I began to see what I had overlooked. The two cited the forum that occurred ten years ago, in which a seemingly harmless activity brought about many social repercussions. The activity was the “Step-In” game, in which a narrator reads off a statement and participants step into the circle if they identify with it. In this particular game, a student stepped into the circle and inadvertently “outted” herself. Although there were no loud gasps in the room, and the positive atmosphere did not turn sour, in the following days the student was completely unprepared for the social consequences. As administrators, Godshall and Sadler identified their main concern as student safety, and though our community has greatly changed in the past ten years, we could have no possibility of a repeat. The two administrators felt that the SWAG activity planned lacked the foolproof details. Similarly, they could not approve an open discussion without detailed plans, because it could take any turn and go wrong as well. Sexual orientation and gender identification are already sensitive topics that need to be properly handled in a school setting, and if the discussion turned to sex, which it quite possibly could in a discussion focusing on sexuality, it would then too be inappropriate. Lastly, and most importantly, Godshall and Sadler felt the administration needed more preparation if such a sensitive topic was to be addressed in a student-run event. A teacher does not need to be licensed to discuss with a student questions of sexual orientation and gender identification, but they do need to be equipped with the proper tools to correctly handle it.
Still, both commended the information session in its thoughtfulness and ability to develop a “shared and respectful vocabulary”, as well as their excitement that it came from student initiative. With a grin, Godshall remarked that they get excited when student energy is behind something, and Sadler followed by stating how eager she is for students to become passionate about this topic and to hold inclusive conversations in the future. The forum just could not go as planned because it lacked exact plans, which needed to be as detailed as a teacher’s plans for class.
Godshall and Sadler are right – the forum is just the first of what is yet to come. I met with everyone’s favorite librarian, Olivia Geaghan, who also serves as the faculty advisor of SWAG, to discuss the forum and future events. Geaghan, a strong supporter of gay rights, has big plans for our school, and she believes that the forum-turned-informational-session was just the first step. She noted that although baby steps can be incredibly frustrating, and it feels like your passion and accomplishments are completely doused if certain things don’t happen, that progress is still progress. Geaghan is focusing on the big picture, which includes everything from cutting anti-gay lingo from the HB community like “that’s so gay”, to sex positivity. She acknowledges that our community has already made many great strides, such as many teachers eagerly volunteering their classrooms as “safe spaces” for conversations, and an eager SWAG group ready to make a change. The forum, although not “successful” in its original goals, was just a starting place.
So the real question is what to do now that the topic is “out in the open”. Sadler suggests the starting up of Spectrum, which has temporarily been in hibernation. Guy, Gratzl, Elana Scott (‘14), and Kaelyn Dixon (’14) are working towards just that right now. Godshall and Sadler present the possibility of another forum, but this time with a more defined goal as well as time to create an ally system.
Personally, I believe that HB’s strength will be in the student-run groups of Spectrum and SWAG, because it means a lot more when we are the ones running it. We cannot simply expect change in our community without being the ones pushing it. As HB students, I believe we extremely talented complainers, but maybe not extremely talented “doers”. But, just to make just some effort is not enough – it needs to be constant and continuous. Spectrum should hold many meetings, in order to create a large, supportive community, as well as bring in more speakers, so that we have constant positive resources. We certainly have the means to do this. However, as great as Spectrum and SWAG can be, I do not think they are truly the final goal. My hope is that people will talk about what they have learned from meetings and forums, and bring it to the classrooms and our public spaces. Instead of hearing, “that’s gay,” when someone posts what they think is a super –indie Instagram, you will hear students intelligently and respectfully discussing sexual orientation and gender identification.
The SWAG forum, although not exactly what they wanted it to be, was a crucial first step only if there are steps that follow. “We have wiggled our big toe,” remarks Geaghan.