Teen founder hopes SLHS Gay Straight Alliance will build awareness
The founder of the Gay Straight Alliance Network for Storm Lake High School is realizing that the organization isn’t going to do much to help smooth his own path. And that’s okay.
“I’m a senior, but my hope is that this group will get established and continue on long after I’ve graduated,” says Jonathan Coop, a transgender student who prefers to be known as Jacy.
After an emotional discussion earlier this season, the Storm Lake Board of Education decided in a split 3-2 vote to allow a Gay Straight Alliance Network club to be formed in the high school, with a paid faculty advisor. This week, the board is scheduled to consider appointing the sponsor, to officially kick off the club.
Jacy is taking the timeline in stride.
“In the past I pursued it, but it just didn’t get done last year. Then I approached (Assistance Principal) Mr. Tollefson at the end of the school year. Eventually I met with the school board myself, and maybe it got noticed a little more.”
Later, Principal Beau Ruleaux, with support from Assistant Jeff Tollefson, gave an impassioned appeal to the school board leading to the successful vote.
“And I am very grateful for that,” Jacy said.
October is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Awareness Month, and Jacy had hoped to have the school group on its feet in time to mark the occasion. “But I’m not complaining,” he says.
He envisions that the group will be a place for anyone to come for support and information, to promote awareness and help prevent harassment – and they don’t need to be gay or lesbian.
“It’s called Gay Straight Alliance for a reason,” he says.
He isn’t sure how many will join. Until a sponsor is in place, the word hasn’t gotten around yet. “I know four or five kids who are interested, and probably extended friends from them. I don’t anticipate that it will be a large group to start.”
Why work so hard for a group that will just be getting in gear by the time its founder is off for college at Western Iowa Tech?
“I’ve seen a lot of issues in different places – I’m not saying specifically in our schools,” he says. The club can be a place where anyone who is being hassled for their orientation to learn how to get help.
“I personally haven’t experienced that much of a backlash. I guess I just feel that if there is hatred, it’s out of ignorance. I don’t take it personally. You just let it roll off… if a situation were to go further and you were threatened, not that has happened to me, then you would need to make someone in authority aware and ask for help.”
One thing Jacy would like known is that he doesn’t intend the club to single anyone out, or to show favoritism to any group of people. “I would like it to give people an extended hand if they don’t have anyplace else to go.”
How does a Gay Straight Alliance fit into Storm Lake, so diverse already with numerous ethnicities, languages and religions? It remains to be seen, Jacy thinks.
While experience is assimilating people who might elsewhere be perceived as different could help in a transition, Jacy also reflects that many of the ethnic groups represented possess long-seated social stigma against gays and others who might not fit traditional gender molds.
“I’ve seen a lot of LGBT people get more backlash from the people of their own ethnicity than from anyone else,” he says.
“There is a potential for Storm Lake to be more accepting, but it’s going to take some work.”
For one thing, he would like to see the local club pave the way for students to attend the annual Pride Festival in Des Moines to help spread awareness for equality here and elsewhere.
He noted that in speaking with other leaders of similar student organizations, he has learned of opposition some groups face from their own communities. In Texas, the Westboro Baptist Church, best known for protesting soldier funerals, has also marched on fundraiser events for LGBT student groups.
The student group responded by sending the church a thank-you card. It’s expression of anger drew more attention and more positive support than the group could ever have had otherwise.
Conflict, however, is not the gameplan in Storm Lake. “I’m very grateful that we won’t have to put up with that here,” Jacy said.
There are no hard feelings about those who are not in favor of the club forming in the high school. “They have their First Amendment rights to express their opinion.”
As a transgender teenager – Jacy is biologically a male but internally considers himself a female – it can be a bit problematic to lump transgender students in with those who are gay. A transgender person may or may not be attracted to the opposite sex of their birth gender.
“One thing I do find annoying is that when people learn you are transgender, they think it is okay to ask you very personal questions about your private parts. People assume every transgender person’s story is the same.”
Still transgender people and other work in a group with gay and lesbian students, as they face many of the same forms of discrimination, he feels.
Some come to realize their status very early, and when they learn the term transgender as they grow up, they tend to have an epiphany and realize that the term describes them.
Not so for Jacy. He says he always had a feeling that he was different than other kids. At time he would be treated as an outcast, and at other times it was better, with more support from friends. “IT’s been a roller coaster,” he says. He didn’t identify himself as transgendered until the start of his junior year.
For now, Jacy presents as a boy. That may change after he turns 18, he says.
Young people are inclined to be accepting unless taught differently, he finds.
“A child who is four or five may see a same-sex couple kissing and ask why they are doing that, and if their parent explains that they love each other just like the child’s mother and father do, they are perfectly understanding of that. Sometimes children understand better than some adults do.”
In general, times are becoming more open to equality. Even the Catholic Church has been discussing being more welcome to gays. It is into this atmosphere that Storm Lake High School becomes the only Lakes Conference school at this time to have an active Gay Straight Alliance.
Concerns about the local student organization being run by some larger group with a political agenda are also unfounded, he says. While groups like the Iowa Pride Network offer curriculum for student to use if they wish, nothing is forced upon them, and the SLHS club will determine its own direction.
One thing it won’t do is encourage anyone to change their orientation. “I can’t tell you what you are, and you can’t tell me what I am. Each person decides this for themselves,” Jacy says.
“My main hope is to keep it going, so it can help a lot of people.”