A MATTER OF COMMUNITY
How A Bold Student’s Proposal 15 Years Ago Made Lasting Change For Gay Students at MHS
March 31, 2014
Inside the halls of Manchester High School, which serves roughly 1,700 pupils and is located in a medium-sized central Connecticut town ten miles from Hartford, students who speak different languages can openly converse with each other. Students who may experience a fleeting moment of ostracization because of the color of their skin need only to look around to identify others who may be going through the same thing. Girls can find other girls to talk to, and guys can converse with their guy friends.
If you’re a gay student, how do you connect with a community you can’t see?
“It’s hard to know how groups who can hide who they are, feel,” said Principal Matthew Geary. “If you’re a black student trying to fit in at Manchester High School, you can’t hide that. People know you’re black. You have to try to fit in. If you’re a gay student, you can hide it.”
The school that Mr. Geary oversees is far different from the one that Manchester High School Class of 1998 Alumna Leah Nelson attended, partly due to her own efforts and persistence in founding a Gay-Straight Alliance.
It was during her junior year in 1996-97 when Nelson began to think about gay rights — years before public opinion on subjects such as same-sex marriage and acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning (LGBTQ) individuals dramatically shifted. At a time when Ellen Degeneres’ decision to come out on her sitcom led to its cancellation, Nelson began forcing changes that students at MHS are benefitting from today. Students who were infants or perhaps not yet born when Leah began her fight are now involved in the group she helped form.
It all began because Leah had an interest in equality and combating homophobia.
“I was invited to a roundtable of town leaders and some students toward the end of my junior year,” said Leah recently. “The plan was to talk about how to improve the school’s multicultural environment. I brought up the issue of homophobia and got no response — the conversation just moved on. My interest was piqued.”
Her interest in gay rights led her to push for a Gay-Straight Alliance at Manchester High School, one that she thought would help to combat the intolerance that LGBTQ students routinely faced.
Leah, who is straight, said she did not have any close friends or relatives she knew were gay at the time. Her devotion to the cause was because of her own principles. “I suppose I’ve always been interested in championing underdogs, and LGBTQ people at the time were definitely that,” said Leah.
After Donna Cathey, then-Director of Student Activities informed Leah that the first step in creating the club would be to find an advisor, Leah tried to do just that. The problem was, no teacher wanted to take on the responsibility.
When Leah informed Miss Cathey of her predicament, she agreed to let Leah put her name down. “She couldn’t stand the idea that I wouldn’t be able to go ahead for want of something as simple as an advisor,” said Leah.
For a long time, the climate of MHS virtually forced students to remain in the closet. Hateful speech and minimal support from administration allowed for a climate of intolerance. Mrs. Wengertsman, who has been teaching at MHS for 20 years, has a gay son who graduated from Manchester High School in the early 1990s.
“When he was in high school, he said he knew he would never be accepted, ever,” said Mrs. Wengertsman. “So he pretended he wasn’t [gay] all of those years. And I think that’s what most kids did, is pretended that they weren’t.”
An excerpt from a speech Leah gave to her Junior English class in 1997 indicates just how toxic the environment was at MHS for those who were openly gay during the time:
I was walking down the hall the other day, and came across a group of students discussing a friend of theirs who[m] they had just found out was gay,” said Leah. “I was struck by the situation for several reasons: one, the fact that they were referring to the boy as a ‘faggot’ in plain hearing of several teachers and nothing was being done. I can guarantee you that if a similar group of students had been discussing a ‘kike’ or a ‘nigger,’ their comments would not go unnoticed.
The purpose of the club, Leah wrote in her original proposal, would be to foster open-mindedness and tolerance about an issue that was becoming increasingly visible in society.
Despite a detailed proposal, the GSA was eventually rejected by then-principal Jim Spafford in January 1998, on the grounds that it would be “disruptive to the learning process,” according to an article published by The Hartford Courant.
“That’s when I became absolutely determined,” Leah said.
Spafford, when contacted through email, declined to comment on his reasons for rejecting the proposal.
The federal Equal Access Act of 1984 forbids principals from discriminating against a club for religious or ideological reasons. Its purpose is to make sure administrators don’t let their own biases get in the way of providing equal opportunities to all students.
“I try not to think about where my personal beliefs lie. You can’t do that when you’re in this job,” said Principal Geary, who has been principal since 2012. “I wouldn’t oppose [the GSA] anyways. You can’t let your personal opinion get in the way.”
After learning about the Equal Access Act, “I sort of doubled down on my efforts to get the GSA off the ground,” said Leah.
Spafford was not the only person who opposed the GSA. According to Leah, a few outspoken Board of Education members who were also members of the Christian Coalition opposed it, as well as the John Birch Society, a national conservative group.
The amount of weight given to these groups was likely minimal when it came to making a decision about the club, but Leah could still feel the presence of the opposition.
“You also can’t worry about outside forces whose platform is against something,” said Principal Geary.
Leah felt like the MHS community had her under a microscope. While some students and staff were supportive, others questioned her motives; her own sexual orientation was the subject of much scrutiny, despite the fact that she had a boyfriend.
“They wondered if I was gay […] they had no problem telling me they thought what I was doing was stupid and pointless. It got pretty ugly and confrontational sometimes, and I ended up in the bathroom crying more than once,” she recollected.
There were times when she found she could not even turn to the adults teaching her classes.
“I had a couple of teachers who were very friendly and cheered me on, and they mattered a lot,” Leah said. “But I also learned from them [that] my personal sexual orientation was the subject of rumors among the faculty. I didn’t care if teachers thought I was gay, but it upset me a lot that they were making it personal.”
Despite the ambivalence from certain teachers, there were other staff members who offered support and guidance to Leah. “When [Donna Cathey] signed on as advisor, she told me this was my fight, and that while she generally supported what I was doing, she did not intend to be on the front lines,” said Leah. “Over the months, though, she became my greatest champion. She defended me to staff and took up [the cause] for me with the principal.”
Ultimately, it took a meeting with an ACLU lawyer, the president of the Board of Education, the school superintendent, and the acting principal to make the club a reality.
The acting principal at the time of approval was not Spafford, who had suffered a heart attack in the spring of 1998. He was away from school for the remainder of the school year, and assistant principal Bernadette Musseman took over, and is the one who ultimately approved the club.
The GSA was officially approved in the spring of 1998. Leah graduated a few months later, leaving the leadership of the club in the hands of her sister Alexandra (Xan) Nelson who was a freshman at the time, Donna Cathey and Nila Marrone, the UConn advisor who later came on board.
“After all of her tireless work to establish the club, I was proud to continue Leah’s efforts – and without a committed president, I knew the club (very newly established when Leah graduated) was likely to languish,” said Xan. “To let that happen would have been such a disappointment, a lost opportunity, and a disservice to the school community.”
During her high school career, Leah not only founded the GSA, but she worked on the staff of the school newspaper, Harbinger, as Managing Editor during her senior year. Leah graduated from Manchester High School in 1998 as Salutatorian, and went on to attend Wesleyan University for two years before she transferred to the University of Connecticut and graduated magna cum laude. She then attended Columbia University’s graduate school of Journalism.
Now a professional journalist who covers hate and extremism for the Southern Poverty Law Center, and also serves as an advocate for people who are on death row in Alabama, Leah continues to make sure that all people are treated equally. Founding the GSA was a turning point in her life.
“Realizing you have the ability to change people’s minds, and that you can do it without being belligerent and combative, is an incredibly empowering experience,” said Leah. “As I go through my life, I still feel like I’m trying to live up to that accomplishment.”
Leah acted as a role model for her younger sister, who was proud of her sister’s efforts. “Her commitment, courage and tenacity were really inspiring to me,” said Xan. “The example that she set for me while fighting for the GSA was invaluable as I began to develop my own values and identity as a freshman.”
The club first began to address issues of education regarding the treatment of the LGBTQ community. From 1998 to 2001, during Xan’s years with the club, it concentrated on combating different forms of intolerance and homophobia. During the fall of 1998, the murder of Matthew Shepard occurred in Laramie, WY, affecting the entire country. “[It] was a national tragedy that informed the club’s focus on raising awareness of hate crimes,” said Xan.
After Xan graduated in 2001, social workers Marie Michael-Rogers and Tom Nicholas took over as advisors of the club. Ms. Michael-Rogers has been an advisor since. Right around that time, the club changed its name from its full name, “Gay-Straight Alliance for Tolerance” to one that they felt better suited their mission, “Gay-Straight Alliance for Equality,” or GSAFE.
“Our students had their struggles and triumphs,” said Ms. Michael-Rogers. “At the time I began with the GSAFE ‘no cross dressing’ was included in the dress code policy. Our club worked with the student government and principal to have this taken out of the dress code policy. We work hard to make sure that LGBTQ students [are] treated equally at MHS.”
Junior Miqel Gordon, who is openly gay, said that the climate of Manchester High School is not easy to explain. “In the year and a half that I have been open at MHS, there have been very few problems with people,” said Miqel. “I have heard some side comments in the hallway but there has never been a problem with a specific person.”
Senior Rachel Kim, who is the current president of the GSAFE, and describes herself as pansexual (meaning that she is attracted to people simply based on personality and aesthetics, not gender), believes that the climate for “gay male and transgendered students at MHS is hostile, while lesbians and bisexual girls are seen as ‘sexual objects’ by adolescent boys.”
Manchester High School is located in a fairly liberal town, in the center of a very liberal state. While overtly homophobic rhetoric is less commonplace here, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, or that everyone is supportive; not everyone is comfortable being open here.
“I feel that I have to keep my sexual orientation a secret,” said a male student who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I want to be truthful to myself and everyone else, but I would also like to come out at a time when I feel I would be able to keep the greater majority of my friends.”
Others have experienced outright hostility, even before they came out. “I [remember] being called ‘faggot,’” said a male student whose parents have requested that he not be named in this article.
“I do think people still use words that are derogatory against [LGBTQ] individuals way too frequently. In terms of climate, that’s not good,” said Mr. Geary. “You just correct that every time. And the sort of sad part about it is people are like, ‘Oh I didn’t mean anything by it.’ Well, then pick a different word.”
Despite the adversity that students may face when coming out, the climate continues to improve, as more straight students offer acceptance to those who are LGBTQ.
Junior, Melissa Hill, who is straight thinks, “it’s great that some people are comfortable enough to come out” at Manchester High School, especially with the knowledge that not everyone is accepting or thoughtful with their words.
The prevalence of derogatory language could be curbed by continuing to educate students about the LGBTQ population, and helping them understand the issues that the gay community faces. “One of the biggest problems is that people don’t know about the gay community,” said Miqel. “The best way to fight intolerance and ignorance is education.”
The MHS Health Curriculum does not focus exclusively on LGBTQ issues, but health teacher Kathy Thornton said that she does mention them a lot when she talks about the treatment others, and the power of your words and actions.
For LGBTQ students who are struggling with their sexuality, addressing their struggles in curriculum is a good way to enforce the message that they are going to be okay, and that there are people out there like them.
In Language Arts, it comes up more than ever before, said Mrs. Wengertsman. “We have read stories about people who are gay. And bullying, when we show the bullying documentary, one of the kids that it focuses on is a girl named Kelby, who out in Oklahoma is treated horribly by her community, and her school [for being gay].”
The important thing is making a student feel safe. “Make them feel safe with who they are,” Mrs. Wengertsman said. “Let them feel safe to talk about it, to be comfortable with who they are. We’re trying to do that with every student who walks through our door.”
The biggest issue facing the LGBTQ community at Manchester High School is “the same issue facing all students at MHS [and] all adults at different stages in life; who am I? How do I love and accept the person I am and be a better version of myself tomorrow than I was yesterday,” said Vice Principal of School Climate, Ms. Romeo-Rivers.
While not everyone is comfortable being out at MHS, the tide is changing. “If my son was in this high school today, I think he would feel much more comfortable,” said Mrs. Wengertsman. “But it’s still not a perfect world. Even as an adult, he still has to face certain issues”
In order to build one strong community, students need to make sure everyone feels comfortable being who they are. The message should be “you belong,” whether you’re gay or straight, black or white.
Geary and others believe that there is still a lot of work to be done, but the climate is getting there. “I have gay friends, and you ask them honest questions,” said Principal Geary. “When you have questions, you ask questions, and you have to have trusting relationships with people who are going to answer your questions honestly.” As he noted, a climate of understanding can be built through honest questioning.
In 1998, Leah stood up for a group of people who had not yet found their voice. Her local efforts were a part a larger of the movement that has helped recognize the rights of the LGBTQ population, such as the right to marry, the right to serve openly in the military, and the right to be treated equally. To continue her legacy, students must take responsibility for their words and actions, and work towards creating a climate in which all students feel like they have a voice. Activism that starts at Manchester High School may help to create a more positive climate on a larger scale, in society. Change has to start on the local level, tolerance has to be built first on a local scale in order to make a large-scale difference.
“The most important thing I want for all students, LGBTQ and straight alike, is to feel ownership of their lives and to have the chance to push for change they believe in,” said Leah.