A Brief History of the WHS Gay-Straight Alliance

The pride sign was added early on the morning of WHS commencement 2012 by an alumna identifying herself as a member of the class of 2006. 

The pride sign was added early on the morning of WHS commencement 2012 by an alumna identifying herself as a member of the class of 2006. 

By Peter Horn, in honor of the WHS retirement of Emily Style, June 2012

The Gay-Straight Alliance at Westfield (NJ) High School was officially organized in the fall of 2000, but its roots stretch back decades before that. Since before the Civil Rights movement, socially conscious WHS educators and students used social studies and literature discussions to explore problems of equity and discrimination. The school's tradition of intellectual freedom as exemplified by an uncensored newspaper and wide-ranging curricular choices is the legacy of many administrators, teachers, parents, Board members and students. However, two essential figures in the story are Ms. Paula A. Roy, English teacher and department chairperson from 1972 to 1999, and Dr. Robert G. Petix, principal from 1980 to 2006. Roy tirelessly challenged students and colleagues along a gamut of social justice issues, but is most remembered for her advocacy in women's studies. For his part, Petix embraced controversy, envisioning the school's place in a vibrant democracy as a locus for informed, reasoned debate. 


Paula Roy had recently published an article on confronting classroom homophobia in the spring of 1998 when Bob Petix asked the WHS faculty to consider the experience of gay and lesbian students, charging us to form a Human Relations Committee. (Though sexual orientation was the explicit focus from the outset, the uncertain climate of the time commended a less explicit name for the group.) Chaired by Petix, the committee was initially composed of faculty only, but students were soon solicited to join as members. The group met throughout the 1998-1999 school year, addressing various concerns related to bias discrimination in the school community. 

In December 1998, a program called "Season of Light:  Spirit of Inclusion" included nearly 40 presentations offered by 17 faculty members, as well as guests from PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and the Rutgers Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Alliance. The four-day festival treated topics from social stratification and hate crimes to images of gays and lesbians in literature and film. The range of offerings allowed people with differing levels of comfort around issues of sexuality to get in where they fit in, hearing about a straight mother's initial rejection of a lesbian daughter, for instance, or the relationship of French poets Verlaine and Rimbaud, or a gay student's challenges in a college setting. Positive feedback from students, faculty, and community members persuaded us that WHS was ready for a GSA. 


In September 2000, students Josh Lieberman and Molly Orbach approached a group of teachers about advising a Gay-Straight Alliance. Quickly gaining approval from administration, the GSA made page 1 of the school newspaper after coming out on Club Day with flyers for its first meeting—7 p.m. on Wednesday, October 4th, in the WHS library. Not knowing how it would be received by the larger community, the club advertised a "faculty advisory board" of seven members, rather than a single adviser who might become a lightning rod. The original GSA mission statement has gone almost unchanged for twelve years: "The Gay-Straight Alliance is a group of gay and straight students [revised to "people"] committed to addressing gay and lesbian concerns at WHS, including the prejudice against homosexuality that places people at risk and impinges upon the dignity of every person in our community. The Gay-Straight Alliance seeks to serve as a vehicle for dialogue, support, and education for its members and the larger school community."


As we have advised over a dozen GSAs at schools in NJ, NY, and PA, the key to winning broad-based support is to stress that GSAs make safer environments for all students through upholding basic human dignity and respect for all members of a school community. The reason a "special" organization is required is to serve a group facing special risks: Young LGBT people especially can experience intense feelings of isolation and alienation that can lead to dangerous behaviors (visit GLSEN.org for more information). Though many young people face bullying and harassment, LGBT kids are less likely than racial minority members, for instance, to have sympathetic family members or other readily identifiable sources of support. 


Since 2002, the GSA has participated in the Day of Silence, a national event founded by Maria Pulzetti, a student at the University of Virginia in 1996. On average, 100 to 200 WHS students and faculty take a voluntary vow of silence during one school day each April in solidarity with those who feel silenced by anti-LGBT bias. In preparation for the first observation, the GSA built a coalition with the WHS Student Council and members of a peer-mentoring group called WHS Connection, informing these other organizations about the event and inviting them to participate. The first year went so smoothly that since then the GSA has used only PA announcements, advertisements and a customary reminder letter for faculty. Each DOS observation ends with an open meeting for all participants to debrief about the experience. Though there have been at least two incidents in the past decade where a student was struck as a result of participating in DOS, the WHS administration and GSA addressed each case directly and immediately, in the spirit of the two victims' belief that the incidents demonstrate why the Day of Silence is necessary. 


The GSA usually meets 15 to 20 evenings per year, for about two hours. (Baked goods are welcomed, but not required!) The purpose and vibe of the meetings changes with the membership and with what needs to be done—some nights we've written letters to companies urging them to reconsider anti-LGBT hiring practices; some nights we've played board games or watched movies (The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a Halloween season favorite); some evenings are totally given over to discussion. For discussion-based meetings, there are two ground rules:  1. No assumptions about others. 2. What is said at the meeting stays at the meeting (unless it involves harm to self or others). 

In its first dozen years, the GSA has fulfilled its mission of dialogue, education and support through a panoply of programs and activities. From sharing first place for best float in the annual November Homecoming Parade (2001) to the controversial "Gay Pops" lollipop fundraiser (2003) and the annual gay-friendly Gayla dance each June (since 2006), there have been plenty of playful expressions of high school pride. PFLAG members have appeared before various WHS audiences at least six times to address the challenges of accepting gay family members. The GSA twice teamed up with the political discussion forum Iraq Survey Group to discuss legislation including gay marriage.  Guests including Princeton University professor Jeff Nunokawa and actor/playwright Ellen McLaughlin have given college-level presentations on sexuality in the arts.  

We have found it important for the WHS GSA to maintain a public profile through advertising (and in recent years, a Facebook group), because we know that some students who may never attend a meeting during high school contact us after graduating to say how much it meant to them that the group was there, and that there were SAFE ZONE signs throughout the building. 

[Note: Some information may require revision, as this article is abridged from the version published on project79.tumblr.com in 2012.]





Peter Horn