LGBT student movement is reborn
Genders and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) president and senior Viva Freedman began the meeting by making an announcement: “You are the only person who gets to decide when you want to come out, when that’s safe for you. It’s no pressure. It doesn’t actually matter inside this club.”
Clad in black-rimmed glasses and blue combat boots, Freedman’s easygoing message set a casual tone that quickly evolved into friendly banter among the club members, many of whom are in Burlingame Improvisation and Theater Enthusiasts (BITE).
In the past three years, the LGBTQ community at BHS has experienced considerable difficulty in developing a cohesive presence on campus.
“It’s hard to be an activist when you’re scared and you can’t ‘come out’ to your parents,” Freedman said. (She also noted that over the past three years, many applicants to leadership positions within GSA transferred to Middle College.)
Since the beginning of the semester, the club has met regularly on Fridays in room A211. The group of twenty to thirty students per meeting is considerably larger than in previous years. While the expansion of the club creates a chattier, more informal atmosphere, Freedman and others emphasized approachability as a new focus for improving the club culture.
“We want to reach out to people and have more excitement, more positivity in the community, but we of course want to maintain the serious side, that these are people in our community that need support,” senior and club member Jackson Gravagno said. The club has spent the last few weeks watching Paris is Burning, a Sundance award-winning documentary which explores drag ball culture in Harlem during the late 1980s.
On May 11, GSA will host Panther Pride - a spirit day to show support for the LGBTQ community on campus. Participating students will be encouraged to wear rainbow colors and may receive free rainbow pins. In line with the club’s activist sensibilities, students will be asked to sign a petition for a more comprehensive sexual education course. The club members also seek to educate students on foreign LGBTQ issues, including the detainment and torturing of gay men in Chechnya, a province of Russia.
The focus of the club is divided between establishing awareness of LGBTQ problems abroad and standing in solidarity with the local community. Accompanying the revival of GSA is a coalition of similar clubs throughout the San Mateo Union High School District. The coalition was organized by Middle College and former Burlingame student, Drew Riviello.
Riviello, who is transgender, wanted to create a unified voice for LGBT students across the school district.
“I want [the next generation of LGBTQ kids] to grow up and be like, ‘I can be who I am, express who I am and not worry about being harassed,’” Riviello said.“Because of the coalition, I feel this entire coalition can make that change.”
He described how his experience at Burlingame included being the target of bullying and name-calling.
“I didn’t change anything other than my name and pronouns because I was already wearing male clothes. I didn’t change a whole lot,” Riviello said. “But I was shocked at the backlash I got.”
The coalition met at the San Mateo Pride Center to discuss topics like the treatment of LGBTQ students on campus. The Pride Center is a community center which provides resources and holds events for local LGBTQ civilians. The Pride Center website boasts of a “Free Store” with donated chest binders and condoms, as well as a library of LGBTQ fiction for all ages.
In the past year, members of the Pride Center team have conducted workshops with teachers at schools in the district. They came to BHS early in the second semester of this year. The purpose of the workshops is to establish a basic knowledge of LGBTQ vocabulary and experiences. Youth Program Coordinator Gilbert Gammad, who is transgender and uses the pronoun “they,” described the series of workshops as the “base level for understanding queerness and transness.” They emphasized the relevance of LGBTQ issues, not just for students in that community, but for the entire student body and administration.
“These issues affect everyone. Everyone has been called a f*ggot. Everyone has been called a d*ke. Everyone has been called a tr*nny, at some point in their life. You don’t have to be queer or trans to feel that hurt,” Gammad said. “You don’t have to be queer or trans to know that that is some sort of violence.”