Gay-Straight Alliances Provide Support to Local High School Students

Photos: Courtesy Life Foundation

High school is tough enough as it is. For some LGBT students (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender), their sexual orientation can only make life harder. Many teenagers look to their school’s gay-straight alliance programs for support they might not otherwise get from classmates, friends or even family.

But not many Hawaii high schools have GSA programs. “We started getting a lot of calls from teachers, doctors and parents with LGBT teens who needed support,” says Melanie Moore, the communications director at the nonprofit Life Foundation. Moore says a staff member started making calls to local high schools to see what programs were available and found few established GSA or LGBT organizations.

“Schools are either didn’t have them, or had one and it shut down,” she says. It’s mostly due to a lack of funding, she explains, or the graduation of the student who spearheaded the program, and there’s no one to take her or his place.

That’s why, this July, Life Foundation launched GSA Hawaii, the local affiliate of the national GSA Network. The nonprofit helps students and school administrators start GSA programs in their high schools. What’s more, local businesses have stepped forward to sponsor the programs for $500 during the school year.

So far, only five schools statewide have registered as part of GSA Hawaii, but Moore says the nonprofit hopes to have 20 active programs by the end of the school year. “We’re finding that people are interested in this,” she says. “These students are high-risk. They have higher rates of suicide, dropping out and drug use. Hopefully we won’t be working with them as high-risk 20-year-olds.”

Life Foundation even advocates on behalf of students whose administrators feel that GSA programs are controversial. It helps that the state Department of Education and Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz stand behind the GSA concept, too.

One such successful GSA program is at Farrington High School, whose program was resurrected this past February. Not only did restaurant Soul de Cuba sponsor the student organization, but, this month, it received a $5,000 grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation.

“The students love it,” says program director Alison Colby. “They learn so much and feel like they’re supported.”

Farrington’s GSA program holds weekly after-school meetings and once-a-month lunch-time gatherings. Sometimes as many as 40 students turn out, says Colby.

Colby says the school relies on outreach work from UH graduate students from the university’s Child Welfare Clinic, and UH law student Adam Chang.

Right now, the Farrington GSA students are preparing for an after-school event featuring a screening of the LGBT equality documentary, Out in Silence, slam poetry by GSA students, art displays and student musical performances. “We’re hoping for 300 people to attend,” says Colby.

The students also created and designed “safe zone” equality posters to put up in classrooms, the library and on bulletin boards.

“Through [GSA programs], they know there’s support, because they don’t always have it other places,” she says.