“It was 1989. My thoughts were short, my hair was long. Caught somewhere between a boy and man.”
-Kid Rock, “All Summer Long”
Sixteen days and counting. I can smell summer getting closer and closer. When I hear that song, I can imagine myself down the shore in New Jersey, in the summer of ’89, right after I graduated high school. And I’m thinking, I am SO glad to be the hell out of there.
High school wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t great. It was particularly not great if you were different in any way from the mainstream. Being queer wasn’t really on my radar screen at that time, but I was definitely “different.” Recently, one of the people I interviewed used the term “intellectually variant” to describe herself, and I thought, That’s how I was different! I enjoyed reading classic literature. I was really good at math – and liked it enough that I joined the Math Club (and, later, the Math Team). I went to art museums and listened to classical music (and contemplated the relationship between music and math). I cared more about all that stuff than I did about partying, or going to football games, or any of the stuff that normal high school kids do. And a lot of kids thought I was weird for it.
But I had places to plug in, uncool as they may have been. At least there was a Math Club, and a humanities class, and a Science Club, and other spaces for intellectual variants like me. However, if I’d been grappling with my sexual identity, there wouldn’t have been any obvious places for me to go for support. I could hang out with the theater crowd, or the artsy crowd, or the chorus people. I could look for the people who listened to Depeche Mode and Erasure, the people who had Andy Warhol and Keith Haring images in their lockers. I would have been left to my own devices to find the subterranean queer spaces that existed. If they even existed at all.
Fast-forward 24 years to 2013, and we’re looking at a totally different landscape. There are over 3,500 Gay-Straight Alliances in high schools throughout the United States, and more than 130 of them are in New Jersey, where I grew up. Of course, not every school (including mine) has a GSA – in many states, the landscape is pretty stark. The queer kids who live in California, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and yes, New Jersey, are very lucky, comparatively speaking.
What if I’d been born 24 years later – and what if I had been one of the lucky ones? Quite honestly, I’m not sure that I would have joined. In some ways that might sound strange – why wouldn’t you want to join a GSA, if there’s one available? As it turns out, there are other kids out there who, like me, choose not to join either, for various reasons.
Nicholas Heck, a clinical psychology graduate student at the University of Montana, asked that same question – how come some queer kids choose not to join the GSA if one exists at their school? He recently published a study in the Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services titled, “To Join or Not to Join: Gay-Straight Student Alliances and the High School Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youths,” in which he surveyed 79 GSA members and 66 non-members, whose identities ranged across the LGBTQ spectrum. To the non-members, he asked: “Why weren’t you a member of this group?” Their responses fell into five different categories:
1. I’m not interested.
In some cases, kids chose not to join because their school’s GSA was more of a social group, and they wanted to be more politically involved:
[The GSA group at my school is] too touchy-feely and lazy for me. I wanted to do social justice work, but nobody seemed to have enough drive (Heck et al., 2013, p. 93).
2. I’m not out, and I’m not interested in coming out.
One student said:
I attended this school during ninth and tenth grade, and at this point, I was very unaware of my sexuality. Also, all of my friends were straight and I’m sure I would have gotten harassed had I chosen to attend these meetings (Heck et al, 2013, p. 91).
3. I’m afraid.
This theme elicited some of the most poignant responses. Some of the kids were afraid of their parents finding out they were queer:
I did not want to associate with things that were blatantly gay. Although (I think) it was quite obvious that I was gay throughout high school, I did not want people to know that I was gay because I was afraid it would somehow get back to my parents (Heck et al., 2013, pp. 90-91).
4. I’m too busy.
Sometimes students didn’t attend because they were involved in other clubs and organizations. Others didn’t participate because of responsibilities outside of school:
I had a lot of responsibilities at home, my mom was a single parent, so I helped her raise my little brothers (Heck et al., 2013, p. 89).
5. Our GSA is too disorganized/inactive/not welcoming.
This theme elicited a range of responses, such as this one below:
It was nice that we had a GSA, but I didn’t attend regularly because sometimes I felt uncomfortable there. Many of the people were nice, and I made a few friends there, but the regular attendees were rude to me sometimes. Some of the events were fun, but there were not enough events organized (Heck et al., 2013, pp. 92-93).
Some chose not to participate in their school’s GSA. But others felt shut out. And for them, it’s like being in high school in 1989, with a twist – because there’s nothing worse than feeling excluded from the group that was set up to support them in the first place. For poor and working-class students in a middle-class school environment, outside responsibilities might interfere with GSA participation. If a female student wants to participate in a largely-male GSA, (or if a student of color wants to join a largely-White GSA), the reception might be a bit chilly. And an intellectual variant (and budding social activist) like me? Well, if the GSA’s activities involved reading LGBTQ subtexts in Shakespeare’s plays, or setting up a Queer Math Team, or convincing our biology teachers to include sexual variation in the animal kingdom in our curriculum, I’d sign up in a heartbeat.
We place such high hopes on GSAs. They help to create more welcoming school environments. They are associated with higher GPAs, lower suicide rates, less drug and alcohol use, and a higher sense of belonging. But we can’t place the state of LGBTQ youth solely on the backs of GSAs. We don’t always find our reflection in the same place – that’s why we need a diverse range of queer spaces, so that all of us can find our reflection. And, more importantly, we need an infrastructure that will support a range of queer spaces – including, but not limited to, GSAs.
“All Summer Long,” a mashup between two classic rock songs, ends with a sampling from Lynyrd Skynyrd:
“Singing Sweet Home Alabama all summer long.”
If only Alabama, and other places, were so sweet for us queers.