The Gay-Straight Alliance is a long-standing organization at Oak Park and River Forest High School. Every Wednesday after school, students come together to discuss issues in their community and the wider society concerning the advancement of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) demographic. The student-led group, with help from a couple of teacher sponsors each year, provides a safe haven for members of the homosexual and the straight community alike.
"It's usually about half and half and some days it leans one way or the other," said member Maureen Naureckas of the sexual orientation of regular attendees. "Our aim is to be a place for everyone, and we are open to all people. It's a non-conventional, clear space where anybody can go if they're feeling unwanted or bullied and just be safe and enjoy themselves with other people."
Naureckas, who will be a junior next fall, is a member of the LGBT community herself and has been going to meetings since her friends introduced her to the group last year. She confessed that even though Oak Park is a very liberal community, people still discriminate because of sexual orientation or gender, which is why she thinks this type of alliance is crucial in any environment, particularly a large high school.
"I really left with such a positive impression that there was no negativity with this group at all about their attitudes toward leadership at the school and how they've worked to ensure respect for all," said Ray Johnson, Oak Park's first openly gay village trustee, who met with the group this May. "That's not to say [there aren't] some issues from time to time. Young people are young people and sometimes they make mistakes, but it's up to the adults to step up and mentor people when they make those mistakes and try to educate about why bullying is bad."
Johnson, a program manager of corporate sustainability at HSBC Bank, met with the Gay-Straight Alliance as a part of his employee resource group called The Pride Network. Being an openly gay man himself, he came to discuss various aspects of being "out" in the workplace. Expecting questions with a negative connotation, Johnson was pleasantly surprised and enlightened by how the students he met with saw advantages in being an LGBT in the workplace.
"There was this really interesting cross-section of genders, straight allies, and LGBTs all asking really provocative questions about what it's like in the real world to be 'out,'" he said.
In fact, Johnson stated that many companies like his are working to ensure that their senior executive levels are more diverse. This includes people of color and women as well as LGBTs.
Another thing the third-term trustee was happy to see was a good balance of straight members of the group. Some might plead that this means gays don't join the group out of worry or embarrassment, but Allison Channic, a straight member who just finished her junior year, dismissed that notion.
"There's definitely gay people who don't join," she said. "I think that for some odd reason they just don't want to do clubs in general or don't see it worth their time, but I don't think it has anything to do with being scared of associating with us. I definitely don't want to force anyone to join, but it's absolutely a great place for those who are maybe questioning themselves or uncomfortable with who they are to come and express themselves."
Aside from hosting meetings, forums and discussions, the GSA at OPRF played a huge part in the high school's involvement of the National Day of Silence. This is the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network's (GLSEN) action of encouraging students from all around the world to take a vow of silence for the day to protest the harassment of LGBTs. This year's date was April 20, and it was estimated that over 500 students at the high school participated. Gay-Straight Alliance sponsors Kyle Farley and Amy Stanis helped members of the group spread awareness about the event weeks in advance by offering a sign-up sheet, selling T-shirts and passing out pins and miniature rainbow flags to wear.
The group also hosts an annual event called "Adventure Night," where they invite similar organizations from schools in the area to join them in a series of activities and discussions. However, in the future students mentioned that they would like to see the club begin practicing more activism by putting on demonstrations, making appearances in events such as parades, and spreading more awareness.
Ray Johnson, however, feels the club is doing all the right things.
"What struck me I think was the Oak Park ideal of diversity, being representative of the widest rainbow you could think of for any class of citizens who too often are marginalized. It was their openness and honesty and respect for diversity that was a message to all the other students, as well as for me as a first time visitor, of real positive force and true equity — not just saying we want to be diverse, but working to celebrate that diversity."
After experiencing the students' level of engagement, HSBC Bank's Pride Network looks to return to OPRF to collaborate with the Gay-Straight Alliance to put on an event to celebrate National Gay History Month this October.