Micah Lance graduated from St. Petersburg’s Dixie Hollins High in 2015, but one of his strongest memories remains his first meeting with the school’s GSA club.
GSAs (the acronym stands for “Gay-Straight Alliance” or “Gender and Sexuality Alliance”) have existed at Tampa Bay high schools for nearly a decade, helping LGBTQ students and allies socialize, organize and support each other.
For some, they’re powerfully formative. Being at home in high school was a source of constant ridicule, Lance said, even “straight up abuse.” There was talk of sending him to conversion therapy. That GSA meeting was the first time in his life that an adult, the club’s teacher-advisor, had taken his identity seriously.
“When she talked about her experience, and was using terminology that me and my peer group had been delving into as we were learning we were LGBTQ — even just hearing her refer to her partner as a ‘partner’ — it was the first time an adult had ever done that for me.”
Had it not been for the community Lance found at school, “I think I might have jumped back into the closet for a few years. I don’t think I would have felt like I could transition.”
When the coronavirus closed campuses and other in-person meeting places in the spring, advocates say LGBTQ students, especially those not supported at home, lost an important source of community. Some may have been forced back into unhealthy living situations.
For college students, it could be as dire as having nowhere to live, said Patricia Hanson, a doctoral candidate at the University of South Florida and president of No (LGBTQ+) Child Left Behind, which works to expose education students to the experiences people in the LGBTQ community had when they were in school.
Many people in the community, Hanson said, don’t come out until they reach college.
“When I was an undergrad, for example, whenever there was a holiday break there were always issues with students who had nowhere to go, or had to stay with other students,” Hanson said. “People would say, ‘Now that I’ve come out, I have nowhere to go after this semester'.”
LGBTQ youth represent as much as 40 percent of the homeless youth population, according to the Trevor Project, which offers free crisis counselors to LGBTQ youth by phone. “Being on campus is really important,” Hanson said, “and things like COVID-19 exacerbate that.”
It’s another wrinkle in the complicated calculus of reopening K-12 schools and universities, when safety from the pandemic must be balanced with other forms of wellbeing.
Tampa Bay-based Metro Inclusive Health and the LGBT National Help Center have both reported an increase in young people seeking their help since the pandemic started.
Sam Brinton, a vice president with the Trevor Project, said the volume of LGBTQ youths reaching out in crisis has grown significantly to “at times double our normal volume.”
On the flip side, distance learning has been a relief for some LGBTQ high school students, who research shows are more likely to be bullied, said Cole Foust, LGBTQ+ Division Manager at Metro Inclusive Health, a non-profit that works to provide quality health and wellness services that are inclusive.
But, Foust said, for many “school is the only place they can connect with friends, be around other LGBT people their own age and more importantly give them several hours away from a homophobic and or transphobic household.”
They don’t have the same options as adults, so “their life on campus is their universe.”
Foust said the situation has left some of the kids who take advantage of Metro’s programs feeling guilty for wanting to go back to school, because they are willing to take the risks.
Even with schools set to re-open, it won’t be the same place as before with social distancing restrictions and with some students, or their parents, opting for online classes.
Metro has tried to combat COVID-19 isolation by taking its four weekly LGBTQ youth groups online. On Tuesday and Thursday nights it’s a peer support group, and on Fridays and Saturdays it’s more about just being social.
It’s not a perfect solution.
Ren Joseph, a University of Central Florida student who took advantage of Metro’s in-person youth groups while growing up in a Tampa household with little support while facing bullying at Blake High School, noted how important they were for him to be able to “just be a teen and not worry about it.”
One of the first he attended was a Thanksgiving celebration for people who did not feel comfortable celebrating the holiday at home with family.
He said he’s happy Metro is continuing meetups online, but noted that some kids might not be able to talk openly at home on the phone or on video calls if they’re not out to everyone in the house — or if they’re worried their parents might hear them.
The Human Rights Campaign’s 2018 LGBTQ Youth Report found that while some students are open about their LGBTQ identity at school, only 21 percent are out at home.
Foust said some young people have to participate by typing in the chat only.
Still, all of the advocates and community members the Tampa Bay Times interviewed, even those who lamented the loss of in-person support, agreed that safety from the virus should be first priority right now.
A group of teachers for Pinellas County schools attended a virtual GSA Advisor Summit this month to share terminology, resources and just to network and share ideas.
One teacher who attended told the Times that many GSA advisors created accounts on Microsoft Teams to try to stay in touch with students when schools went virtual in the spring, and they planned to do something similar this fall if in-person extracurriculars are not allowed.
The advisor said GSAs help make sure kids know there are sympathetic adults on campus, and have helped facilitate that by selling T-shirts teachers can wear or by helping Equality Florida distribute stickers they can display in the classroom.
Research has shown that having a gay-straight alliance on campus can reduce the suicide risk for all students.
RESOURCES FOR STUDENTS, PARENTS AND TEACHERS
Equality Florida’s guide for parents and caretakers has tips and resources that can help families support LGBTQ children.
The Human Rights Campaign has several checklists, including a Checklist For a Welcoming and Inclusive School Environment, and a Checklist to Support LGBTQ Students During Distance Learning.
The Trevor Project offers services 24/7, including its social media site TrevorSpace, “the world’s largest affirming community for LGBTQ young people today.”
If you or someone you know is feeling hopeless or suicidal, contact The Trevor Project’s TrevorLifeline 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat every day at TheTrevorProject.org/Help, or by texting “START” to 678-678.
The also offer a guide to being an ally to transgender and nonbinary youth.
To sign up for youth programming through Metro Tampa Bay, visit metrotampabay.org/community/virtual-programs/.
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