Queer experiences: a varied existence of both stigmas and safe spaces
Walking in the hallways, nonbinary freshman Kai Stevens* feels a sense of dread.
While passing outside the library, Stevens watched a group of boys with growing concern as they attempted to tug down the pride flags hanging to commemorate October, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) history month. After missing their chance and being forced to move along with the crowd, Stevens overheard the boys complain about not being able to pull the flags down.
Moments like these are why Stevens feels uneasy in the hallways. It’s not just Stevens, either. Nighteen percent of South students identify as part of the LGBTQ community, according to a nonscientific survey of 310 students conducted by The Oracle, and almost 76 percent of these queer students said that they have faced discrimination or hate based on their sexuality or gender identity. This type of discrimination can be very harmful, even if it’s not directed towards a specific person, Stevens explained.
“It made me feel unsafe that people were publically showing their disrespect for the community,” Stevens shared. “It’s mentally damaging knowing that I’ll never be truly safe when I publically come out.”
Like Stevens, senior Samantha Chambers* has felt targeted because of her sexuality. Chambers, who identifies as bisexual, had been harassed by one of her classmates after a summer school class, and feared that if she walked home alone, they would follow her and try to hurt her. After several instances of homophobia from the classmate, she went to her teacher, who made sure that she was comfortable in class and prevented any further harassment.
Despite this, the LGBTQ experience is diverse, explained junior Al Tantalidou, who identifies as nonbinary and a lesbian. They believe that some queer people have very positive experiences at South, while others encounter many negative attitudes. Tantalidou said that their experience at South has been positive, and most of the people they have encountered have been very accepting.
Similarly, senior Madi Graham, a lesbian, believes that the culture regarding the LGBTQ community at South is generally more supportive than the greater culture outside of the school. Chambers agreed, and said that many people in the building are very accepting, especially staff members. However, she said that many queer people at South still encounter hate.
“There’s still a lot of stigma,” Chambers said. “While I’ve always gotten a lot of support within our community, I’ve also experienced and seen a lot of terrible attitudes, actions, and ideas that are so harmful to the queer community.”
Likewise, while Graham has never personally experienced hate, she doesn’t think this is the norm for the LGBTQ community and counts herself lucky.
““I do know several people, including my sister, who have been called slurs,” Graham said. “It’s not necessarily a completely inclusive space.”
Chambers explained that this hate exhausts her, but she has found a safe space within the LGBTQ community at South.
“I’ve heard slurs thrown around; I’ve been frequently harassed, both online and in person; I’ve heard jokes about [being gay]; I’ve been disrespected; sometimes when I speak up and say that something is wrong, [the people I’m talking to] don’t get why [it’s wrong] and they don’t want to hear why,” Chambers explained. “On the other hand, I’ve also received a lot of support for speaking up. I find a lot of comfort in the queer community here at South, where there are people who can relate and share the struggle with me.”
Sophomore Jasper Fogel, a transgender man, has heard stories of discrimination at South, though he hasn’t faced any himself. However, Fogel believes that the administration is quick to deal with these incidents, and his experience at South has been a positive one, he concluded.
“I have seen some of the LGBTQ culture in the school,” Fogel said. “Every now and again you’ll see a [pride] flag put up. I think it’s important because [the LGBTQ community] gets bullied quite often for simply loving or feeling a certain way.”
Like Fogel, Matthew Bertke, Sexuality and Gender Alliance (SAGA) co-sponsor, believes that South is generally very accepting of LGBTQ students and staff, with safe spaces provided for them and allies. SAGA is one such safe space, Bertke explained, and advocates for LGBTQ rights within South. During October, SAGA celebrated LGBTQ history month through several projects, including a history wall, morning announcements discussing queer history, and club discussions.
Bertke explained that learning about LGBTQ history is incredibly important for both those within the community and those outside of it, because it shows what progress has been made. While Chambers agreed that real progress has been made, she also believes that there is more to be done.
“Marriage rights are not the end goal,” Chambers said. “The end goal is equal respect, opportunities, and not having to fear for our lives for being who we are.”
LGBTQ voices: important outside of June, October
Although the month of October allows LGBTQ history to be highlighted, many members of the queer community at South emphasized that this does not diminish the importance of representation and inclusion throughout the rest of the year.
“I think when you just take a month, it becomes a thing you do [once] instead of part of your everyday routine,” Bertke explained. “So, having [inclusion and acceptance] as part of your everyday routine shows kids that beyond October and June, we celebrate love and accept them for who they are. I think that’s really powerful.”
For Fogel, this sort of inclusion and acceptance can have a big impact, even if it’s shown in simple ways.
“I would love to see a lot of positivity towards those that are [queer],” Fogel described. “That would be enough for me, hearing positivity towards people loving other people. [Even] just acknowledging that we are valid would make everyone that’s part of the community happy.”
Graham also believes in the importance of inclusion throughout the whole year. Designating a single month to celebrate queer pride or history can feel inauthentic, Graham explained.
“Systemically we have decided certain people get a month, and during that month people show their support,” Graham described. “The second that month is over, all of [that] previous fervor is gone. I’ve seen it happen every year.”
This spurious support doesn’t just come from people either, it can also come from corporations, Graham explained. In what has colloquially come to be known as “rainbow capitalism”, these corporations show their support in small ways through June, pride month for the LGBTQ community, but stop once the month is over. This can include creating rainbow logos or products or changing social media campaigns, Graham described.
“It can all feel really performative,” Graham said. “[It is] used to make their company ‘look better’ because they are with the times.”
Making an effort to celebrate and include the LGBTQ community year-round is incredibly important, Bertke said, because it allows queer people to feel represented and see that LGBTQ people have contributed to society in many different ways.
“It is important for queer kids to feel seen,” Bertke explained. “To realize that queer people are everywhere and have been in every major field.”
Tantalidou explained that this representation helps empower LGBTQ people and validate their identities. Without it, a queer student could have a much more negative experience.
“If a student doesn’t feel safe, or [feel] like they can be themselves during school hours, it’s an incredible drag on their productivity and their performance as a student,” Tantalidou said. “[A lack of inclusion] can cause a lot of anxiety and stress in students when there’s already so much stress associated with high school.”
Additionally, including LGBTQ voices is important because it helps educate people who are not part of the queer community, Bertke said.
“It’s important for our cisgender heterosexual community to see the trajectory of LGBTQ rights in history, and understand that those are impactful voices,” Bertke said. “[It helps them] see that this community is just as good and just as hardworking and just as important as any other community.”
The presence of LGBTQ voices in discussions helps decrease hate, Chambers said. When it is done year-round, it normalizes queer identities and shows people that LGBTQ voices should be respected and taken seriously, she explained.
“We’re always going to be around, [even] if it’s not history month or pride month,” Chambers said. “No matter what, we are consistently facing danger just for being ourselves, and that doesn’t just go away when those celebrations are over. Just because we have equal marriage rights doesn’t mean that there aren’t very real dangers that come with the queer experience. A lot of people think queer people are a joke, and that the things we are sensitive to are really trivial, and that’s truly not the case.”
Although Bertke believes South is generally accepting of the LGBTQ community, he thinks there is occasionally a lack of inclusion of queer voices that can be remedied.
“There are pockets of very safe and very accepting environments in this building, but I still think that we’re seeing lots of heteronormative examples of boys and girls, and separating people to work by gender,” Bertke said. “I’m not saying it needs to happen all the time, every time, but we need to be more thoughtful as we’re including [LGBTQ voices] where we can, so that students feel represented and feel like they are seen in the curriculum.”
Like Bertke, Tantalidou believes it is important to make an effort to include the LGBTQ community outside of October or June, which is LGBTQ pride month. They said that if queer people are only included during certain months, harmful attitudes may persist throughout the rest of the year.
“There can’t be any singular month where you’re accepted,” Tantalidou said. “If you start feeling an outpour of love or support during a certain time but then not in other [parts of the year], then you’re going to start feeling excluded during other months. You can do a lot about informing others and working to make the other months more enjoyable during [June and October], but there needs to be an upkeep of it.”
Bertke emphasized that although there has been a lot of progress in the movement for LGBTQ equality, there is still a long way to go, and that the South community can contribute to that change.
“I came from a place that wasn’t very accepting, and I think that [South] is a very accepting place that is willing to move forward and willing to support [LGBTQ people],” Bertke said. “And it’s not perfect, but it is a place that wants to keep growing and keep moving forward.”
*Names have been changed