Understanding QSA History at Acalanes

Stella Heo and Aisha Mohanty, Staff Writers

// The history of the LGBTQ+ community represents a history of standing proud in the face of adversity. Although high schoolers throwing out “that’s so gay” in the hallway is not as severe an offense as notorious cases of prejudice such as the Stonewall raids and the assassination of Harvey Milk, the two still send a clear message: “You are not welcome here.”

   The Acalanes High School’s Queer Straight Alliance (QSA) club faces homophobia even in a relatively progressive age and area; nonetheless, the group continues to combat hate while providing a safe haven for LGBTQ+ community members and allies.

   Several events throughout history moved the LGBTQ+ community forward to where it is today, setting the stage for the creation of QSA.

   The most infamous anti-LGBTQ+ event in United States history was the 1969 Stonewall Riots, in which police violently dragged customers as well as employees out of Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village New York City. The police had already arrested Stonewall employees the Tuesday prior and hoped that another, more severe, raid would shut the bar down permanently. In response to both attacks, nearby crowds rioted against police by hurling pennies and bottles towards them. Stonewall became a watershed event for the LGBTQ+ community as it brought queer issues into the mainstream. 

   The move towards LGBTQ+ rights continued in 1973 after the American Psychiatric Association’s board of directors removed homosexuality, previously considered a mental illness and the cause of HIV/AIDS, from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

  Another turning point took place in 1998 when Rita Hester, a transgender African American woman, was murdered in Allston, Massachusetts. This crime inspired the “Remembering Our Dead” web project and the first international Transgender Day of Remembrance, which QSA celebrates yearly. 

   “We try really hard to publicize this event, but we normally get around five people holding vigil with us. Around 20 minutes before school, we stand near the flagpole and somebody, normally me, reads the list of all the trans women who had been murdered in the previous year. This list is always depressingly long. It really makes you think about all the violence trans women, especially trans women of color, have to face,” senior and QSA Secretary Stephanie Liu said. 

   Perhaps the most significant change in the course of LGBTQ+ rights came when the Supreme Court officially legalized same-sex marriage nationwide on June 26, 2015. The 50 states are legally required to allow all Americans to get married, regardless of sexual orientation. 

  While this social progress was unfolding at a national level, the same developments occurred on a smaller scale at Acalanes. The high school advanced with the nation as it created Project 10, an open space for LGBTQ+ students and allies, in 1996. 

   What students know today as QSA was once Project 10, a name coined after a statistic at the time that showed 10 percent of Acalanes students identified as LGBTQ+, dealt with homophobic attitudes and hate.

   “[Some students wrote] nasty names on the sign-up sheet, gathered around and stared at us, [or] spit out their coke when we raised the gay flag,” 1996 Vice President David Smith informed Blueprint.

   But the harassment did not stop here. Project 10 also faced homophobia from students in the form of vandalism and physical violence. 

   “There were some hate crimes when they spray-painted straight pride on my classroom window and tore down the rainbow flag a few times, and kids were getting punched and spit on in the hall, and it was pretty ugly for a while,” QSA advisor and English teacher Erik Honda said. 

   The backlash and other homophobic comments made members fearful for their safety.

   “A lot of the homophobia at Acalanes was more subtle. There was one instance where I had to grab Mr. Honda’s rainbow flag for a QSA event. I heard this group of boys use the f-slur,” 2016 QSA President Lia White said. “I immediately tucked the flag into my arms so they wouldn’t see it when I walked past them…that one word immediately made me feel so scared.”

  In previous years, people used physical abuse to portray their hatred for the LGBTQ+ community. Although physical violence is no longer prevalent and Acalanes is now more accepting, homophobia still exists on campus.

   “Any homophobic incidents I’ve witnessed on campus have been instances of misplaced microaggressions. People will call something ‘gay’ or use the f-slur, and I think it comes from a place of misunderstanding. People don’t often think about the denotation of those words, which is where the issue lies,” senior and QSA member Jane Gundacker said.

   Homophobia manifests itself more covertly, through nonviolent means such as social media posts and microaggressions. 

   “There’s obviously still homophobia on campus. You see first-hand examples, mostly social media stuff. They’ll come in and say, ‘Oh, can you believe what this person wrote?'” Honda said. 

   Honda recognizes the hardships the members face and noted that homophobia would be harsher — given it is more personal — for the students than for him.

   “It would have been different if it was a gay teacher running it or something like that. I don’t remember finding [homophobia] being terribly intimidating. I was just like, whatever. I was more worried for the kids because they were intimidated, but they were being brave already,” Honda said.

   “I always saw QSA as a group of ‘liberal special snowflakes,’ and there are one or two every now and again, but I think people should realize that QSA members are as stressed out by math homework as any conservative students on campus,” Gundacker said. “QSA isn’t just for queer students, but a place for all students to talk about queer issues and become more informed.”

   Some members of QSA believe that administration should have done more to support QSA and queer students.

   “I remember one time a professor who I considered to be accepting used a trans student’s dead name in referring to a past event. It wasn’t malicious at all, just used in ignorance, but those are the types of things the administration needs to be proactive about,” White said. “Teachers should be fully trained and aware of the different ways they can help LGBTQ+ students feel more comfortable at school.”

   While current members are more mixed on their opinions regarding the administration’s role, some agree that the administration should be doing more.

   “I think that if the school administration became more involved in pushing an agenda of respect, Acalanes would be much better for students struggling to embrace their sexuality or gender identity,” current QSA President Helen Kleinsmith said.

   To help Acalanes students better understand the LGBTQ+ community, QSA teaches freshmen LGBTQ+ terms and queer issues. However, the club received backlash in 2015 from news sources such as Fox News and Breitbart, who accused QSA of pushing the LGBTQ+ agenda on students and violating freedom of religion. 

   “We had a lot of nasty online comments coming our way from both the Acalanes community and people across the U.S.,” White said.

   A multi-year goal for QSA has been implementing gender-neutral bathrooms.

   “We tried to propose gender-neutral bathrooms multiple times but were always shut down. I think that was one of the most disappointing things about Acalanes’ treatment of its queer community, was the administration’s inability to see how beneficial gender-neutral bathrooms could be to students,” White said.

   Administration is hesitant to implement gender-neutral bathrooms out of fear that cisgender students, or those that identify with their assigned gender at birth, will abuse them, according to Liu. Admin is also concerned that converting teacher bathrooms to gender-neutral bathrooms would be problematic since there are no stalls, and it would be harder to help if something were to happen to a student in the bathroom.

   “I get why the school might not want to put gender-neutral bathrooms out publicly because of cisgender people using it to do drugs. It’s totally unfair. Gender-neutral bathrooms should be limited to people who identify with transgender, non-binary, or whatever they identify with except for people who are cisgender,” junior Ryland Nella said.

   QSA also feels the impact of assigned stigmas and stereotypes, which sometimes make students hesitant to join the group and its initiatives.

   “In my opinion, most of the Acalanes community was confused as to what QSA actually was. A lot of people were like, ‘isn’t that just for gay people?’ when I told them they should join. There were some people who seemed to treat the club as a joke because gay people were in it, but those people were rare,” 2016 Vice President Natalie Ayala said.

   However, QSA members do not view the club as exclusive for queer students and welcome all interested members. QSA is meant to be a space not just to discuss queer issues, but also to create a space where people can be comfortable as themselves. 

   “I lost a lot of my friend group and felt really alone. One of my friends in QSA told me to come sit with them at lunch and I ended up becoming really close with all of them! QSA ended up becoming my second family at school, and everyone in the club was always so welcoming and friendly,” 2016 QSA Treasurer Natasha Singh said. 

   QSA works with the Gender and Sexualities Alliance (GSA) Network, an organization that empowers trans, queer, and allied youth leaders. 

   “It’s always super important and just make it known to everyone on campus that queer people are here and they’re not going anywhere,” GSA Network’s Northern California Regional Organizer Cielo Flores said.

   Similarly, some queer students at Acalanes want others to understand that queer students are still regular humans and should not be treated differently.

   “Just let people live because at the end of the day, whatever your personal beliefs are, people should understand that everyone deserves basic kindness regardless of sexuality,” junior Aliye Wingate said.

Copy Editor Stephanie Liu and Arts Section Editor Anne Thiselton-Dyer contributed to this article.

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