Advocacy has no age minimum. The ongoing battle for visible representation of LGBTQ+ folx is one being fought for by youth from all corners of the map. Elle Smith was a freshman in high school when they brought back their school’s Gender and Sexualities Alliance (GSA) club. Soon after, they founded the Central Texas GSA Coalition to tackle the issues many GSA clubs face—lack of resources, funding opportunities, and more. They chatted with inQluded about the power in raising your voice, teens in advocacy, and the importance of LGBTQ+ focused groups in schools.
You are the founder of the Central Texas GSA Coalition, a networking hub for Gay Straight Alliance clubs and other LGBTQ+ focused groups in Austin, Texas. From what need did the idea to create this group come from?
When I entered high school, I was a scared freshman and I was still figuring out how to navigate my sexual orientation and gender identity. I had read about GSAs online and I looked to see if my school had one. We did, but it had been dormant for about three years. Luckily, the person who was listed as the faculty sponsor was also my AP Music Theory teacher—shout out to Ms. Cardiff, you rock! She and I worked together to restart the GSA, and it didn’t take us long to get the club up and running again.
I have been the president of my school’s GSA for the last four years, and though we’ve gone through innumerable changes in membership and faculty sponsorship, the challenges have been relatively consistent. In our meetings, we would come up with great ideas for projects and events, but then nothing would ever happen. Our club was relatively small, so it was often difficult to raise money or to find a group of people who were willing to put forth the extra effort to execute various ideas. I talked to GSA friends from other schools, and I realized that many of them were having similar problems. I realized that if we established a larger base of support, we would likely be more successful in actually doing things, rather than just talking about doing things. It was out of this realization that the Central Texas GSA Coalition was born.
The Central Texas GSA Coalition provides support for a variety of necessities; from organizing fundraisers to paying for leadership training of club officers. After taking a look at the Coalition’s website, what stood out to me was that the group also contacts lawmakers regarding legislation which may affect LGBTQ+ folx. To what extent should we be emphasizing the importance of picking up the phone or writing a letter to your local lawmaker?
This is a complex question to answer. Engaging with lawmakers, school board trustees, and other political figures is important, and I would definitely encourage everyone to talk to those officials about issues they care about in whatever ways they are able. However, just writing that letter or just making that phone call or just attending that meeting will never be enough. We need people who are actually on the ground making changes happen, rather than just asking others to make change. The Civil Rights Act was not passed because people sent letters, it was passed because people caused disruption in their own neighborhoods that rippled out to create a national movement. If we hope to see a world in which structural violence and institutionalized discrimination will be distant memories rather than daily horrors, then we must work to change our culture, not just our laws.
I think we have a natural instinct to try to fix the systems and institutions that are broken, and the result of that instinct is that we build movements instead of waiting on others to do so.
Teenagers have become the new face of social movements such as climate change, gun control, LGBTQ+ rights and much more. Why do you think teenagers have found themselves in the front and center of these movements, and what do they bring to these causes?
Our whole lives, we have been told that we can do anything we put our minds to. Most of the time, that sentiment is directed towards career options, but we have applied it to social change as well. Additionally, we spend so much time on the internet, and we hear about the problems that various groups around the world face. I think we have a natural instinct to try to fix the systems and institutions that are broken, and the result of that instinct is that we build movements instead of waiting on others to do so. The fact that we are molding the world’s future is incredibly powerful, and the fact that we are so young means we are going to try to make positive changes that last, because we want to live our lives in a beautiful world, not a hellish dystopia. We are strong, passionate, and driven, and by bringing those traits to social justice, we ensure that real change happens.
Recently at a board meeting held by the Austin Independent School District, you advocated for an inclusive sexual health education curriculum to be added in schools, many schools offer limited to, sometimes, no sexual education—what difference would providing an inclusive approach to sexual health education make for students?
I got lucky with my sexual health education. My private elementary school taught us basic lessons about pregnancy and puberty, and I got other inclusive lessons from my parents and my church. However, the public middle school I attended taught abstinence-only, and my public high school does not have any sex ed. Some of my classmates have received little-to-no substantive education regarding consent, condom usage, STI prevention and treatment, or queer and trans issues, and that lack of information shows. Many of my friends lack an understanding of intersex issues, methods of STI transmission, signs of unhealthy relationships, and many other topics that are fundamentally necessary for a healthy life. An inclusive approach to sexual health education would help fill many of these gaps and reduce risky behaviors that are simply a result of ignorance. Additionally, information that describes LGBTQ+ people as the wonderful human beings we are would be enormously helpful for queer and trans students who don’t have accepting families.
What is your advice to students who would like to join a Gay Straight Alliance club but don’t have access to one in their schools? Where does one start?
There are two main options I would recommend: start your own club, or find another group in your community that does similar activities to a GSA. For instance, in Austin, there’s this amazing organization called Out Youth. It’s open to anyone between the ages of 12 and 18, and they have a Drop-In Center where you can socialize with other queer youth, plus, they have educational programming, art activities, counseling, and other services. Most major cities have similar organizations, so to find one, just Google “(your city) LGBT youth organization”.
However, if you don’t have access to any organizations like that, you can always start a club or find a community in your school. Here’s my step-by-step process for starting a GSA!
- Find your allies. You’ll probably need help to start a club, so it’s good to generate this network of support right off the bat. These could be other students, teachers, parents, administrators, or anyone else. If you don’t know of any allies already, there are ways to figure out if people are supportive. In conversations with friends or teachers, try mentioning something LGBTQ-related that happened in the news, or say something about a queer celebrity. If people react well, it’s likely that they’ll be supportive, and you can ask them for help starting a GSA.
- Look up your school’s rules for starting a club. If your school doesn’t allow non-academic clubs, then unfortunately, you probably won’t be able to start a GSA. Don’t worry though, you can work with your allies to find a place to have a club (maybe a park, library, or coffee shop) outside of school. If your school does allow non-academic clubs, look up the guidelines for starting and running one. Most of the time, this will be published on your school’s website. If you can’t find it, try asking a teacher or administrator.
- Follow all the rules. If your school administration sees that you’re putting a lot of work and thought into this club, then they might be more supportive. Every school is different, but my school, for instance, requires a mission statement, a faculty advisor, a regular meeting time, a minimum of five members, and an annual community service project. Create a document and list how you’re going to fulfill all the requirements. Make sure to proofread the document before giving it to whoever has to approve your club.
- Recruit people to join. Once your club has been approved, start finding more members.
- Run your club! It’s completely up to you what you want the goal of your GSA to be. You could focus on education, advocacy, socializing, or anything else! It can be helpful to write down the goal of your club so that you have a concrete vision for the things you want to do. You probably want to appoint officers as well, because it’s hard to do everything yourself. If you have trouble coming up with activities for your club, there are a lot of amazing resources online. Check out the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) for tons of activities, videos, and information. The national GSA Network also has a lot of amazing information. Check to see if your city or state has a GSA Network as well. For instance, Texas has its own GSA Network that’s separate from the national organization.
For many, high school was and continues to be a place of harassment for those who identify as LGBTQ+, what are your hopes for future students as more clubs such as GSA and organizations such as the Central Texas GSA Coalition continue to pop up?
My hope is that future students no longer need LGBTQ-focused support organizations. The reason we have these groups is because we face so much discrimination and harassment on a daily basis that we need a community to keep us from drowning. If the world changes so that discrimination is no longer a concern, then we will not need to band together on the basis of our identities. I hope that I live to see a world in which sexuality is no longer a barrier to success or happiness.
Our theme for this issue is love. What does love look like to you? What is love?
I’ve asked myself this question a lot, and I honestly don’t know. I don’t know if I’ve ever loved anyone or if I’ve ever been in love, and maybe I’ll never know. But, in the words of The Unusual Artist Ms. L.V. Hull, “Love is a sensation, started by a conversation, spread by the population, and hurts like an operation.”
Anything else you’d like to add?
Check out my Instagram: @e_kiomi
Visit my website: www.elleksmith.com
Learn more about the Central Texas GSA Coalition: www.ctxgsas.org
Interviewed by Andy Lopez