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McKinley flap puts popular Gay-Straight Alliances in spotlight

The small "rainbow" sticker on the door of Room 314 is a sign to all who enter that these confines are safe and inclusive and that no judgment will be cast.

It’s here, in Norman Duttweiler’s classroom at Hutchinson Central Technical High School on Elmwood Avenue, where once a week the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance meets. It is an after-school club for students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and straight individuals who support them. Seven or eight kids usually show up for an hour or so to hang out, watch a movie, plan events, play a board game or open up.

“It’s a place to be yourself instead of pretending to be someone else,” said Abraham, 14, a freshman new to the GSA. "You know you are different than everyone else and to be in a place where people are like you, it helps you come to terms with it.”

Gay-Straight Alliances, like this one at Hutch-Tech, have been around for years, but were thrust into the spotlight earlier this month when McKinley High School student Byshop Elliott sued for the right to start one there, claiming repeated attempts were either denied or ignored by school administration.

Byshop's experience at McKinley is far from the norm.

The reality is that the alliances have been growing in number throughout area high schools.

In 2006, only three or four existed locally, according to Gay & Lesbian Youth Services of Western New York. These days, the organization counts at least 63 around the Buffalo region.

The list of high schools with a Gay-Straight Alliance includes Akron; Amherst; Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts; Cheektowaga; Clarence; Depew; East Aurora; Hamburg; Kenmore East and West; Lackawanna; Lancaster; Leonardo da Vinci; Lockport; Williamsville East, North and South; and West Seneca East and West.

“Everyone here is comfortable with who they are, speaks frankly about it and no one judges them for it,” said Alexis, 16, a junior in the club at Hutch-Tech. “It’s a safe spot to talk about what you go through with people who are compassionate.

"It’s good to have this kind of environment in a school.”

The rise in alliance clubs can be attributed to a combination of factors, said Marvin Henchbarger, executive director of Gay & Lesbian Youth Services, which helps support the clubs and coordinates an informal network.

Henchbarger sees more young males and females who are identifying with the gender other than the one given them at birth. The clubs also complement the state’s Dignity for All Students Act, which was signed into law in 2010 prohibiting discrimination or harassment on school grounds or at school functions, Henchbarger said.

"There's absolutely a need for them," Henchbarger said.

Freshmen Sam, top, Aris, left, and Abraham work on T-shirt designs for the upcoming Pride Parade and festival during an after-school gathering of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Hutchinson Central Technical High School. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

That's not to say gay and transgender students still aren't being bullied at school, Henchbarger said, but having a Gay-Straight Alliance lets them know they're not alone – that there are people who care about them.

“That can be huge,” Henchbarger said. "It sends a real strong message to help weather the unkind experiences they may have during the day."

Hutch-Tech has been among the more active alliances.

Duttweiler, who is gay, didn’t even know what a Gay-Straight Alliance was when a student approached him in 2012 about starting the club at the high school and serving as adviser.

But over the years, he said, the club has provided its members the chance to discuss the many LGBT issues in the news or take part in “share sessions,” where they talk about what’s going on in their lives.

“We don’t really pressure the kids to identify themselves as gay, straight or transgender,” Duttweiler said. “It just gives them an opportunity to understand themselves with others who might share the same feelings.”

Meetings aren’t always so serious. They might include a movie or board games or team-building exercises. The students will organize outings or march together each year in the Pride Parade or travel to other schools for the annual GSA conference.

“And of course,” Duttweiler said, “you get more kids when you bring food.”

“It’s not a negative thing,” said Sam, 14, a freshman. “It’s not something people should be afraid of. It’s like any other club or group. It’s something kids can do together.”

Membership in the Gay-Straight Alliance at Hutch-Tech has gone up and down over the years, peaking at 46 students – both gay and straight, as reflected in the name – in 2015, Duttweiler said.

This year, there are about 15 students, including a core group of about seven or eight. There are other gay students in the school, but they're either not interested or busy, Duttweiler said. A few students have approached him privately, but aren't ready to come out.

Seven of the members, including Abraham, Alexis and Sam, strolled into Duttweiler’s room after the last bell around 2:45 p.m. on a recent Wednesday. The school year is winding down, but there is still business on the agenda, including the upcoming Pride Parade and the local Diversity Prom.

“Here’s a flier about it,” Duttweiler told the students. “I know at least two seniors planning to go.”

The group gathered around a table at the front of the room, where Duttweiler introduced Rodney Rodriquez and Kayla Bonner, two founding members of the club. He invited them to the meeting to talk about their own experiences and offer advice on how to grow the club.

Bonner is straight.

Rodriquez identifies as androgynous.

“Be loud,” Rodriquez told them. “Get people’s attention. Get out of your comfort zone, because it’s going to make your club a lot more attractive. Remind them what GSA started for, which is bringing people together – not just gay.”

The group chatted for awhile before getting up from the table and turning to preparations for the Pride Parade on June 4. They were designing decals they will iron onto T-shirts to be worn in the parade, when talk turned to McKinley.

The alliance students at Hutch-Tech have been following the story at the high school up the street and rooting for Byshop from afar.

“It’s 2017,” Alexis said. “Times are changing.”

For McKinley, too.

McKinley Principal Crystal Boling-Barton remains on paid administrative leave as the district continues to investigate the allegations made in the lawsuit. Officials, meanwhile, moved quickly to meet Byshop's request for a GSA.

McKinley, in fact, had its first Gay-Straight Alliance meeting on May 23.

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