The Hill Freedman World Academy's GSA in its second year, from 2016-17

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In high school, Chayla Smith lived a double life. At her West Philadelphia home, she was the busy teenager who arrived late every night thanks to a two-hour commute after volleyball practice, band rehearsals, or model UN meetings.

At her Northwest Philly school, Smith had another identity: founding president of the gender and sexuality alliance, or GSA. She was queer and out to her entire academic community, but no one at home knew.

“My personal life and my school life were completely different,” said Smith, now a 21-year-old college senior at West Chester University. When she was attending GSA meetings, “all the teachers knew that if my mom asked, I was just at band.”

Fortunately, Smith had a supportive community to fall back on. The Hill Freedman World Academy GSA met every week under the leadership of a queer teacher. They talked about their feelings, and their evolving teenage identities. They held events and fundraisers. Every year, the adviser took the kids to Center City’s OutFest and Pride events.

Smith says the group made her the person she is today.

“I would not be this way without the GSA,” Smith said. “These were the moments leading up to me finding power within myself and my identity. It built me up, especially as a Black queer woman.”

In Philly, these LGBTQ groups not only provide a safe space for queer and trans kids to figure out their identity, they also encourage support from school administrators, and make allies out of straight students. Teacher-advisers told Billy Penn the group discussions also helped heal their own old wounds.

With the benefits almost universally recognized, why are there only 12 gender and sexuality alliances listed in the School District of Philadelphia?

A spokesperson told Billy Penn there are more, but couldn’t provide an exact number — and wouldn’t elaborate on why GSAs are listed at just 5% of the 215 schools in the district.

Teachers and students told Billy Penn that with more support, they think GSAs would flourish.

“It’s not just gay kids sitting around together,” said Alisha Hagelin, an art teacher who runs the GSA at George Washington High School in Somerton. “I feel like it would not take much to put together something that gives a structure for schools to work with.”

This year’s GSA at Hill Freedman World Academy Credit: Courtesy June Freifelder

District-wide GSA council coming?

Queer youth contemplate suicide at a rate three times higher than heterosexual peers, and GSAs can be hugely impactful, said UPenn Graduate School of Education professor Mike Nakkula, who included a chapter on them in his book “Understanding Youth.”

“Being closeted and hiding are major risk factors,” Nakkula said. “Creating spaces in schools where students feel like they have a chance to voice their concerns, that’s a critical developmental act.”

Previously known as gay-straight alliances, GSAs were first developed roughly 30 years ago, Nakkula said — but they weren’t popularized until years later, and they still aren’t universal.

When Eros Nguyen, 16, came out as nonbinary during their freshman year at the Academy at Palumbo, they experienced constant misgendering that left them with intense social anxiety.

Though the school’s GSA had waned after the upperclassmen who ran the club graduated, Nguyen banded with a few of their LGBTQ friends to bring it back.

“Freshman year, even though I knew other queer people were in the school, it was so frustrating because I was continuously feeling like I was being isolated,” said Nguyen, now the club’s president. “[The GSA] definitely does make it easier. It helps because I have people there for me.”

A senior at Hill Freedman World Academy, Andrea Rogers didn’t join her GSA with big goals like that. At least, not at first. “I originally joined the GSA to get a girlfriend. It didn’t work,” she said. But like other students, Rogers found a well of support and community she wasn’t expecting,

Hill Freedman World Academy students at OutFest in 2018 Credit: Courtesy June Freifelder

Even if they want a GSA at their school, actually getting it is another story.  Usually a student has to ask for it to be started — not always easy if they’re battling homophobia.

“There’s somebody in every single one of them schools that need the outlet,” said Jess Soriano, a former GSA president and George Washington grad. “I think it would be perfect to be in every school. There would be less fights, less killings.”

Asked why so few Philly schools have these supportive groups, school district spokesperson Monica Lewis did not directly answer, but insisted it’s a priority. She said there are more than the website shows and that the district is “in the process” of updating it with the correct number — but couldn’t provide that information.

School officials have made some recent strides. During the pandemic, they partnered with Big Brothers Big Sisters to offer a district-wide, virtual GSA.

Lewis also said they’re working on forming a GSA Council to lead gender and sexuality work throughout the district. It’s unclear when this will come to fruition and what its goals will be.

George Washington High School’s GSA Credit: Courtesy Alisha Hagelin

To make GSAs more common, UPenn researcher Nakkula recommended the district seek out advisers who are doing it well already and develop best practices based on their work. Teachers echoed that sentiment, suggesting the district keep up-to-date information on its website — not just a list of the schools that have them, but also guidelines for how to run them.

Students think there must be district-wide awareness that groups like this exist. It could make all the difference, they said, for a teenager who’s struggling.

Many LGBTQ teachers say they never had the opportunity to find this kind of support.

“I don’t know if there’s vindication,” said Ron Paulus, adviser for the Palumbo GSA, “but there’s certainly a sense of, ‘I suffered through this 40 years ago when I was in high school so that you don’t have to.’ I’m using the pain I experienced to try to lessen yours.”

Members of Hill Freedman World Academy’s GSA at OutFest in 2017 Credit: Courtesy June Freifelder

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...