By Lara Sokoloff
After the recent suicides of gay teenagers across the country, the Gay-Straight Alliance is raising awareness and showing support for gay students through a wishing tree in the quad , club adviser and Visual Arts department head Cheri Gaulke said.
On Oct. 3, a 30-year-old man and two male teenagers were kidnapped and harassed in the Bronx by a group of nine young adults, better known as the Latin King Goonies, the New York Times said last Friday. After the gang forced both teenagers to admit to having had sexual encounters with the older man, gang members forced one of the boys to attack the man as they stood by cheering and shouting gay slurs. New York City officials and the police called it “the worst antigay case in recent memory,” the New York Times reported.
The incident followed multiple gay suicides as a result of bullying and harassment by their peers. Seth Walsh, 13, of Tehachapi, Calif. hung himself in his backyard last month, unable to live with the constant taunting and abuse from his classmates. Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University, jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate live streamed a video of a sexual encounter of him with another man in his dorm room. Billy Lucas of Greensburg, Ind., 15, hung himself after facing relentless criticism at school. Thirteen-year-old Asher Brown of Houston shot himself after perpetual harassment by his classmates.
Harvard-Westlake was faced with its own harassment case last May when an anonymous homophobic threatening note was left in an openly gay student’s backpack. The incident led to the revival of the GSA, which held a large meeting in response to the note to spread awareness and rally support.
Club member Anders Villalta ’12 felt strongly that he had to do something in response to the tragedies and approached club presidents Danielle Strassman ’11 and Gabe Benjamin ’11 to ask for suggestions as to what he should do.
Visual Arts teacher and club adviser Nancy Popp and Gaulke were inspired to adapt the tradition of a wishing tree after seeing it at a Yoko Ono concert recently, Gaulke said. The traditional wishing tree commemorates a Japanese summer holiday. Participants are to write their wish for the year and hang it on the tree, creating a visually stimulating symbol, Benjamin said.
“None of us knew these students who committed suicide,” Gaulke said. “But, their actions are heartbreaking. Each of us wishes we had been there for them, to tell them it’s okay to be gay.”
From far away, the pieces of paper hanging on the tree give the illusion of the tree blossoming; from a closer perspective, the papers become clearer and it morphs into a supportive pledge tree, Benjamin said.
“We all know someone who identifies LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth] and so we all know someone who has suffered discrimination for identifying [as] LGBTQ,” Popp said. “As our school community understands this, they will decide to sincerely contribute to the tree, and it will really ‘blossom.’ It’s a true human ‘family tree.’”
Students pledged their support on pieces of paper provided by the club; on one side, students dedicated their pledges in memory of a friend, family member, or one of the teens that have recently taken their own lives. On the other side, they wrote a pledge, such as, “I will not use anti-LGBTQ language or slurs. I will intervene, if I safely can, in situations where students are being harassed. I will support efforts to end bullying and harassment,” Strassman and Benjamin said in their plan submitted to the Planning Committee on Friday.
The club said it hopes that the tree provides students with the opportunity to express themselves in an open and public way and to spread awareness about the suicides.
“We hope it allows students to see things outside of the Harvard-Westlake bubble,” Strassman said.
“It’s a nice symbol that allows the campus to come together in support of the suicides,” Benjamin said.
Gaulke added that a primary goal of the tree is to ensure that this sort of “senseless death” does not happen again, not at Harvard-Westlake or anywhere else.
“I hope that the act of declaring one’s own intentions will be a powerful reminder to members of our community that each and every one of us can make a difference, that our acceptance and support of LGBTQ youth is a life-saving gesture,” Gaulke said.
Representatives from the GSA spoke to junior and senior class meetings on Monday and Tuesday to inform them about the tree. The club members explained why the club is planning to set up the tree, and also emphasized the gravity of this issue.
Oct. 18-22 is National Ally Week. According to allyweek.org, Ally Week was created to unify the work of Gay Straight Alliances all over the country by encouraging students to ally against bullying and harassment in schools. In honor of Ally Week, the GSA is encouraging students to wear purple on Oct. 20. Because October is LGBTQ history month, the club hoped to plan a week-long event featuring speakers and increasing awareness, Strassman and Benjamin said.
Dan Savage, a columnist based in Seattle, has started a YouTube channel titled “It Gets Better,” featuring gay adults who tell their personal stories about how their life has drastically improved since their teenage years.The channel is designed to instill a sense of hope in bullied teens, that despite the hardships that they are forced to endure now as openly gay teens, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, Savage said in The New York Times on Oct. 3.
“This will be a beautiful and powerful symbol of the commitment we have to celebrating our students,” Benjamin and Strassman said.