Bellevue West GSA holds conference, discusses LGBT issues and history



After weeks of planning and fundraising, the Bellevue West Gay Straight Alliance Club (GSA) hosted an unprecedented GSA Conference at Bellevue West on Saturday, Apr. 5.

“I was really glad with the turnout we had. We actually ran out of name tags to give to people, which was something we didn’t expect,” GSA President Renee Pineda said.

The event ran from 12:20 to 5 p.m., focusing on discussions with students about the various issues and histories of the LGBT community.

“Our initial plan was to get all the GSAs to meet together because that’s something that isn’t always done. And to really talk about how to bring equality to all the other schools,” Pineda said.

More than three dozen individuals, including students, faculty members and representatives from various LGBT groups were in attendance. Students from Bellevue East’s and Benson’s GSAs were present, along with several of Bellevue West’s GSA members.

The conference featured presentations by representatives from the Queer Nebraska Youth Networks (QNYN), Heartland Pride, and the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

Dr. Meredith Bacon, former Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Center of Transgender Equality based in Washington D.C., opened the conference with a speech about her experience as a transgender woman.

“I knew something was different when I was four,” Bacon said, who transitioned to being a female in 2005 and is openly transgender.

Growing up, she tried on her sister’s and mother’s clothes, played with “girl” toys, and looked at “girl” magazines.

Though she has spent 38 years in the Department of Political Science at UNO, Bacon only recently began working in the field of transgender rights, spending the last six years working towards ending transgender discrimination and guaranteeing legal protections.

The National Center for Transgender Equality defines transgender as, “a term for people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth.” A more inclusive list of the various terms and definitions related to gender is given by the National Center for Transgender Equality on their website.

After Bacon’s speech, the conference was divided into two sessions: The first session had the students and representatives meeting in various rooms to talk about advocacy in schools, LGBT issues in adulthood, and LGBT history; the second session discussed advocacy in the community, responding to bullying and gay marriage.

Some of the representatives’ presentations made use of survey data from various sources, including the 2011 GLSEN National School Climate Survey, which polled 8,584 students between the ages of 13 and 20 from across the nation.

According to the GLSEN National School Climate Survey, “81.9% of LGBT youth were verbally harassed (e.g., called names or threatened) in the past year because of their sexual orientation.”

However, the survey found that, “Students with a GSA were less likely to feel unsafe because of their sexual orientation than those without a GSA (54.9% vs. 70.6%).”

A panel of nine speakers concluded the conference, fielding questions and sharing further personal testimonies about their struggles and triumphs as LGBT individuals.

“This is a human rights struggle,” Vice President of Heartland Pride, Dominique Morgan, said.

Though representatives from GLSEN and QNYN presented statistics regarding the prejudice and bias faced by LGBT individuals, ultimately, as Dr. Bacon said, the most effective way for youth to change the minds of others is to share their personal stories.

“The best way to influence decision makers is to tell your story. Not to flood them with statistics, not to give them reams of data, but to look that lawmaker, that bureaucrat in the eye and say, ‘I’m lesbian. I’m gay. I’m trans,’” Bacon said.

Though many in GSAs around the metro hope for legislative reforms to protect them from discrimination, Legislative Bill 485–which would have added sexual orientation to a list of protected statuses in the workplace–failed to pass in the legislature on April 7.

Indeed, many LGBT individuals and allies feel more reform is needed.

“You have a huge challenge ahead of you,” Bacon said.

While success in the legislature has not come for supporters of LB 485, Bellevue West’s GSA is not deterred; the event’s planners say they hope to continue the conference.

“I think there’s a good chance we’re going to do one again next year–the students and the speakers and sponsors who I spoke to were all really excited about it, and we’re hoping that we can grow it,” club sponsor and English teacher Jody Petrow said.

Grant Harrison
Commentary Editor