Now a presence in schools across North America and the world, the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) had no model when it began 30 years ago at Concord Academy. During a yearlong celebration of CA’s foundational role in LGBTQ history, we look back at the GSA’s genesis.
Kevin Jennings (purple shirt) with a group of CA students and recent alumnae/i at the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. Jennings still has the photo on his wall.
Kevin Jennings will always remember Thursday, November 10, 1988. It was the day of his chapel talk, the day he, a young history teacher at the time, came out at CA. Jennings went on to found GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network), the leading organization working to create safe and inclusive schools for LGBTQ youth. A prominent author, educator, and administrator, notably in the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools during the Obama administration, Jennings now directs the Tenement Museum in New York, which educates Americans about the role of immigrants in building the nation. Throughout his career, he has worked to improve life for the marginalized and persecuted.
“My chapel was a catalyst for the GSA,” he says. “I think my coming out created the space and gave the permission for LGBT topics to be addressed more directly at CA.” What follows is the story of one of the first Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) and of the foundational role of Concord Academy in the LGBTQ youth movement.
Allyship animated the GSA from the start. Days after Jennings’ chapel, a freshman came to his office wanting to start a student club to fight homophobia. Jennings was surprised; he didn’t know Meredith Sterling ’92, who says she was “pretty visibly straight.” She was not open about the fact that her mother was a lesbian, and she was overhearing comments that bothered her. “For me, it was about being absolutely invisible,” she says. “I felt complicit. I wanted people to say this stuff to my face so I could stand up and say, ‘I’m not part of this.’” Though it hadn’t crossed his mind that someone straight could feel that passionately about inequality, Jennings saw the depth of Sterling’s commitment, recruited straight faculty to join them, and the GSA was formed.
There were no models to draw on. “It was lonely,” Jennings says. “We were breaking new ground. It’s hard for people who weren’t alive then to understand how different things were 30 years ago.” In 1988, only one state, Wisconsin, banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. Just 15 years after the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses, same-sex relationships were still criminalized in a third of the United States. In mainstream media, gay people were stereotyped as sexual predators and feared as carriers of disease.
“In some ways, GSAs had their moment then because older gays were dying or taking care of the dying,” says S. Bear Bergman ’92, among the first CA students involved in the GSA. “I had some support from older LGBT people for coming out when I was 16, but lots of my peers didn’t. That generation of would-be mentors was embroiled in the AIDS crisis.”
The GSA acted as a support group. “It was valuable to see where others stood,” Bergman says. “The big difference, for a teenager, was between thinking everything would probably be fine and seeing that everything would be fine.” He describes CA at the time as progressive, with a “strong mandate around social justice.” As a minority Jewish kid, though, he was used to using humor and a theatrical streak to explain religious holidays. When he encountered opinions about LGBTQ people based in ignorance, he “pivoted without much difficulty to education around queer stuff,” he says. As a student, Bergman testified before the state legislature on behalf of the Massachusetts Safe Schools Program, the first of its kind. Now an author, educator, and performer, as well as the founder of an LGBTQ-positive children’s book publishing company, Flamingo Rampant, he has made LGBTQ education his life’s work.
“We were breaking new ground. It’s hard for people who weren’t alive then to understand how different things were 30 years ago.”
– Kevin Jennings,
former CA history teacher
and founder of GLSEN
Bergman is proud of his involvement in the GSA and the fact that colleges, high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools across North America now have them. Still, he’s frustrated by opposition to bills requiring GSAs to be allowed in public schools. “These are recent laws,” he says. “I’m aggravated that we’re still having the same argument.”
Given the climate of the time, there was some trepidation at CA around the founding of the GSA. “It was not an unqualified welcome,” Jennings says. “There was a fear that it was risky, and that the school might be in danger.” Early concerns proved unfounded. And Jennings had the courage of his convictions. He had decided to come out after referring a gay student struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts to counseling. “I realized that by remaining closeted, I was inadvertently confirming that being gay was something to be ashamed of,” he says, “and I didn’t want to do that anymore.”
Jennings was just 25 when the GSA began. “I was headstrong, fiery,” he says. “I’m sure I was not the easiest person to manage or work with. But I appreciated that there was room at the school for me to be myself. That’s one of CA’s great strengths. Most schools are about conformity; CA is about individuality. I know my story wouldn’t have been possible at many other schools. I got to be part of making history, and I am so grateful to the CA community for affording me that opportunity.”
“Like a lot of movement leaders, Kevin was uncompromising,” Bergman says. “It’s clear now that no other attitude would have accomplished the same thing.” He and Sterling both recall the energy of the first retreats with GSAs from other schools, some of them still secret groups at the time. “That’s when the GSA really blossomed,” Sterling says.
English teacher Nancy Boutilier is a faculty mentor for CA’s GSA today. As a young teacher at Phillips Academy Andover, she was involved in the GSA there, which began in the same year as CA’s, and in GLSEN. “It clearly was the right time,” she says. “It was bubbling up at different places. The 1980s were a time of silence and invisibility. GSAs allowed kids who were questioning to attend meetings and not feel stigmatized. The forging of this model was an enormous game changer, and CA was a pioneer.”
A few years ago, CA students renamed the GSA: It now stands for the Gender Sexuality Alliance. “That gay-straight language was really important at the time,” Boutilier says. “Times change, though. To students today, that sounds so binary.”
As a historian, Jennings isn’t surprised by the outsized role students played in creating social change. “Young people are the ones responsible for most of the great changes in history,” he says. “When you’re young, you’re idealistic and not yet jaded or disillusioned. You’re convinced of your invulnerability and immortality.” Jennings refers to Harvard sociologist Charles Willie’s theory of the necessity of a “courageous push” from the marginalized being met with a “compassionate pull” from the privileged who stand with them. “The GSA is one of the best examples in history of that compassionate pull happening,” Jennings says. “For any historic change, you need both sides.”
Read more about S. Bear Bergman ’92, who returned to CA to tell stories at a Community and Equity assembly in September. Read more about Kevin Jennings, who visited the CA community for two talks on November 15.