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Tiverton High School Senior Starts School's First Gay-Straight Alliance

Tiverton High School student Cynda Martin uses her senior project to promote individuality and acceptance with the school's first Gay-Straight Alliance.

If President Barack Obama's March 10 antibullying conference is any indication, school remains a proverbial battleground for students. Gay students in particular face hardship in the hallways, according to a 2009 Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network survey which concluded 90 percent experienced harassment.

At home, senior Cynda Martin hopes to put a dent in these dire statistics with her newly established Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA)—the first in the school's history.

"I'm gay, and I have a lot of friends who are gay," said Martin. "With the bullying that goes on in schools today, especially for gay kids, it seemed appropriate to have a safe haven for them and their allies."

Ultimately, Martin hopes to show the school that its gay students are not "horrible people."

Martin's GSA could be the first step in achieving that goal if research holds true: In another GLSEN study, students attending schools that have GSAs were found 75% less likely to hear homophobic slurs. And with the growing national initiative against bullying, Martin's brainchild is just as instrumental for the Tiverton School Committee.

"We were completely onboard with the GSA," said Chairwoman Sally Black.

She went on to say that Martin's group, which was approved unanimously on February 8, serves as yet another component in the committee's no-holds-barred campaign against bullying. It is a campaign which she feels is one of the most progressive in the nation.

"Our harassment policy was among the first to include language on sexual orientation and gender identity," Black added.

Moreover, she considers the Tiverton High GSA a timely project with "April Friends Day" approaching, the national antibullying event on April 1.

Beyond Martin's intent to promote a safe environment for students, the GSA serves a dual purpose as her senior project—a graduation mandate of the Rhode Island Department of Education. With increasing national scrutiny of standardized testing, both Black and Martin's senior project advisor Peter Forrest point to the GSA as an example of the state's commitment to incorperating individuality into its curriculum.

Forrest, who is chairperson of the high school's English department, feels Martin’s ability to step out and assert this individuality is among the most satisfying products of his involvement with the GSA.

The once pathologically shy Martin would never speak in front of classes, but her new initiative required proposals to both the principal and school committee—two standard steps in establishing a club at the school.

"I’m proud Cynda had the nerve to start this, and that's one of the things I'm going to take away from this," said Forrest. "I have made suggestions to Cynda, and Cynda has made suggestions to me, but she's been the one to take the reins with this project."

However, his pride extends further.

"I'm also proud of everyone in this group for their willingness to come out and be supportive of each other and everyone else in the school," Forrest went on to say. He hopes it gives students the courage to be themselves, whoever and whatever that may be.

Each member of the group, which ranges from 10 to 12, and includes three gay students, all point to that support as one reason they keep coming back, and they hope their number grows.

"There are students who are in the school who at one point will want to talk to someone who is sympathetic," said Forrest. "The GSA is here for them when that moment comes."

Forrest also referred to his brother, a gay man who graduated from Tiverton High School in 1971, and marveled at the changing perceptions of society incited by groups such as Martin's. Every member of the group expressed similar personal ties to the cause—whether they were gay or knew someone who was.

"I have a friend who doesn’t feel comfortable coming out yet," said alliance member Melvin Harvey. He described the situation as "complicated," but feels having the GSA as a resource will facilitate an environment more conducive to openness and braving those complications associated with homosexuality.

Among these complications is the potentially divisive nature of the topic. A 2008 Gallup poll shows a nation evenly divided on the moral implications of homosexuality.

However, Martin said that the proposal process did not meet much opposition.

"It wasn't that hard," she said unassumingly, shrugging off a feat that couldn't be accomplished years ago.

Forrest recalled a past GSA attempt that encountered enough resistance to block it at Tiverton High.

But this resistance was not on the part of the school committee, who welcome the group. According to Black, there was no point during her tenure when a GSA was presented prior to Martin.

Regardless of the committee's enthusiastic backing of Martin, the GSA has not gone without some resistance.

"Some kids ripped down posters and petty things like that" said Martin, who credited her fellow GSA members with helping her every step of the way on her sometimes stressful journey. "They're all my 'right hands."

The group meets twice a week: Wednesdays in the school library and Mondays, minus Forrest, at her house.

"I'd go insane if I didn't have all of them," Martin added, referring to Forrest as her "best friend."

Among the collage of personalities that comprise Martin’s support group are other students like Selina Bouchard, one of the GSA's straight members. A transfer from Bishop Connolly High School in Fall River, MA, Bouchard praised the group for making her transition to a new school easier.

"Since we started this, we've all become a lot closer," she said. "Before, I barely knew Melvin, and now he is one of my best friends."

This closeness is due to the sometimes revealing nature of their discussions, as the not-so introspective places their conversations can sometimes lead. The group freely admitted that they have trouble staying on topic, but for those instances, member Robby Thibault is there to restore focus. The group affectionately refers to him as their "Doctor Phil."

"We're a family," said Martin.

It is perhaps the off-topic moments that illustrate this point best, as the group discussed the anxiety of navigating through senior projects amidst their agenda for that particular day: T-shirt designs for Day of Silence on April 15, a national solidarity event for the gay community. Bouchard's boyfriend refuses to wear anything from Savers, so alternative tees were chief on the itinerary.

Fashion "don'ts" aside, Martin did take a moment to reflect on her experience, which had its share of self-doubt.

"I hoped we would be successful, but I didn’t expect this," she said.

Martin plans to use her newfound confidence in similar ventures beyond Tiverton High, as she eyes the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth as the next step on her journey.

Though Martin's group was formed to satisfy the parameters of her graduation, she hopes that the group's lower classmen will take on the responsibility of continuing it when she takes that next step.

However, she promised that college will not be enough to sever the lasting bonds she has forged with her group.

"They'll never get rid of me," she said with a smile.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis April 02, 2011 at 03:43 PM
I'm not sure that I've ever been so proud to be from Tiverton - proud of the Tiverton Moms, and Tiverton Dads who posted, of all the students and community members, of Mr. Forest and Mr. Fezette and the countless teachers, of Mr. Rearick's article , and Representative Edwards'. Even more than students' initiative, the response to this group speaks to our town's character; with this great of a response, I don't think we have to worry about people like Rep. Gordon representing Tiverton again. (Mr. Rearick: http://tiverton.patch.com/articles/superintendent-rearick-suggests-rep-gordon-do-his-homework-before-commenting Rep. Edwards: http://tiverton.patch.com/articles/edwards-shocked-at-rep-gordons-comments-on-the-ths-gay-straight-alliance) Shelby Sullivan-Bennis THS 2005
RI Politics April 02, 2011 at 08:17 PM
Hey Cornholio - I am so glad you live in a fantasy world. I do not post as several people as you in fact have on EastBayRI.com. Chris Cotta, in case you didn't know, is the chairman of that budget committee you sit on. Although he is not your daddy, he should still have the responsability of asking his members to conduct themselves in an appropriate manner in a public forum.
Joe Sousa. April 02, 2011 at 09:21 PM
Brian Flicker. I never referred to this club as a "Sexual Meet-up group". In my day that was the school dance. hahah I also have family members that are gay. I saw with my own eyes the harassment they took from the other kids. One still lives here and the other moved to New york. Sexual preference is embedded in us at conception. We are born with genetic traits. Research on the human brain is showing some evidence of this. I am in no way saying I hold the answer. I only asked some questions and got some good answers
Robert Johnson April 02, 2011 at 10:43 PM
Joe Sousa. 6:04am on Wednesday, March 30, 2011 How quickly they turn to name calling when they can't support an argument. I said I felt the schools are the wrong place to express ones sexual preference. The ignorance is from those who accuse me of bigotry . I never said I was against citizens living the life style they chose. I said not in the schools . It distracts from their education . Joe, On Wednesday, "life style they chose." Today "sexual preference is embedded in us at conception." Epiphany or self-preservation? Bob
Robert Johnson April 03, 2011 at 01:33 AM
Uh Oh. I was checking out Dan Gordon's facebook a few hours ago. There was a link to something that looked interesting. After much searching, here it is: http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DbGQawBwyfG4&h=94720. Dan Gordon made chanel 10 news! His Facebook page has gone the way of his Alliance Building Contractors website. Gone.
Joe Sousa. April 03, 2011 at 02:15 AM
Robert Johnshill Many gay people choose to act strait to prevent rejection from friends and family . We all choose our own path in life and present our self as we wish other to perceive us. I watch a lot of PBS. The series on the brain several years ago was very interesting. Human nature fascinates me. Your compulsive behavior for instance.
Robert Johnson April 03, 2011 at 03:25 AM
C'mon, Joe. You can do better than that. Epiphany or self-preservation?
Michael Brown April 03, 2011 at 04:13 AM
You know, I expect that kind of pig-ignorance in my home state of Mississippi. What a shame to discover that people are the same everywhere. Is our state legislators learning?
Joe Sousa. April 03, 2011 at 11:39 AM
Thank you for your response selina.
Mike Mello April 03, 2011 at 12:48 PM
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bGQawBwyfG4 Please go to this website and watch the interview from Tiverton High School about State Rep Gordan and the Tiverton HS GA. Hopefully this will stay online here before 1 or 2 people flags it as many times before it gets taken off. Cut, paste and send to as many as possible.
THS Alum April 03, 2011 at 05:02 PM
The GSA is fantastic! I really do wish something like this was available to my classmates when I was at Tiverton High. I am overwhelmed by the religion based hatred and ignorance demonstrated by these "adult" representatives. The entire Tiverton community should be angered to the point of recall.
gale gabriel April 05, 2011 at 03:56 AM
The GSA is an extra curricular club. No more, no less. THS has many outstanding clubs and they all exist for a reason. The GSA is just one more. The Green Team, SADD, Math Team, Mock Trial Team, PEER Helping and others, each have a purpose, a goal. Seeing a group of students interacting, sharing and fulfilling a need is a reward in itself. Each and every group should be congratulated for their dedication,hard work, support and effort. So kudos to ALL the extra curricular clubs at THS!
Footwork61 April 05, 2011 at 04:29 AM
Mr. Sousa: The thing about most bullies (and later in life those who commit sexual harassment or abuse) is that they seem to be expert in finding targets. They don't bully kids who don't care or are likely to fight back. They seem to be able to hone in on kids who can be intimidated. Learning self-defense of some kind may give a child more self-confidence which, in itself, is a bully repellent, but it comes oh-so-close to blaming the victim. It's tantamount to saying that rape victims should learn to scream louder and scratch harder; or, that people wouldn't get robbed if only they had better locks on their doors and windows. Or, instead, maybe we could work on reducing the number of willing rapists and thieves? You also describe the act of people pretending to be straight so they can avoid harassment as being a choice in how they present themselves. Perhaps a more accurate way of stating it is that they are repressing who they really are. That is not psychologically healthy. I tried it for years (practicing mannerisms, the way I would carry my books, my speech, etc.) until a suicide attempt got me help to accept myself even though others around me mocked me and told me to my face they wished I didn't exist. Sometimes it's actually the less overt bullying that's the most damaging. Just my two cents.
Joe Sousa. April 05, 2011 at 09:35 AM
Footwork61 thank you for your thoughts. I wish you well in life.
courtney cassidy grade 10 April 05, 2011 at 08:37 PM
hi, my names courtney c. personally i feel rep. Gordon should not talk unless he has been the one that was bullied. in a respectful way mr. gordon i would like to ask a question and i feel i might deserve an awnser. have you ever in your life been bullied, not picked, bullied to go to school everyday and get beat up because you were different? i myself am striaght but i have a gay best friend and we shared the same expearonces of bullying. it is wrong and we know its wrong but i will tell you when i was little i was almost hopitilised for being builed and i will tell you i had no one that cared. i feel it is wonderful for the first time to feel safe in a school i do and to take away our funding not only takes away for our education it makes us feel unsafe. so my question is have you ever really turely been bullied for being diffrent?
Jim L April 07, 2011 at 12:35 AM
gloria christ so if you send 3 children to tiverton schools and by the 11th grade they cannot do basic science 2 of them can almost read and 1 1/2 of them can do math you are happy?are you serious?what future are you handing your kids? Could anyone as a parent be happy with this?Parents must help their children, but if they do it seems that as a town we set the bar way to low, aS A FATHER OF 3 KIDS WHO HAVE GONE THRY TIVERTON SCHOOLS opps sorry i find the bestv students get helped and the needy students get ignored, piss off one person at the high school and a price is paid, again this is not a guess but real life, to mant young and promising kids are ignored at the high school because they or their parents do not bend to mr reariks rules, and i do not ever recall a time when town has hired its principle to be it's superintenate as an expeerimentb it has failed, the proof is in the facts. i would thing you would want a better education for your kids, but if not just maintian the the goinging on now. i myself think i might have grandkids in the system so i'm working to change it now. it's to late for the kids there.
stoney larue April 07, 2011 at 12:46 AM
JimL. you think you might have grandkids in the system. That seems like the kind of thing that even you should be sure about. Why don't you just come out and say it, tell us what your axe to grind with Mr. Rearick is. You state that the student and parents due not bend to the rules. So because everything didn't go your way you can attack the school system as a whole. Jim what the hell is 1 1/2 kid. Maybe in this case the apple did't fall far from the tree.
Gloria Crist April 07, 2011 at 03:36 AM
Well, for starters,Mr. L, it is Crist-not Christ-but I appreciate the nod to a higher being- and it's Ms. Crist. This thread is about the launch of a progressive afterschool program that is long overdue. I support the GSA. I support schools that are progressive and free thinking enough to know civil rights matter-I applaud school staff who nudge our young adults to stand up for who they are and what they believe in. It is a given right-and part of the learning process that I would hope all schools would accept. Mr. L, if you would like to discuss education and test scores, I would ask you to re-read your sentiments to me and be thank-ful our school system has a variety of wonderful teachers who are not only providing an education-but assisting students in social services and extending learning outside the school day.
Denise April 07, 2011 at 01:31 PM
Ok, Mr. L....I will provide the opposite view point. I have 2 students who have gone through the Tiverton School system. The first, a very strong student, recieved her Bachelors and Masters' degrees on full scholarship at Salve. She is currently back there, on scholarship, working on her CAGS (a dgree between a Masters and a PHD). My second, has some learning challenges. She has just been accepted to Hollins Universtiy in VA (It was listed on the Princeton Review's best colleges in the Southeast list). Her weakeness are designed by nature. State testing will NEVER show her whole story or her true ability! Neither the teachers or the school can "fix" her; her brain is wired the way it is. What they have done is support her, encourage her and work with me to keep her on track. I'm willing to bet that for every negative there is a positive experience. Have there been bumps along the way; situations I wasn't happy about? Yes. But I would argue that, no matter where you go to school, that will be case. For example, I am a product of private school. My mother had issues with a teacher or two there as well. There is no perfect situation. However, Tiverton has served my children very well. I am proud of what they have both accomplished and forever grateful to the dedicated, caring, professional teachers who have helped them along the way. Mr. L. I am sorry your experience was not a good one. Mine, on the other hand, has been excellent!
Charlote April 08, 2011 at 01:22 AM
Hi Cynda, Just wanted to say that I think that what you are doing is just great, and all the best to you!!!!!! I hope my own kids have the same courage of their convictions when they are your age. And kudos to your faculty advisor too.
Katelyn April 09, 2011 at 01:27 AM
Dear Rep Gordon, I agree with a lot of what you are saying. Everyone here is stating their opinion and bashing you for stating yours. I used to go to Tiverton High School and I dropped out and got my GED because I was constantly being bullied and it wasn't because of my sexual orientation. There is very scarcely any gay bashing to begin with in the school, most of the harassment is to "fat kids" or "ugly kids", it's really not that the bullying isn't reported like asked previously, it's that the punishment isn't harsh enough for people to care enough to stop. I'm not against gay people in the slightest, I just don't feel like there is a need for a gigantic group with a controversy attached to it because a few people who have an alternate lifestyle want to find a place to converge. To all the time I've seen that sex wasn't mentioned I have heard from a reliable source who was at the meeting that this quote was mentioned at said meeting "I can't imagine kissing a guy never mind sleeping with one", if she (Cynda) said it how can she say it's not allowed? The group seems more like a straight bashing alliance than a gay straight alliance. I think if the school is going to make a group that is a haven to singled out bully victims it should be a group focussed on bullying it'self not one minority that the only time slurs are commonly thrown around is when a bunch of guys are together hanging out.
spinn April 09, 2011 at 07:46 PM
Katelyn: if you read the comments in order here, you'd see the reaction to the group started in a very supportive way, and there wasn't "a controversy attached to it" until an elected representative talked about removing school funding based on his own mistaken understanding of what the group was about. I don't think having such a group precludes any other anti-bullying group in the school. In fact I think people are using the anti-bullying idea a little too easily because it's trendy at the moment -- the group's more about helping different people get an understanding of what other people are like, and what's wrong with that? And I would be very surprised if the discussion of guys kissing guys was /not/ brought up in such a group. That kind of seems like the point. I think the stronger point is that this is not a group where kids go to get "sexed-up" as Rep. Gordon had said.
Katelyn April 11, 2011 at 01:43 AM
I think everyone is twisting his words, he said "And this is why if I have anything to say about it", that is not a threat, a threat would be "Get rid of the group or I will", There is nothing wrong with it I just don't feel like there should be a giant controversy about it. Bullying is trendy? Being gay is trendy, so many people in high schools are bi curious and don't know there true sexual identity, then there are people who are telling people "Well, hey, you might be gay!" and then they actually believe it and convince themselves for years that they actually are gay, being bullied isn't the trend, this is.
spinn April 11, 2011 at 02:29 AM
No, I mean, the whole "anti-bullying" idea is trendy. It's a big deal right now, and in fact I think it's clouding this issue. I don't think the GSA is an anti-bullying effort, I think it's just about helping people understand each other, which again I don't see a problem with. It's not a threat if it comes from some random commenter on the internet. It's a threat if it comes from someone who has the power to affect school funding. And his words weren't twisted, they were just dumb. He said the GSA is a "sexual meet-up group" where kids can get "sexed-up". That's clearly said by someone who thinks that being homosexual is primarily about having sex. Again: he created the "giant controversy". People were pretty supportive up to that point.
Robert E April 11, 2011 at 08:43 AM
Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in public schools The Federal Equal Access Act Student-led clubs in public high schools Sponsored link. Overview of the law: Most student-led, special interest, non-curriculum clubs must be allowed to organize in most U.S. high schools. Their right to assemble is usually protected under a federal law -- the Equal Access Act, (20 U.S.C. §§ 4071-74) 1 The law was originally heavily promoted by conservative Christian groups to allow students to organize religious clubs in public secondary schools. These are typically conservative Christian Bible study, fellowship and prayer clubs. One writer estimated that the number of Christian Bible clubs in high schools rose from 100 in 1980 to 15,000 by 1995. 5 The Equal Access Act was a major contributor to this increase. The Act affects much more than Christian clubs. Ironically, over opposition from the same conservative Christian groups that sponsored the law, the same legislation is now being used to support the right of students to organize gay/lesbian/bisexual support groups in those same high schools. The Act requires most schools to permit clubs of all religions, and none. Included might be groups which deal with Atheism, Goth culture, Heavy Metal music, Satanism, Wicca, other Neopagan religion, etc. School districts can opt out of the Act by not allowing any non-curriculum clubs.
LCRIUSA April 11, 2011 at 10:56 AM
Ah, the Rule of Unintended Consequences. Too funny. It's kinda like when blacks demanded equality in the 1860's. No, no, no. WE were created equal, not you people. All this for US, not you people. The road to equality has never been the easy one, just the high one.
BILL KELLY April 11, 2011 at 10:59 AM
You cannot say the word "Easter Bunny " in Tiverton schools. But we need a "GSA."
LCRIUSA April 11, 2011 at 11:16 AM
Bill honey, I'm sorry, there is no Easter Bunny.
John Martin May 02, 2011 at 11:15 PM
Cynda, This is your cousin, John Martin, and I am IMMENSELY proud of you! I can only imagine what might life might have been if I'd've come out at your age instead of living inauthenticity for 35 of my years here. You hold on to the fact that this is YOUR time here, you only get ONE chance at it, and in the end you will have to answer to NONE of the haters. I'm proud of you for stepping "out" into your authentic life so young! Carry on, my friend. John
Cathy Elliott Jones January 30, 2012 at 03:51 AM
This is all fascinating, and I recognize it is nearly a year after the fact. However, in the past month my path has crossed with Dan Gordon, and it's noteworthy to reflect on what was learned about Mr. Gordon after this controversy, i.e., being booted out of his own caucus for bullying behavior, followed by the revelation of his extensive criminal record, the jail time he served for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, his violence toward women, skipping out on pending charges, and lying about his military record. All of that is evident in his bullying, aggressive posts here, especially toward high school adolescents. I am an attorney who represents children with special needs, and I assume many of you are are aware that dogmatic, belittling homophobia has been scientifically linked to repressed homosexuality (see Roy Cohn). Reading between the lines, and considering the details of Mr. Gordon's life, perhaps he is merely envious that a GSA was not available to him when he was a troubled teenager. Cynda and other students who posted here are in college now; the legacy they left, however, is something for which Tiverton -- the community and the high school with its supportive staff -- should be very proud. As for Mr. Sousa: I don't know what track his political career has followed, but for a public school representative to advocate violence to combat violence merely confirms that his time has come and, thankfully, gone. I wish the community of Tiverton well.

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