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.