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New Gay-Straight Alliance takes a stand at FHS

Members of the Farmington High School Gay-Straight Alliance include (front) Kelsey Sharpe and Marcello Hunter; (back, left to right) Nicole Price, Shawn Tabor, Rikaya Wafford, Amanda Balke, Jessica Green and advisors Lisa La Rosa and Kim Sharpe.

The whole thing was a little weird at first for Marcello Hunter. His girlfriend, Kelsey Sharpe, has two moms, and he really didn't know how to process that.

"Meeting Kelsey's two moms at first. I didn't know how to feel," Hunters said. "Now it's no big deal. They're just Kelsey's moms."

Kelsey's moms, Kim Sharpe and Lisa La Rosa, get that. So does Kelsey. But it's okay, too, because Hunter is not alone in his experience, and that's why they're all members of Farmington High School's Gay-Straight Alliance.

The FHS GSA started last year under teacher Kari Simonsen. When she took a new job outside of the Farmington school district, Kim Sharpe and La Rosa stepped in to lead the group as advisors. Membership is small -- less than a dozen -- but they hope to change that by promoting tolerance and acceptance both in the school and in the community.

"It's scary a little bit, because we're in Farmington, and people are not exposed to a lot of diversity," La Rosa said. "It's hard to know what the level of acceptance is for us here."

The group meets after school Mondays to talk about all types of issues. The FHS GSA hopes to create a safe place for students who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. At the same time, it gives straight students who have friends or family who are in same-sex relationships a place to find, and give, caring and support.

The FHS GSA membership is made up of both gay and straight students from the high school. The members accept each other regardless of sexual preference. In this first full year as a club, the FHS GSA is trying to reach out to teachers and the rest of the student body in hopes of creating a safe place for all students.

One of the first things the group addressed was setting up a mission for the next year. That mission includes teaching students and staff about homophobia and oppression. It focuses on teaching acceptance and respect, but it also calls for the group to develop strategies to address discrimination, harassment and violence in the schools.

They've worked hard to share their message with teachers, and they have received support on that end, Kim Sharpe said.

"The teachers are really on board this year. We haven't had any negative experiences this year," she said.

Student Rikaya Wafford had an incident early in the school year when a new teacher mistakenly identified her as a boy. When the teacher realized the mistake and apologized, Wafford accepted the apology and put it behind her.

Finding understanding in the student body is different. One day, GSA member Jessica Green spotted another student tearing down a sign hung to promote an upcoming meeting. She confronted the individual, then hung the sign up again.

"It's irritating, the lack of acceptance," Green said. "It's not outright bullying.... It's just a lack of knowledge."

Finding the right way to react is one of the things the group talks about on a regular basis, La Rosa said. She and Kim Sharpe talk to the students about the difference between an "eye for an eye" response, and taking a more measured, mature response. Ultimately, La Rosa said, they encourage the students to look beyond the small incident, and focus on the bigger picture of how their responses represent FHS GSA.

"It's hard for the kids not to react to that kind of behavior, but it's also a chance for them to stand up and have a voice," Kim Sharpe said.

Day of Silence

The Farmington High School Gay-Straight Alliance will take its message into the classrooms on Friday, April 19, when they participate in the nationwide Day of Silence event, sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

Day of Silence was first organized in 1966, but became a nationwide movement in 2008. Its goal is to give students a chance to stand up for "safer schools for all, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression," according to its website. Students do this by not saying a word, all day long.

In other words, through silence, they're giving a symbolic voice to others who feel oppressed or who feel like they cannot be free to be who they are, for fear of retaliation, bullying or shame.

"We're trying to bring attention to the fact that there are people who are doing this every day," Green said.

"It's like we're walking in their shoes, that type of thing," GSA member Shawn Tabor added.

GSA members have ordered t-shirts, and they've provided literature about the program to the Farmington High School staff. Last year, they tried to participate but the staff did not know what the students were doing, so there were some hard feelings afterward.

Even Kelsey Sharpe, who comes home to two moms, had a hard time with last year's Day of Silence.

"I'll admit. I was really scared last year because of what people thought," she said.

They hope that by sharing the message ahead of time, more people at FHS will understand and support what they are doing.

The Day of Silence was topic of this Monday's FHS GSA meeting. What the group will address next is undetermined, but La Rosa and Kim Sharpe are optimistic for the GSA's future.

"It's hard to pinpoint where we'll go in the future. We wear kid gloves and take baby steps. We know it's a risk, but it's one we're willing to take," La Rosa said.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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