By Jeff Walsh
In Madera, California, high school students fought the administration for two years to start a Gay Straight Alliance. Today, after working with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and GSA Network, the school board agreed to allow the club to exist. Oasis spoke this afternoon with Thalia Arenas, the senior who serves as president of the GSA:
Just saw the news today so wanted to say congratulations. How long has the GSA been together?
We started in second semester of sophomore year (2005), trying to get it started. We were unsuccessful at the high school, because they told us it would take up to six months to approve it. We were discouraged, so we decided to take it to the Pan-America community center and they said, 'if you want to meet here with your friends for this club, it's fine.' They were OK with it. So, that's where we basically started.
Now, it has about six members, because it's hard to be out and open here in little Madera. I think that's where our activism started. Later on, we found out about the GSA Network, and they gave us information and resources on how to get started. And we felt empowered, because they told us 'We know you can do it,' they were just really helpful. They said, 'We have all the resources, if you guys need anything, just contact us. They're supposed to let you have it.'
So, we decided to go back to the high school and bring up the idea of starting up the club again. And we sent all the paperwork in, but then there were delays. They kept saying, 'Oh, no, you're going to be on the next board meeting, the next agenda.' They just kept on putting us off, until finally they told us we were a non-curricular school club.
That's when we got the GSA Network and their attorney, Natalie Nardecchia, more involved. So, it's now our senior year and we're barely getting it started. This just happened yesterday and it's been since sophomore year.
So, we went through a couple struggles trying to get it started.
Are more people involved in the group now than when it first started?
Not yet, because we couldn't advertise anything at school. It was just hard to get the word out. We just couldn't do it, so finally, now that we are a club, we're going to be able to announce it on bulletins, and all the clubs are selling food for lunch this Friday, so that's going to be our first official event to be involved in as part of the school. So, we're hoping that day we're able to let people know that we do have a support group at school if they want to check it out.
And the resistance to the group was just from the administration, or were some students also opposed?
Actually, it wasn't students, and none of the parents got involved. It was just the administration. That's where we had our problems, and I think it was within the board, because they told us our paperwork was passed through the student body association, and that we were passed by the teachers, and that the next step was just the board.
That's where we had our troubles because, for months, we were never on their agenda for... I would say 10 school board meetings passed, and it was already our junior year, and then into our senior year, they said, 'Oh yeah, you're going to be on the next school board meeting.' And that's when they told us that we were not going to be approved because we were philosophical, and any philosophical or religious group could not become a club. That's when we knew we had to do more.
And, for the few people who knew the GSA existed, has it been helpful for them to have that support?
Yeah, one of my friends is the one who brought up the idea about starting a gay straight alliance club, because she saw herself as lesbian. That's how she defined herself, and she didn't have any support from her parents. She's Latina, and her parents are kind of religious, and it was hard for her to be out with them, and a lot of her friends didn't know. She just felt like she needed something, and she felt that starting this for the rest of the LGBT community here would be something good for everybody who was interested and wanted support. She thought that she needed the support herself, and we just don't have those sort of services here in Madera.
What's the breakdown in the group, is it pretty divided evenly with boys and girls?
We do have straight allies. And, the only straight allies we do have are males, actually, so that's pretty good. And the rest of the girls define themselves as being gay or queer or however they define themselves. But the guys we do have at this moment are straight.
What has this been like for you to go through? What lesson has this taught you that you'll take with you to college in the fall?
I think I learned a lot, because I got really involved with the GSA Network. I decided to get involved in their advocacy committee that are planning for the queer youth advocacy day. I decided to join the youth council, and I'm even on their board now, and I'm the chairman of the youth on their GSA board. And, I'm the president of our GSA club.
So, I felt like this has helped me a lot with my activism, and I feel like I've grown as a person, because when I was younger I lived in a suppressed community, so I didn't know anything about gay issues. So, I started growing up and discovering my own feelings, and I just wanted to get more involved.
And then, my friend was dealing with her problems, she wanted to start the club, but she left it in my hands, because she was all 'You know what? I can't deal with this right now. Can you take over?' So, that's how it was passed down to me. I'm really proud of all the work we've gone through.
And how to you identify personally?
I identify as neutral. It's kind of my own term that I put out there.
And are you going to college in the fall?
Yes, I am. I'm going to go to the community college first, and then hopefully transfer to UC Davis. But here, at the community college, we don't have a diversity club, a gay club, or however you want to put it. So, I'm thinking I'll start one there, too, in the fall.
And what are you going to be selling at lunch on Friday?
We're going to be selling watermelon drinks, lemonade, and horchata.
Oh, OK. Some nice aguas frescas.
Yep, aguas frescas, that's what we're going to sell.
Sounds great, and congratulations again on everything
Here's the ACLU/GSA Network press release announcing the decision.