LGBTQ+ Wildkits seek school support amidst national attacks

As anti-LGBTQ legislation is passed across the country, ETHS students form community and utilize available school resources

Charlotte Geyskens, Staff Writer

So far, 2023 has not been an easy year for the LGBTQ+ community. According to the ACLU, as of April 7, 452 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in a majority of states, most of which target transgender people. While these bills have not yet altered the law on a federal level, they have made large sections of the country widely inhospitable to LGBTQ+ people. Recently, the state of Tennessee banned drag shows, which the bill referred to as “adult cabaret performances,” in the presence of children or on public property. One violation of this law could lead to a fine of up to $2,500 and up to a year in prison. Tennessee, along with Iowa, has also challenged same-sex marriage.

While most of these changes have been hidden under the guise of ‘protecting children,’ they are extremely harmful to LGBTQ+ kids who are being forced to live in an increasingly hostile environment.

“As a trans[gender] person, it is absolutely terrifying to have to live through [the anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment] and consume it at all times. It’s also very isolating, because there [aren’t] a lot of people who I can talk to about it. It’s really just living in constant fear, 24/7, all alone,” senior Max Funk says.

While Illinois is generally considered to be safe for members of the LGBT community— this January, Governor JB Pritzker signed a bill meant to protect gender-affirming care—Indiana passed a bill on April 5th which bans gender affirming care for minors. The law goes into effect on July 1st, and trans youth currently accessing such care will have until the end of the year to stop doing so. Twelve other states have instituted similar bans. 

There are a lot of things that we’re doing right at ETHS and there are a lot of things that we need to keep changing.

— Taya Kinzie, ETHS Principal

Partly due to the rising anti-LGBT sentiment in the United States, Funk only considered attending colleges in Canada and ultimately decided to go to University of Toronto. 

“As more and more anti-trans laws [passed], the more I wanted to get out, because even if I feel protected in Illinois, I don’t know how long that is going to last or how safe I would be anywhere else,” Funk says. 

The students who enter the building through Entrance One on a daily basis are greeted by Dr. Witherspoon’s statement, which reads,  “We embrace your sexual orientation and your gender identity.” A large part of the ETHS student body identifies as LGBTQ+ and ETHS shows its support for the LGBTQ+ community through clubs like the Gender Sexuality Alliance and events like the annual LGBT Summit. Still, ETHS’ LGBTQ+ students have varied experiences in terms of the support that they’ve received from fellow students and the school. 

“Generally [ETHS is a comfortable place for LGBTQ+ students]. I feel like there’s a lot more that can be done but I think [ETHS does] a better [job] than most [schools],” says Funk.

Among the things that can be done, Funk says that ETHS would be safer for LGBTQ+ students if the gender-neutral locker rooms and bathrooms were more accessible. 

“With the extreme mandating of hall passes, I haven’t been able to go to the gender neutral bathrooms because there’s not a lot [of them]. If I don’t have my special pass,” says Funk, referring to the specific gender neutral bathroom pass that students must apply to obtain. “I can’t go to the bathroom that makes me feel safe and comfortable. I just don’t go to the bathroom on an everyday basis.” 

Funk adds that the process of receiving a pass to the gender neutral bathrooms can be restrictive for students who can’t come out to their families or the school. 

However, according to Funk, most of the conflict that he has faced has been among students, not an issue with ETHS itself. 

ETHS is on a really great path right now and they’re doing a really good job of listening to students.

— Avon Wright, ETHS Senior

“The people who say really homophobic and transphobic things do get punished but a lot of the stuff still slips by and presents unsafe classroom environments. It seems to have gotten a lot better [over] time, but I still hear kids say very transphobic things around me.”

Civics teacher Betsy Gutstein, who identifies as a lesbian, recognizes that the experiences of LGBTQ+ students are varied. “Each person has to answer [if they feel comfortable] for themselves, but hopefully there are more and more outlets and opportunities for people to speak one-on-one with somebody or be part of a group.” 

Gutstein believes that conflicts between students can be assuaged by an increase in visibility and education. “[ETHS should] try to expand the way we talk about various groups. It gets overlooked sometimes. Fewer students know the history around the movement. [We should make] an effort to create space in our classrooms to talk about LGBTQ+ issues as they relate to something we’re studying.” 

Gutstein has worked at ETHS since 2004, and she says that the school has changed for the better since she began teaching at the school. “There are a lot more people who are out, both students and faculty or staff. That’s encouraging to see. Since I’ve been here, we’ve had a very active Gender and Sexuality Alliance and that club attracts a large number of people every year.”

Every Tuesday, directly after school, LGBTQ+ students of all grades attend a meeting of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance. The club’s sponsor, Joseph Petrone, says that he would not have joined a GSA when he was in high school due to discomfort that he was feeling about his identity as a gay man. 

“We really want this to be a student-centered club. It’s important for students who identify as LGBTQ+ to have a space that is theirs, where [they] can come together and just be themselves [without] worrying about anything else,” says Petrone.

The second sponsor of the GSA, Imani McPhaden, affirms that the club provides a reliably safe environment for students who may be threatened in other spaces. 

“We have students here who are not safe to be out at home,” McPhaden says. “Some of them aren’t even safe to be out at school. The [GSA is] a place for people who don’t have another outlet.” 

We all want to live freely and support ourselves with dignity.

— Betsy Gutstein, ETHS Civics Teacher

McPhaden added that while there is still progress to be made, the circumstances of LGBTQ+ students have improved exponentially since she faced threats of violence as a Black, transgender woman in the rural area where she grew up. “It’s better than it has been [in the past]. It’s better than it was thirty years ago. The entire situation is just amazing from the point of view of when I was in high school. I think it’s great that people can get hurt being misgendered by teachers because you need so much progress to actually get to that point,” McPhaden says.

On Mar. 30, ETHS held its seventh annual LGBTQ+ summit, which was attended by hundreds of LGBTQ+ students and allies. At one session, titled ‘ETHS Can Be Better,’ students shared concerns that they held with the way their identities are treated at ETHS. A group of about fifteen students shared that, while it’s useful to have events like the summit, spaces like the gender neutral lockers rooms and the opportunity to change your name in the ID system, there are still a lot of areas that the school can improve. 

Namely, the process of obtaining access to the gender neutral bathrooms and locker room was described as grueling. Students need to complete excessive paperwork alongside their parents, which is time consuming and inaccessible for students who aren’t out to their families. Additionally, students reported multiple cases of face-to-face aggression, such as being misgendered or dead named by teachers or having fellow students yell at them in the hallways while safety stood by, taking no action. 

While students still face challenges with having their identities validated at ETHS, senior Avon Wright, who identifies as non-binary, believes that the school community is making progress.

 “[The school has] been taking some steps lately, especially with the new gender neutral bathrooms that don’t have a code,” says Wright, referring to the East Wing first floor bathrooms. “That opens up so many doors for students who don’t go through the whole student advocacy process.”

Additionally, Wright says that the existence of the summit shows that ETHS values its LGBTQ+ students. 

“I came [to the summit] because I love the community and I love that the school is giving us a platform to [communicate] with each other and show our pride in ourselves and in finding who we’re meant to be,” Wright shares. 

Many of the changes have come directly from students who advocated for themselves and their peers. “ETHS is going on a really great path right now and they’re doing a really good job of listening to students,” Wright adds. 

The importance of student advocacy was acknowledged by Principal Taya Kinzie in her speech at the beginning of the summit. 

“There are a lot of things that we’re doing right at ETHS and there are a lot of things that we need to keep changing. Please keep telling us what’s working and what isn’t,” Kinzie said in that speech. 

Dr. Marcus Campbell was out-of-state at a conference for superintendents and was not able to attend the summit as he usually does. However, he spoke to the students via recording before those in attendance broke out into smaller groups, saying, “I’m hoping that today will be a day of love and affirmation. Feel free to see yourself, be yourself, love yourself and love each other today.”

While the administration has demonstrated that they care about the safety and comfort of ETHS’ LGBTQ+ community, there are still many changes that should be made to further include transgender and gender non-conforming students, as well as students who cannot safely be themselves in their day-to-day lives. ETHS’ LGBTQ+ students do not all have the same needs or opinions, but as Gutstein put best: “We all want to live freely and support ourselves with dignity.”