by Sarah Gavis-Hughson

The animated chatter of hundreds of people filled the rainbow-bedecked room as our group took seats at the long rows of cafeteria tables and waited expectantly. From rainbow balloons to banners to GSA t-shirts, Lenape High School cafeteria was a vibrant display of pride. The enthusiasm and anticipation in the room were palpable. This was New Jersey’s long-awaited 11th Annual GSA Forum, hosted by the Lenape High School Gay Straight Alliance and co-sponsored by HiTOPS and GLSEN Central New Jersey.

Upon arrival, students, teachers, and parents checked in and signed up for workshops, eagerly adding our names to already-overflowing lists. After introductions, keynote speaker Mark Segal took the podium, speaking of his personal timeline—which included Stonewall, the NYC Gay Liberation Front, and his founding of Philadelphia Gay News—and driving home the theme of the forum: It gets better.

Morning workshops ranged from “Break the Silence: HIV/AIDS Prevention” to “Finding a Welcoming Faith Community” to “Walking Into Me: Transgender Experiences.” At “Getting Legislators to See Things Your Way,” Ann Baker and Randy Bishop gave advice to a crowded classroom on successful lobbying. At the end of the workshop Bishop, former governor of Neptune Township and the second openly gay mayor in New Jersey, challenged three pairs of volunteers to convince him to back Assembly Bill 3380. This bill, which is currently with the Assembly Education Committee, would require boards of education to include accurate portrayals of the contributions of LGBT people in social studies curricula. Bishop took on the role of a busy and reluctant politician, allowing our intrepid peers to try out the different strategies the workshop had covered.

Spoken word artist Pandora Scooter’s workshop, “I Am Enough: Writing Our Way to Confidence” was so highly requested that it was moved to a larger room. Scooter turned out the lights and, telling us to relax completely, verbally took us on a mental journey, challenging us to imagine a place where we were happy—where we were enough, where there were “no shoulds or have-tos.” What did we feel there? Finally, she turned the lights back on and, in a concentrated silence punctuated only by the rustling of paper, we poured out the thoughts and raw emotions created by the experience. Some of these poems would be shared with the rest of the forum attendees at the end of the day, to the mixed cheers and tears of the audience.

After the morning workshops, the cafeteria filled again. Many people were now sporting Scooter’s “I Am Enough” shirts, and different groups passed out magazines, pamphlets, and other resources at tables around the perimeter of the room. Scooter had performed one of her pieces in the morning, and now she spoke again to the rousing enthusiasm of the audience.

The afternoon session offerings were no less engaging than the morning ones. At “Rights of LGBT People in School,” Paula Rodriguez Rust, PhD spoke and answered questions about the legal protections currently in place and their implications for queer students, responding to specific queries about situations students and teachers had encountered in our schools. Much of the discussion focused on the discrimination faced by trans, and especially nonbinary, students, and we excitedly equipped ourselves with information about Title Nine and its attached court decisions to take back to our schools. The other afternoon sessions included “LGBTQ Youth of Color” and “Changing the Game: The GLSEN Sports Project,” among others.

Feeling tired but accomplished, we reconvened after the final session for spoken word performances, the raffle drawing, closing remarks, and rousing thanks to the organizers of the event. After networking—and lingering, basking in the rainbow glow—for as long as possible, we finally headed home, ready to share with the world all that we had learned and the sense of empowerment we had experienced.