South Portland High School celebrated Ally Week from Dec. 2 through Dec. 6. The students in the gay-straight-trans alliance club organized panels featuring guest speakers and Q&A sessions for students. Catherine Bart photo

SOUTH PORTLAND — Dec. 2-6 was Ally Week for South Portland High School, a week of panels and question-and-answer sessions for students who want to learn how to support their LGBTQ peers and teachers.

An ally, said gay-straight-trans-alliance club adviser and English teacher Leah Siviski, is someone who isn’t LGBTQ, but rather supports community members who identify as gay, lesbian, transgender, etc.

The week featured different panels that were either student-led or run by a guest speaker from the southern Maine community, said club president Blake Morin.

Teachers could choose to sign up for a panel during a class period, said Siviski, and many staff showed interest in attending.

“So it’s sign-up only,” said Siviski. “The lecture hall only holds 150 people, and I had to cut off the ally panel this afternoon. I had to tell some teachers that they can’t bring their classes. It’s great that there’s so much interest.”

The students in the club organized almost everything themselves, Siviski said, from the guest speakers to the topics that will be discussed during the panels.

Siviski said that the success of Ally Week and the GSTA group is thanks to Morin’s hard work.

“Blake — who is awesome — they’re such a good leader in the way they organize the club itself,” she said. “And Blake is one of the kindest people that I know. People want to be involved with the club or with this week because they know and respect Blake. That makes a really big difference: the trickle down of kindness first, patience with people who don’t understand all the details about the community.”

Morin said that one of the biggest questions that students have during Ally Week involves terminology surrounding transgender people, pronouns and identity.

“It all comes from a lot of people just never getting taught,” they said. “A lot of the times if you are LGBTQ, or if you have someone in your family who is, you’re going to be more exposed to that, but for a lot of people, that’s not the case. So we’re just trying to make it so everyone will learn.”

Another key factor to Ally Week’s success, said Morin, was the idea the group had to allow anonymous questions to be asked during the panels, through an app called Peardeck.

“We definitely learned that people have lots of questions and sometimes it can be really scary to ask them,” Morin said. “This morning we had 18 questions when last year we were lucky to get maybe three.”

Siviski said that in her 13 years teaching at South Portland High School, the support for the LGBTQ community from staff and students as well as involvement in the GSTA club has flourished.

“I think staff knowledge has increased, and I think that’s credited to students who feel comfortable talking about these issues and acknowledging that it’s important,” she said. “So I think that the acceptance around the community has grown. I think this generation — students that I teach — are some of the most open-minded, thoughtful kids, people, that I know.”

A teacher at South Portland High School recently came out as transgender, said Siviski, so that experience has really helped students throughout the school learn and understand what kinds of issues LGBTQ people may face.

The inclusion of guest speakers also brings an outsider’s perspective into a high school environment, Siviski said.

“This is my own personal philosophy, but kids gain so much from learning from each other,” she said. “And they’re in school, but bringing speakers from the community into the school to say, ‘There’s a whole other world outside of high school. Don’t forget that. That’s important.'”

Students also shared their own coming out stories to their peers during the panels, she added.

“I guess one of the things about the LGBTQ community that’s so important to know is that it’s just one sliver of someone’s life,” Siviski said. “These students are athletes, in band, taking AP chem and working. Their being gay is, like, one element of that, and I think that having students speaking to their peers basically about that makes their peers understand a bit more thoroughly than if they were just watching a movie that had a gay character.”

The patience and understanding that the GSTA club brings to the high school is inspiring, Siviski said. The club is also trying to help the middle school start its own GSTA club, as middle school is a time where many students are questioning their sexuality and identities.

“I can’t reiterate enough how special this particular group of kids is,” said Siviski. “Not just supporting each other but also organizing this place to come together and discuss. They’ve worked hard on this week.”

Morin, who is a senior, said that they will be studying developmental psychology next fall would like to work with LGBTQ children someday in the future.

“My freshman year I was really closed off and shy,” they said. “This club has really taught me confidence and leadership skills and just being more confident in my identity.”

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