On Friday, October 11, millions of students across the country participated in National Coming Out Day, a day to celebrate GLBT identities and encourage youth and adults to “come out,” whether it be about their own sexual orientation and gender identity, in support of a loved one who is GLBT, or simply in support of all-inclusive and supportive spaces.
Locally, over 60 schools participated in Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth’s (LIGALY) National Coming Out Day School Awareness Campaign by distributing palm cards, hanging posters, and passing out tens of thousands of rainbow ribbons. Educators, students, and administration across Nassau and Suffolk celebrated the day as a success in the movement to address bullying, especially against GLBT youth.
One such school that participated in LIGALY’s campaign was Harborfields High School, spearheaded by the school’s active and enthusiastic Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) Club and their advisor, Susan Koenig, the school’s social worker. Harborfields’ GSA has been around for about 10 years and currently has upwards of 35 members.
For Koenig and staff like her, starting a GSA is critical for every school environment. “[Youth] need to know there is a safe space for them to fully be. Having a GSA in a school is a clear message that every kid belongs and that every kid is going to be supported,” Koenig says. “I think it’s essential for every single middle and high school to have a GSA.”
She shares that a huge reason of why the Harborfields GSA is so successful and continues to grow each year is because the high school has a supportive staff, administration, and principal. Dr. Rory J. Manning, the principal, has been an advocate for the GSA since he first stepped into the high school’s halls.
“Dr. Manning came in on the first day and wanted to know when the meeting was so that he could attend, introduce himself to the students – and he’s been supportive ever since. It’s made a big difference… the kids really know that the teachers and the administration are really here for them,” Koenig says, gesturing both at the students sitting by the GSA’s table outside the cafeteria and at the students filling the halls between classes, many of whom wore the rainbow ribbon in solidarity.
On the table beside hundreds of rainbow ribbons and buckets of lollipops is a large poster board that students sign in support of safer schools. The GSA plans on hanging the completed sign so that the school population can see the names of all of the students who made a pledge to creating a safer environment for all students.
Marissa Early-Hubelbank, a member of the Harborfields’ GSA, proudly engaged students in the hall throughout the day between her classes. “We want to get ourselves out there and talk about what we stand for, and our beliefs. We’re about bringing people together. We’re not just celebrating one specific type of person – we are more about togetherness,” she says.
Emma DeMatto, the president of the GSA, feels optimistic about the campaign because the student body has generally been positive about National Coming Out Day. “My favorite is when everyone is wearing their ribbons,” DeMatto says. “Our GSA is like a huge family – everyone is comfortable with each other. It’s such a safe space. National Coming Out Day is good because it’s so nice to see who supports it.”
The students’ enthusiasm was equally matched by that of principal Dr. Manning, who agreed that the day is of utmost important in the fight against bullying: “[National Coming Out Day] lets students know that we don’t accept or tolerate bullying of any form – whether it’s cyber-bullying or bullying based on orientation, gender or race. So any day that we celebrate tolerance for all… it sends a message.”
Lastly, Koenig shares what many educators feel during National Coming Out Day. “Personally, I’m coming out for all kids so that they can feel safe to be who they are,” Koenig shared, “Having a club that’s so inclusive they feel they can go there and just exhale. That’s what I’m coming out for: the feeling that they know they belong here.”
The Harborfields GSA is already looking ahead and hopes the day’s success carries into future projects. Some of their goals include increasing membership, talking about the GSA’s mission, educating the student body more about the Day of Silence in April and its significance to the GLBT community, and bringing more speakers in to have the entire student body discuss being an “out youth” or an “out ally.”
Alongside Harborfields’ impressive GSA membership, the high school has also been awarded a gold medal in the US News & World Report Best High Schools competition, a prestigious contest that evaluates the school upon college readiness, participation in Advanced Placement courses, and state proficiency standards.