In November 2015, Pocatello High School (PHS) in southeastern Idaho was awarded a Pride Foundation grant to support gay-straight alliance (GSA) clubs at three Pocatello high schools. The grant application was written by PHS principal Lisa Delonas. I recently had the chance to chat with Lisa and Billie Johnson, a Pride Foundation volunteer and longtime LGBTQ youth advocate from Pocatello, about the importance of the grant in their rural community—especially in the wake of a recent LGBTQ teen’s death by suicide and a contentious referendum election in May 2014 that retained the city’s non-discrimination ordinance by just 56 votes.
Steve: Lisa, what motivated you to apply for this grant, and what is your hope for what it will help accomplish?
Lisa: All clubs have to find a way to fundraise money for the activities and projects they want. I saw a need, saw a potential solution, and gave the application a try.
I have thought a great deal about the young woman from our school that died by suicide. I knew her as a very happy, bubbly, outgoing, and accomplished young woman. She had a big personality, and everyone knew when she was in the room. I never saw any indications that she was at-risk. I knew she was a lesbian, as she was pretty open about it, but she never reported any problems at school. Regardless of where her challenges originated, though, I wondered what the school could have done to offer her more support, and to show her all the wonderful things life had waiting for her.
My goal is that the grant provides the funds needed to allow club members to simply spend time doing things together. I think magical things can happen by simply spending time with people who care about each other. I hope that these students develop friendships and relationships that will help them deal with whatever struggles come their way; I hope LGBTQ youth will see a bright and promising future for themselves, and know that they are loved.
Steve: Billie, as a lifelong Pocatello resident and a member of the LGBTQ community, I know this grant has additional meaning for you. Can you share your thoughts around that?
Billie: When our community lost the student from my former high school to suicide, I penned a personal blog as an open letter to our school district, which was eventually printed in the Idaho State Journal. In it I said, “I didn’t know her, but her pictures remind me of me. The stories I hear about her personality remind me of me. I wish I had come out sooner. I wish I could show every LGBT kid in this town how wonderful life can be. It’s not going to be easy, but nothing is. I learned in schools and on athletic courts that I can’t control other people, not their minds or their actions. But I can control how I react to them. We, individually and collectively, can control how we react. And we can influence.”
Since then, I’ve tried to do just that—more visibly show youth how wonderful life can be and how we can influence our lives through proactive engagement. After I was approached by the advisor of the Pocatello High School GSA to help with the club, I met many more teachers and administrators who are truly LGBTQ allies. They’re everywhere.
Steve: Lisa, what has the grant helped with so far, and what other events/activities are planned?
Lisa: The clubs have lunch meetings once or twice each month and provide lunch for at least one of those meetings. This activity alone has helped the PHS GSA club grow from about 15 to 40 students.
Also, all three high schools and their GSAs had the opportunity to hear Aydian Downling (the first transgender man to appear on a cover of Men’s Health magazine in 2015) speak at Idaho State University. Right before the winter break, the GSAs held a gingerbread house-building pizza social that more than 30 students attended. Later this spring, a GSA club in Idaho Falls is planning to hold a dance and they have invited all of our students.
Steve: How important is it to have these GSAs in a community like Pocatello, and what kind of support have they received from the school district and/or the community?
Lisa: I think LGBTQ youth in every community need support. A supportive community can be very influential in sending a positive and supportive message, and most likely can provide some support services designed for the specific challenges faced by LGBTQ students. The school-based GSAs in Pocatello have received a great deal of support from the district and from our community.
Billie: In merely having a GSA, LGBTQ students receive the message that their school and district support them. They don’t ever have to join the club or go to a meeting, but just knowing that they’re free to be who they are is monumental.
Pride Foundation was proud to support Pocatello High School & GSAs in rural Idaho through our 2015 Community Grant Awards. The 2016 Community Grants Application opens May 16th. Learn more here: Pride Foundation Community Grants
Steve Martin is the regional development organizer in Idaho. Email Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This interview has been condensed and edited.