GSA works to change lives in Jackson

By Kate Opalewski

JACKSON -

Some LGBT students at Columbia Central High School in Jackson County have quietly dealt with harassment for most if not all of their high school career. That is starting to change since Dylan Koch, a 16-year-old sophomore, stood up for himself and his fellow LGBT classmates.

Although it took six months to gain approval from administration, Koch started a Gay Straight Alliance in October 2011 with a little help from his mom, Sue Koch, who mailed the school a copy of the Equal Access Act, which protects student groups at federally funded secondary schools from discrimination.

"I never thought the world was so anti-gay. Dylan struggled so much before he told me. This was affecting our family and it was so frustrating to me. Had a GSA been there before, it may have been easier for him. It's really important to have this type of program in our schools," said Koch's mom, vice president of PFLAG Jackson and supervisor for the GSA who provides rides and brings snacks to their weekly meetings. "It doesn't sound very important, but it makes the kids very happy."

The GSA students may be looking for support because they are LGBT. Some just aren't accepted anywhere else. As outsiders, they don't fit in to any particular group. Dylan has created a safe place to talk, access to resources and information that can help them make better decisions, and the support system needed to make a statement to the rest of the school community that LGBT students are valued as much as any other student.

"We have a purpose. With no LGBT-inclusive bullying policy in place, it's our responsibility to make it safe for everybody, not just LGBT people. There are several people who come, but don't want people to know they're there," said Dylan, who was pushed away by people he once called friends or acquaintances when he decided to be honest about being gay.

Dylan's mom attributes that, in part, to the blatantly religious area they live in where people have proven to be close-minded. "The difference that we've made has been kind of nice, but our newspaper won't print articles about the GSA. When I tried to do a local car wash fundraising event, there wasn't much community support. That's pretty much what we face. It would be so much easier to move to a more caring, accepting area, but I hate to run from a problem. We have to face it. Things have gotten better and I try to keep a close eye on it," she said.

"The environment has changed at CCHS. Students have become much more tolerant and seem to feel good about the choices they're making," said Columbia Principal Dave Slusher. "As far as diversity goes, our policy has always been to accept everyone and work for the benefit of all. There are always a few who create issues, however I feel this has diminished over the years. I have come to know Dylan better; he's become more of a leader and has become accepted by others. Many have joined the GSA because of his leadership."

As one of only two such high school groups in the county, Dylan is focused on educating other schools in the area about the benefits of having a GSA. "We had to do something," he said. That includes meeting once a month with Jackson High School's GSA, which was established in 2000, to discuss issues about sexual orientation and gender identity, work on projects to advocate for social change, and have fun planning social events.

Like the trip the GSA took to Chicago's History Museum in March to see the Out In Chicago exhibition, which explores the stories of a group of Chicagoans who have been there since the city's beginnings but whose lives have often been lived in the shadows. "I think others should be educated and know their rights," said Dylan about the day trip. "It was educational, interactive, and fun. We learned a ton and some of the students said it was one of the best times of their lives."

The exhibit documents more than 150 years of a complex community of LGBT Chicagoans at turns surviving, struggling, and thriving, often on the edge of mainstream awareness.

"Chicago was cool. We got to learn the history of decades and decades of LGBT people and how they were treated. People were actually dragged out of bars and arrested, the lost their jobs and had their names placed in the paper. Some of those laws are still on the books now. The kids really learned a lot," said Sue Koch.

The trip was sponsored by Between The Lines and made possible with additional money raised through fundraising. "Without that money, we wouldn't have been able to go," said Sue Koch. "Some of the kids come from low-income families and have lived with such tragedy. Watching their faces during this trip in a big, beautiful city was amazing. They wouldn't have had the money or the opportunity to do that otherwise."

"It's a great group of kids and it kind of bugged me that Jackson County didn't have more schools that do this," said Julia Josling, a 29-year-old transgender female who met Sue Koch through PFLAG and is working with the GSA. "Dylan's a great kid. He keeps his head up and this is what he needs to do. He isn't afraid to make sure these changes happen and to have that type of bravery is pretty impressive."

Josling said she would like to see more parental involvement as some students attend GSA meetings and their parents don't know they are there. "Nobody should have to go through that. They should have some sort of support," said Josling, adding that her plan is to help the GSA to influence change one school at a time right now.

"Dylan is a great kid and has helped to raise the awareness of everyone," said Columbia Central Vice Principal Zach Kanaan. "He has done this in a responsible manner and has allowed us to educate people to be understanding instead of just punishing them for their ignorance. He and his mom have both worked with us to make this a very positive experience for all."

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