Students are leading the pushback against harmful laws in the Statehouse as a growing number of discriminatory measures are impacting members of Charleston’s LGBTQ community.
“The attitudes can’t change until the legal system is changed,” says president of the Charleston County School of Arts’ Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) Eli Bundy, 15. “As important as advocacy is, changing the laws is really effective in changing the way people are treated.”
Laws that are specifically harmful to the state’s LGBTQ community have circulated South Carolina’s state and local governments for years, but one statute that goes too far prohibits the discussion of same-sex relationships except in the context of sexually transmitted diseases.
Bundy first found out about the lawsuit at a community event hosted by We Are Family, a local LGBTQ advocacy group. The leaders told the participants that the groundwork was being laid for a lawsuit against the state for harmful regulations against LGBTQ students — Bundy’s GSA would eventually sign up as a plaintiff.
“I think that education is really important,” Bundy explains. “Obviously the goal of bettering sex ed is important, but more generally, a lot of kids use the word ‘woke,’ and it’s similar to that — just having a greater awareness of whats going on.”
Since the group includes students who have not yet taken sex education classes, and would be harmed by the state law placing limitations on the course, the suit claims, they were ready to do their part.
“It’s just really powerful that a group of students are saying, ‘It’s not just an individual, and it isn’t an isolated incident. It’s targeted discrimination against LGBTQ youth,'” Bundy says.
Bundy and the group are one of many GSAs throughout the state and country. A number of students in South Carolina public schools have started similar groups.
“For a lot of students, school can be a hostile environment,” says Cora Webb, program director for We Are Family. “There is a need for student groups to be in communication with one another, and that’s an opportunity that a lot of them don’t get.”
Now, We Are Family is providing that opportunity to LGBTQ students, who often feel isolated and victimized by their schools and sometimes families for their identities. The group has facilitated connections between multiple GSAs and LGBTQ students and faculty throughout Charleston.
“When we met at the coalition, there were students that said they had struggled even to meet together,” Bundy recalls. “There were two students from the Citadel, and they had an entirely different perspective, being from a college, and a military school at that.”
The first coalition meeting was held Jan. 30, and had 25 people in attendance, representing nine local schools. Also in attendance was a representative from the GSA Network, a national organization that helps LGBTQ youth in schools.
“There are groups there in South Carolina doing work all over the state,” says Ashe Helm-Hernandez, lead organizer in the Southeast for the GSA Network. “We want to make sure that queer and trans youth know that, one, we are looking for them, and two, we want them to have some sense of safety in their schools.”
Bundy’s group has taken that a step further. While the original intent was to provide a safe space for their members, Bundy says they have been working to extend that safety to other LGBTQ kids in the area that may not be able to join a group like theirs.
“We’ve been more outward-facing, trying to better the community around us,” Bundy says. “We are not just hanging out and talking about books or movies, but we also, at least where we are right now, are trying to support other GSAs and hopefully in the future, the whole state.”
Taking a stand in the lawsuit is a big step toward LGBTQ activism for these high schoolers, something that Bundy says they often forget.
“I’m in a place of privilege as someone who is accepted,” Bundy explains. “So, I really just want to extend that acceptance to a wider group of people … Just hearing stories of kids who don’t have the family support that I had, or the school support that I’ve had — they are so often discouraged at home, school, and work. We’re just kids, not even 18, and yet we’re already facing these challenging issues.”
The idea of teens facing identity-based challenges is nothing that hasn’t been printed in history books already. But, while cities like Charleston are at times LGBTQ-friendly, other areas haven’t quite caught up.
“There’s this permeating feeling around the terror that black and brown folks have faced in the South, but also with being LGBTQ,” Helm-Hernandez says. “I loved living in Atlanta, but Atlanta was an anomaly, a bubble. All of Georgia is not like Atlanta.”
Despite the South’s history laced with discrimination, Bundy and others are hopeful for a future in which people can feel accepted despite their identities. Helm-Hernandez is looking at Virginia, which recently passed anti-descrimination laws in the state, as a role model for the region in LGBTQ acceptance.
“It’s really important that LGBTQ youth and people in general in the South are given support and resources they need,” Bundy says. “Having a GSA and being a part of this lawsuit, hopefully we are moving closer to a more accepting South Carolina.”