LANSING — Ten years ago, some of the students and staff at Thornton Fractional South High School were looking for a gathering place where all students — gay, straight, transgender, black, white or Hispanic could gather and feel comfortable.

They wanted a place where students could support each other, show their strength and have a voice in their own school community.

The school established the Gay Straight Alliance, or GSA, Club. T.F. South special education teacher Jake Welke has been the sponsor for the last three years.

"We really haven't had many issues here related to transgender or homophobia," he said.

"It's been pretty peaceful here, and it's been established for so long, it hasn't been shocking when kids hear about other kids and their sexuality. It doesn't faze people the way it would have many years ago. It's a club where students can meet and talk about different issues."

In a world where civility is becoming more important because of a sense of growing rudeness toward others who are different, Welke said during the meetings, students promote awareness and inclusion.

"We talk about bullying in general and not just bullying of LGTBQ (lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual and queer) but bullying of all students. The students talk about what they can do to make school a safer environment for everyone. When we meet, we choose a topic and have an open dialogue so that students can express themselves," he said.

"A lot of our students come to the meetings and they don't necessarily say I'm gay or I'm lesbian, and they don't have to say anything. It's a safe space if students want to come out," he said.

Welke and the students say the club is strong and grows every year with new members. It offers after-school meetings and hosted a game night March 10 where students from a club at Thornton Fractional North in Calumet City and T.F. South gathered to play games, dance and sing along with a karaoke machine.

T.F. North school librarian Diane DeSoto is the sponsor for that club established this school year. Their club is called PRIDE, which stands for People Respecting Individuality Diversity and Equality.

"We want the students to know there is a safe place for them. We want them to know there are other students like them. We will not tolerate any sort of bullying. Everyone who joins is not LGBTQ and doesn't have to be as long as they support the fact that everyone is equal," DeSoto said.

She said students need information, and they spend some of their meeting time talking about issues that affect them such as dating violence.

Club feels 'like a second family'

T.F. South GSA vice president Oscheon Downar-Clark said she cares about the issues that are discussed during the meetings, and added it also will "look good on her resume" to be involved in social issues.

"We don't judge each others' opinions," the high school junior said.

"You don't have to label yourself. People are being more considerate of others' feelings. People are more accepting nowadays of sexuality and gender. We're hearing less of comments like, 'that's so gay.'"

T.F. North freshmen Prosperity White and Khalia Temple said the club has been fun and like a second family.

White said she likes the parties and the conversations about equality and awareness.

Temple said bullying is sometimes done in a more subtle way, with an offhand comment that's really an insult "putting you down."

She said she'd like to see the two groups host more events where students can gather together and meet. "I think we can help each other. Some kids get kicked out of the house. This organization gives kids a voice," she said.

Patricia Stepp, of Lansing, said her freshman daughter is a member of the GSA club at T.F. South.

"I'm really glad the school offers this," she said. "It's sad when kids don't feel they can talk to their parents at home. Some parents get pretty upset when they find our their kids are gay or lesbian. It makes it harder for kids when they can't talk about it. I'm not aware of any bullying, but there are some kids who can be immature."

Merrillville School Corp. diversity coordinator Danny Lacky said the school has had a GSA club for many years.

"The public school has a huge task of creating climate for all kids, with safety being one of the major goals along with quality education," he said.

"It goes hand in hand. You can't provide a quality education if kids don't feel safe. We all have differences. What we have in common is that we belong to the same community, and that's the school community."

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Education reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.