Freedom High School senior Blair Smith’s ambitious project to expand pride prom to the whole county is already having a big impact in Loudoun schools.
Although his work began in the summer, the 18-year-old’s work to unite the county schools’ gay-straight alliance clubs comes in a contentious year for LGBT rights in Loudoun. The School Board has twice delayed voting on whether to include “sexual orientation and gender identity” in its antidiscrimination policies for employees and job applicants. Board members have agreed to hold off on a vote until they can get legal advice on whether they are permitted to take all labels out of their equal opportunity statement and adopt a blanket statement instead. Some School Board members argued labeling people for antidiscrimination purposes—such as specific policies against discriminating against people on the basis of race, gender or religion—is harmful.
“I don’t put labels on anyone … and they should demand freedom from labels,” said School Board member Jeff Morse (Dulles). “All they do is divide the students, the teachers and the community.”
In 2010, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors adopted a policy that protects employees and applicants from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But over the summer, current county supervisors, facing strong opposition from the Loudoun County Republican Party, also decided not to adopt a resolution recognizing June as LGBT Pride Month, substituting and narrowly approving a resolution creating “Love Loudoun Month,” penned by Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run). That resolution avoids specifically mentioning LGBT people and reads in part “Loudoun County’s diversity is so rich we could honor a different group of extraordinary citizens each day.”
But if LGBT people in Loudoun are feeling left out, high school students from across the county are working to fill that gap with their own voices and organizations.
“We need to give people the voice to explain their identity themselves, and if they don’t want to use the label, we still respect that,” said Loudoun Valley High School student Lieselotte Elliehausen.
“I think the big point was that whether or not policy includes those labels, people who discriminate will keep using those labels,” said Briar Woods High School student Clara Na. She was among the many students who spoke at a School Board meeting or wrote letters in support of the proposed antidiscrimination policy.
“While the meeting was just for this staff policy… the policy for the students often follows the policy for staff,” said Loudoun Valley student Jacob Coleman. “And we’re concerned about getting equality in the policy for students in terms of like, bathroom use and stuff like that, so this seems like a first step. If we can keep the pressure on here, then hopefully it will turn into bigger gains.”
Coleman said, although his school in Purcellville is largely accepting, he did face an incident of harassment because of his sexual orientation after the presidential election. He said his school’s gay-straight alliance, called Prism, was a support network for him.
“It’s nice to know there’s always people in your corner, a group of people who will always be in your corner,” Coleman said.
“As a general rule of thumb, you have to write everything in,” Elliehausen said. “People will always try to get around it.”
Pride prom, Loudoun’s alternative, charitable prom, is only in its third year and is still five months away, but students from LGBT organizations across county schools have begun connecting. Pride Prom began in 2015 at Loudoun Valley High School with Lily Hamilton, who created it after hearing that LGBT students didn’t always feel welcome at their schools’ official proms.
For his senior capstone project, Smith has taken up the mantle, working to revamp the county schools’ gay-straight alliances, connect students across all schools, and making pride prom available to students from every school.
“I think that just having these in the county has really strengthened the movement,” Smith said. “And I think that given everything that’s happening right now, it’s almost bringing us closer together. Because we have to, you know.”
Smith’s work to expand it has also meant revamping the struggling gay-straight alliance at his own school and rebranding it as Milk Club, after gay rights activist Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to public office in California. In Milk Club, students gather to have discussion, organize, and support one another.
“Being in Milk Club, and being an ally, I’ve seen that it’s helped me and my boyfriend, who comes as well, be more aware,” said fellow Freedom student Serena Thapa. “Being in Milk Club, it’s so different than I expected a GSA or any organization to be, because we don’t just focus on the issues, but why they’re important and how that’s impactful to the community.”
She said Freedom’s Milk Club has more than 40 members, and is “the best part of my morning.”
“It just feels like a core group of people that you can count on, and you feel loved in that group,” Thapa said.
“I’ve seen firsthand some people that have sort of come out of their shell more, in the sense that that maybe they think, oh, there’s other people like me,” Elliehausen, another member of Loudoun Valley’s Prism, said. “They might not have that experience, and their friend group might not have those friends, I just feel like it’s really helpful to know there’s people like them.”
Amy Cannava, formerly the head psychologist for Loudoun County schools and now a school psychologist at Montgomery County Schools in Maryland, has been advising Smith in his work. She said already Freedom’s Milk Club is better than it’s ever been. She has also been involved in past pride proms.
“We had police officers there last year, and they cracked me up,” Cannava said. “When they heard ‘pride prom,’ they thought it was the Heritage Pride prom.” Cannava said the officers ended up having a good time, and said that unlike regular proms, they didn’t have to break up any fights.
Smith has also begun collaborating with a number of organizations across the region as he organizes his club—among them, the GLSEN NOVA, the Northern Virginia chapter of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, which advocates for LGBTQ issues in kindergarten through 12th grade.
David Aponte, co-chair of GLSEN NOVA, said Smith’s work dovetails with a similar program his organization has put on in the past. His organization’s pride prom for Northern Virginia students, which he said ran for 13 consecutive years, also included a passing of the torch ceremony from high school seniors to younger students. This year, GLSEN NOVA is considering joining forces with Smith—expanding Smith’s work beyond even the county to be part of a regional event.
“We’ve taken a couple years off from this event to kind of retool it,” Aponte said. “…We wanted to internally look at it and ask, ‘how are we involving students in this?’ And it’s not just a group of adults sitting around a table and saying, ‘we hope you like it.’”
Aponte said his group has had the most success when the students who attend the pride prom take ownership in its creation.
“When they feel like they’re the ones who actually planned it, or their friends were the ones who planned it, then we tend to do very well,” Aponte said.
“Our mission is all about safe schools, and we feel that we’ve had a lot of success in Fairfax, and Arlington, and Loudoun has always been that tough nut to crack,” Aponte said.
He said the current conversation in Loudoun shows a need for LGBT advocates to come together—and shows leadership from the county’s students.
“It’s really easy as a society to reduce things to a bill number, or a policy position, or something like that. Essentially it’s really easy to reduce thing to politics, and I think what pride prom means and has meant is LGBT people, especially students, are about a lot more than politics.”
Smith has tentatively planned to hold pride prom at Briar Woods High School on May 26. He continues to work with regional organizations, including NOVA Pride, which is working on helping establish a fundraising account.
“I think there’s just been a lot more communication,” Smith said. “I think that’s the biggest thing, and a most important thing for our networking this year. I think there’s a lot more awareness, and I think that’s the important thing.”
“Somewhere between the politics of it all, and the everyday experience of an LGBT student in a Loudoun County school,” Aponte said, “there is a gap between what the larger community understands about the experience of an LGBT student, and what these students are actually experiencing.”
For more information, contact the Freedom High School Milk Club at firstname.lastname@example.org.