GSA club creates security for LGBTQ+ students

GSA club creates security for LGBTQ+ students
Front, left to right: Tyra Hawke, Carter Fischer, AJ Heckenlaible, and back, left to right: Emma Niswan- der, Courtney Frohling, Macy Mailander, Alex Gaspar, and Angelica Morales in a GSA meeting. Photo submitted by AJ Heckenlaible.

It’s 3:52 p.m. Junior Alex Gaspar, co-president of the Augustana Gender and Sexuality Alliance, leans a sign reading “All are welcome” against the wall outside the organization’s meeting room. He turns the cold knob on the metal door and swings it open to a small hallway on the first floor of Tuve.

He ducks under blue and gold streamers, hanging like vines down from the ceiling. The streamers are at eye level, and whether they mean to or not, they make whatever lies behind them seem clandestine.

The GSA headquarters, cleverly named the LGBT-HQ, is meant to be both secretive and inviting to all sexualities and gender identities. The problem the organization faced, Gaspar said, is how to have a public enough space so that anyone could find it while also keeping its members’ identities confidential.

Faced with the difficult decision, GSA opted for anonymity over publicity.

Gaspar walks through a doorway to his left, the afternoon’s golden glare reflecting off of the circular glass table in the center of the room. It’s covered with small pink, purple and orange flags, rainbow-printed viking helmet stickers and a seldom-used coloring book.

The room is small, but not in a cramped way — in a “cozy” way, Gaspar said. Two couches and two armchairs create enough space for only six. There are a few chairs in the other room if necessary, but the group hasn’t needed them yet this year.

Outside, there’s a fall breeze, with crinkled leaves scuttering across the sidewalk. Gaspar checks the time.

He sits in one of the armchairs, his laptop balanced on his knees. At first it seems like no one else will come, but people slowly do. One after the other, GSA members enter, including junior co-president AJ Heckenlaible and faculty advisor Jayna Fitzsimmons. Some greet each other and then find their seats. Others just plop down. Heckenlaible sits in the other armchair to the left of Gaspar.

It’s quiet, but then an eighth person, Carter Fischer, struts into the room with his rabbit, Peach. Fitzsimmons seems to instantly love Peach, asking Fischer to scratch between her fluffy ears.

Fischer and Peach’s arrival to the room is exciting because, for the first time this year, they’ll need to use one of the extra chairs.

A year ago, this many people at a meeting would have been unheard of. Only three to four people, including then co-presidents Gaspar and Augustana graduate August Brown, would attend the meetings.

Now, though total numbers still seem small, their meeting average has doubled. Five to eight people sit in the space on a good day, a majority being freshmen and sophomores.

Of the seven students at this week’s meeting, three students are freshmen, two are sophomores, and two are the junior co-presidents.

Gaspar and Heckenlaible said they think the disparity between underclassmen and upperclassmen attendance is largely due to members’ mental health. It makes the location of the LGBT-HQ, tucked back in Tuve, a good choice.

The American Psychological Association found that queer youth of a wide variety of sexualities and gender identities tend to have more or worse mental health conditions than heterosexual and cisgender individuals do.

In 2020, out of the 329.5 million people living in the United States, 23.4 million of them were queer. Out of the 10.2 million people who had previously been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder 8.4 million also identified as queer.

Therefore, a whopping 82.5% of all people that live with anxiety also identity as queer and that is no coincidence.

Though elusive to first-time GSA members who may not know where the LGBT-HQ is, the space in Tuve exists isolated from the outside world for a reason. Although seemingly clandestine, it serves as a protective barrier and shelter for queer people more susceptible to mental health disorders.

“We used to meet in the theater,” Gaspar said. “That’s a public area that anybody can walk in anytime. Having our own space where the door shuts relaxes people so that they don’t have to worry about others walking by.”

Eight people and one rabbit sit quietly across from each other with little space. Heckenlaible said it feels “homey.”

There is a warmth to their room. Maybe it’s the compactness of the furniture and the people, or maybe it’s the relief of being in the right place at the right time: the LGBT-HQ at 4 o’clock on a Friday afternoon.

Anxiety plays more of a role in the community than just the location of GSA’s headquarters. Heckenlaible said attendance has increased this year compared to last, but the ratio of underclassmen to upperclassmen is still skewed towards the former.

“Some of it might have to do with COVID,” Gaspar said. “Everything was on Zoom.”

The GSA’s attendance declined during COVID, but the organization persisted.

Possibly because queer people are more susceptible to anxiety disorders, queer upperclassmen grew used to the comfort of staying at home during COVID-19 rather than attending meetings in person, while queer underclassmen never experienced Augustana online.

“Maybe freshmen and sophomores are looking for an in-person community,” Heckenlieble said.

Heckenlaible thinks it’s possible that upperclassmen, as a consequence of social anxiety from isolation, are not looking for this in-person connection.

Gaspar said he remembers Augustana GSA looking very different before COVID.

He went to a Catholic high school, and he said there was little interest in an organization like GSA outside of himself. When Augustana GSA hosted their annual inclusion prom before COVID — a prom hosted for all gender and sexuality identities, free of judgment — Gaspar, a junior in high school at the time, was elated to attend.

Like the LGBT-HQ feels like an oasis for GSA members today, Gaspar too felt the comfort of being in a place free of judgment.

“There was music that was actually enjoyable for us,” Gaspar says, laughing. “It was one of my first experiences of feeling supported, like I could actually be who I was.”

The effects of the dance follow him to this day. Between classes, he still sees passing faces from that night, but they are never together in the quantity he remembers.

Though many of the students who put the prom together are still on the email list and enrolled in GSA on Viking Central, Gaspar wishes that GSA could put on an inclusion prom again so other students — Augustana’s and those in the surrounding community — could feel supported, represented and relieved like he did.

For many, GSA is more than a voice. It’s a community that supports and protects those identifying as LGBTQ+ or otherwise, and being tucked away in a small hallway in Tuve, they are away from the prying eyes of onlookers.

It’s 4:00 p.m. in the LGBT-HQ. Gaspar looks up from the clock on his laptop.

“Well, it’s 4 o’clock,” Gaspar said, smiling. “I think we should get started.”