OLEAN, NY – Max, an eighth-grader at Olean High, came into the Rainbow Alliance meeting on May 3 with speckles of glitter in her hair. The bright red lipstick, which she and schoolmates had donned for Women’s Day at school, was still in place on her lips. She set her bag down.
After a moment Max told the group, “I was at my locker just getting my books, and a guy glitter-bombed me. He dumped a jar of glitter on my head, called me a ‘gay fag’ and ran down the hall.”
Several of her peers shook their heads and shared similar stories. One talked about a friend who had homophobic slurs yelled at her every day for a month. Another said a friend was pushed into lockers several times a day. One girl spoke about how her mother has tried to kick her out of the house several times, so she locks herself in her room.
In the Olean Public Library, area LGBTQ+ teenagers are in a safe haven. After the library’s Teen Advisory Board requested the formation of the Rainbow Alliance regular twice-monthly meetings began in the library’s art gallery on Feb. 1, according to Jennifer Stickles, head of youth and adult activities.
“They wanted it, and there was a need to fill the gaps,” Sickles said. “We try to make sure we offer things for every segment of the population.”
Dozens of schools in Western New York have Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA). At Olean High School, according to junior Alexis Vaughn, students proposed forming a GSA at the school. The school board approved it, and the formation of the group is in the works.
During Rainbow Alliance meetings the teens who gather converse, hear talks on various subjects and watch videos with titles such as “Trans 101” and with topics such as the history of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. The teenagers also participate in arts and crafts sessions; among their creations are bracelets and paintings.
“It’s an opportunity for them to come and hang out with like-minded people,” Stickles said. “It helps having a place that feels safe and just be open. No one judges. They talk about what they want to talk about. Home life, school life, they all know what problems you’re having.”
Stickles said that because the library has started offering this club, it has encouraged other public libraries including the Salamanca Public Library and the Cuba Circulating Library to do the same. According to Stickles, the club is good for teens in smaller areas to have such an outlet.
The Rainbow Alliance’s first meeting focused on bullying incidents. Several teens shared their experiences with bullies at OHS. Katie, an eighth-grader, said the school provides “text-a-tip” as an option for students to report incidents anonymously. But some of the group said that reporting incidents only made things worse and “fed into” the bullies’ acts.
“Schools are in complete denial and think bullying doesn’t happen,” Stickles commented.
Katie said some teachers do not do much about the bullying that goes on at OHS. She said there are cameras in the halls but no audio devices; thus, administrators can’t hear what is being said. Katie added that a way to improve the school would be to add more hall monitors or update the cameras to include sound.
Another girl added that bullies do not get properly penalized. Some are let off with warnings or with in-school suspensions instead of being suspended altogether.
Verrssai, an eighth-grader, said, “Everyone deserves to feel safe at school. Being made fun of for who you are isn’t cool.”
As many as 30 teens have walked through the doors of the library’s art gallery on the first and third Wednesdays of the month, looking for guidance and support in Rainbow Alliance meetings. Sharing their experiences from school and home has brought together teenagers who probably would not have talked to one another before, Stickles said.
Rainbow Alliance members said they hope the club can act as a resource in smaller areas such as Olean. Scarlet, a homeschooled student in the area, said she is from the West Coast, where she was used to having more people to back up those like herself who are different.
“This is just the beginning,” she said. “As the group grows, its strength grows.”