Queer Students Alliance at Payton: past, present, and future

By Nora Sun, Tech Editor 

Queer Students Alliance (QSA) is a Payton club and enrichment sponsored by Mx. Guizzetti that is dedicated to providing a safe space for queer students at Payton. Over 40 club members meet every Friday to embrace their identities. Responsible for many initiatives for change within the larger Payton community, including reforming sexual education, QSA played a large role in the establishment of all-gender bathrooms and the annual Gender Equity for Teens (GET) Conference. 

QSA (previously Gay Straight Alliance, or GSA) was founded twenty years ago by then Assistant Principal P.J. Karafiol (now the principal of Lakeview High School) and a former math teacher. Mr. Karafiol had been involved in GSA at Phillips Academy, and when interviewing for the position at Payton with Mrs. Ward, Payton’s founding principal, Mr. Karafiol inquired about starting GSA at Payton. 

“If [Mrs. Ward] had been against it, I probably wouldn’t have come to the school,” Mr. Karafiol said. 

Fortunately, Mrs. Ward was very supportive. Three years after Mr. Karafiol joined the administration, he started GSA at Payton with student Chris Jackson. 

GSA was born during a period of transition. In the early 2000s, Payton students had an open-minded attitude about queer individuals, which was more than Mr. Karafiol could say of his high school in the 1980s, where three out of four gay students dropped out before graduation. However, many families reinforced heteronormativity. 

“What I heard from students who came out later was that they didn’t really feel comfortable being who they were anywhere, at home or at school, which is really sad,” Mr. Karafiol said.

Media representation of queer individuals was also severely lacking. 

“[Back then,] it was still very unusual to have an LGBTQIA+ character on a TV show, and even more unusual for that character to be a teen or to have the plot and character focus on something other than their orientation,” Mr Karafiol explained. “By contrast, in an episode of Baby-Sitter’s Club I watched last summer, one character’s advocacy for another character’s right to claim their pronouns was just a minor detail in a different story.”

GSA was a safe space for queer students. Every week, 8-12 students came to talk and hang out in a safe space. They also made sushi and went to see I Am My Own Wife at the Goodman Theater, a play about a trans woman in Berlin reminiscing about her past before, during, and after the War.

In 2005, Mx. Guizzetti took over as club sponsor. Club meetings had expanded to 10-15 members. With this expansion, the club decided to change the name to be more inclusive. In 2007, the acronym was expanded to LGBTQQ +Alliance Club, then changed to Rainbow Club, and eventually settled on the term “queer.” 

Attitudes towards queer students have changed in the 17 years that Mx. Guizzetti has sponsored the club. 

“Over the years I have noticed a much more open attitude at Payton toward queer and gender non-conforming students. In 2005 I heard a lot [more] use of negative slurs toward queer students—now, almost never,” Mx. Guizzetti said. “That doesn’t mean it isn’t happening—I’m just not hearing [it] out loud at school.” 

When current QSA president Liepa Janus joined as a freshman in 2018, it was the first place where they felt that they fit in. When they became president, their goal was to make QSA a comforting and accepting environment for other students.

Now a graduating senior, they hope that QSA will continue as a strong community within Payton. “The pandemic weakened interpersonal and club bonds,” Liepa explained. “Before, QSA was a boisterous space to be in.”

Despite the pandemic, QSA remains a beautiful space that builds students’ confidence and voice in speaking out against and resisting injustice, full of politically and culturally aware and engaged students who want to see positive change in their own lives and in society. The club casts a hopeful gaze towards a kinder, more accepting future, while staying grounded in the changes that need to be made in the present.

A crewneck sold by QSA during the 2018-19 school year. It reads “We’re Here We’re Queer” against a backdrop with the number 34 and the word “Grizzlies”.

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