Christmas in color

By Billie Johnson

Ah, December 21. It’s the winter solstice, four days before Christmas, and my birthday! My Decembers hold a variety of holiday traditions and birthday celebrations, but this year I added something new: School District 25’s Festival of Trees. I made five trips to the Stephens Performing Arts Center this year in conjunction with the Festival. Three were to set up and help decorate a tree and two were to attend and enjoy the event.

The tree I helped (wrestled) with was donated by two recently formed student-named clubs at Poky and Highland: the PHS Triangle Alliance and Highland’s SAGE (Straights And Gays for Equality.) The Triangle Alliance draws its name from the pink triangle which originated in Nazi concentration camps used to identify gay men, but transformed into a gay rights symbol in the 1970s. The triangle also nicely represents the three missions of a gay straight alliance (GSA) which are advocacy, support, and camaraderie.

Each school’s club is coming into its own and can expect to shift focus among these three purposes depending on the directions students take them. I have had conversations with the administration at Century High School, and they are more than willing to support a GSA if there are students willing to start and maintain one.

Some students join a GSA to influence their school’s or community’s climate with regard to LGBT people. Some students seek support, and others’ interests lie in the social aspect of hanging out in an explicitly welcoming, respectful and empowering space. Shouldn’t that describe every school club or extracurricular activity? I actually think it describes many clubs already in existence.

Both clubs have teacher advisors on campus and have been active since the beginning of the school year. I’ve been working with both advisors to oversee and coordinate weekly meetings, and during November we designed and decorated a tree for the Festival of Trees.

Businesses, families, schools and clubs donate trees for auction each year with themes central to their group or centered on the season. I asked students if they wanted to go “loud and proud” with pride flags and LGBT symbols or if they wanted a traditional holiday theme. It was up to them, but I held my breath while they discussed and researched ideas.

I’m all about advocacy of equality, but for our first foray into a community event, I hoped we could be subtle. I constantly navigate how much direction and guidance to offer because it’s important for students to lead, but there are times when an edict is appropriate. I wasn’t going to dictate this decision, but I really wanted them to make the decision I’d make.

I lucked out. They found a lovely subtle rainbow design online that spiraled up and around the tree. Perfect. They called it “Christmas in Color.”

To fund the tree, the Poky advisor, on behalf of both clubs, applied for and won a sponsorship grant through the Seattle-based Pride Foundation. From their website at www.pridefoundation.org, they inspire giving to expand opportunities and advance full equality for LGBT people. They invest in organizations, students, and leaders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington—transforming individual acts of courage into a unified movement for change.

I know it’s taken courage for kids some kids—gay, straight, or questioning—to show up and see what these clubs are about. I know it takes courage to talk with parents or peers about joining, but decorating a Christmas tree isn’t exactly an act of courage. Or is it? As soon as a Poky art teacher offered some design ideas and glitter, I had second thoughts. Confronting infamously unpredictable strands of Christmas lights requires courage and composure. Add glitter-coated hearts and origami ornaments to the mix, and I was grateful for all the support the Pride Foundation could give.

The clubs met weekly at spaces offered by Trinity Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ near Poky High. The open doors of both churches have not only allowed us a place for dinners and gatherings, but it’s sending the message that there are many people, churches and other organizations here more than willing to accept and assist us just the way we are. Kids can’t hear this enough. When I work with glitter, I can’t hear this enough.

I’m grateful that the school district has been supportive of the students who’ve wanted to start these clubs and the adults who want to help. It’s important for all kids—not just LGBT ones—to know that they are truly a part of something. And during these past weeks, the members of the PHS Triangle Alliance and Highland SAGE were part of a “Christmas in Color.”

Billie Johnson of Pocatello holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree from Idaho State University. She works as an engineer, is an avid community volunteer, and maintains a blog about her adventures in a cow suit at www.CowSuitSaturday.com.