Phillips Academy GSA: 20 Years of Friendship and Activism

(Originally published in Bay Windows, February 26, 2009. I did this piece to cover a local event, but I thought it might be of wider interest. Phillips Academy Andover has the second-oldest gay-straight alliance in the country—though it is perhaps better known for being the school of George H.W., George W., and Jeb Bush. Stay tuned; later in the week I’m going to publish a letter I received from a straight Andover alumna in Texas after she read my article.)

“Discussion of gay rights, sexual preference, and related topics,” read the announcement in the Phillips Academy Daily Bulletin on February 7, 1989. “All welcome.”

About a dozen students, faculty, and staff showed up for that first meeting of the prestigious Andover prep school’s gay/straight alliance, recalled Sharon Tentarelli, a Class of 1990 alumna and the founder of the group. The Andover GSA was in fact only the second in the nation, started just after that of nearby Concord Academy.

Tentarelli and fellow alumna Marta Paczynska ’94 were among the speakers at the group’s daylong 20th anniversary conference in Andover on Feb. 22. More than 80 students and faculty from Phillips Academy and other New England schools attended, including representatives from the Brooks School, Choate Rosemary Hall, Deerfield Academy, The Hotchkiss School, Methuen High School, Phillips Exeter Academy, and St. Paul’s School.

The event’s headline speaker was Army Veteran Sergeant Darren Manzella, now the policy advocate & major gifts officer for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. Manzella served for several years as openly gay man, and was twice deployed to Iraq, where he was decorated for providing medical assistance to troops under fire. Manzella spoke of the support he received from his colleagues and immediate command, who saw his actions, not his sexual orientation, as what mattered. It was only after he spoke out against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on 60 Minutes that he was discharged from the military.

Manzella received a warm reception. The part of the event that got the most heartfelt reaction, however, was the presentation by Tentarelli and Paczynska, who gave students insight into the history of the GSA as well as that of broader LGBT history in the 1990’s.

Phillips Academy, as the alma mater of George, H.W., George W., and Jeb Bush, might have seemed an unlikely place for one of the first GSA’s, but Tentarelli said, “Overall, it was really well received. I think a lot of students who were maybe uncomfortable that it was happening just ignored it.” The group also gained support from a number of staff and faculty members, gay and straight, including counseling dean Cilla Bonney-Smith and assistant athletic director Kathy Henderson. Henderson also co-founded the Gay and Lesbian Independent School Teachers Network (later GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) with Concord Academy’s Kevin Jennings in 1990.

Tentarelli reflected that Andover was perhaps tapping in to a larger trend. “There seemed to be something about that time that all of a sudden, a lot of the prep schools are suddenly ready for it. It wasn’t that we were networking with each other. We were just as much in a vacuum as anyone else, and yet somehow it swelled up. It amazes me how much it’s spread, but there seemed to be this big wave of the private schools back then, and the public schools that came on later.”

The group kept a low profile at first, though. Their first action was to write a letter to the school paper about ending homophobia on campus. They didn’t do any major outreach, other than to announce their meetings.

By the start of the next school year, however, they had become an official club and begun to participate in activism off campus, rallying at the State House in support of the Gay and Lesbian Civil Rights Bill. They also continued to write letters to the school paper about incidents of homophobia, and conducted grassroots actions such as putting pink paper triangles in every tenth campus mailbox for Gay Awareness Week.

When Marta Paczynska ’94 joined the GSA in 1991 and later became the group’s president, the group was a much more visible presence on and off campus. In 1991, Henderson approached her about lobbying for a state commission on gay and lesbian youth, which was ultimately created by then-Gov. William Weld in February 1992, almost three years to the day after the GSA’s founding.

The GSA also sent a contingent to the 1993 March on Washington. Phillips Academy did not, however, let them carry any signs or banners with the school name. When they walked past the White House, Paczynska recalled, they chanted, “George [H.W.] Bush’s prep school won’t let us carry a sign!”

On campus, the group petitioned to change the school policy against partnered gay and lesbian faculty being house counselors, a move the school finally made several years after she graduated. At the anniversary conference, Frank Tipton, the school’s advisor on GLBT issues, noted the impact of that change, saying, “My partner is with our kids in Bishop Hall as we speak.”

More important than the group’s activism, however, was the sense of community it provided, said Tentarelli. “It was knowing that every week, we had a place we could go and talk about what we were feeling and what we were dealing with to a group of peers who really understood.”

Other conference events included a panel discussion on LGBT representation in the media, led by Randall Peffer, a member of the English faculty, and alumna Krystal Freeman ’03, a writer and viral media consultant who has also served as a media fellow for communities of African descent at GLAAD. The students participated with enthusiasm, discussing what makes an accurate media representation of LGBT people, and what more the community needs to do to ensure visibility across ethnicities, genders, and other facets of the LGBT community.

One of the school’s theater classes also performed excerpts from their upcoming presentation of The Laramie Project, a play about reactions to the 1998 murder of gay university student Matthew Shepard.

The attendees were mostly from private schools. Conference organizer Dominic DeJesus ’10 said a number of local public high schools were invited, but were not able to send students. When asked if he saw a difference in the role or acceptance of GSA’s at private schools versus public ones, he said no, but remarked that students at boarding schools like Andover, farther from their parents, may feel freer to take part in GSA activities.

Freeman also commented on the role of private schools, observing that students who know LGBT people in high school may be more tolerant later in life, and that may have important ramifications at a school where many alumni become leaders in society. (Andover alumni include not only the Bushes, but also John F. Kennedy, Jr., former U.S. Rep. and Massachusetts Attorney General James Shannon, former U.S. Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Paul Bremer, the former U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, and Victor Kiam, former owner of the New England Patriots, among others.)

Andover LGBT students and alumni are continuing to make a direct impact in the world as well. One table at the event held postcards from a grassroots “Postcards to the President” campaign started by alumnus Tanner Efinger ’02 (postcardstothepresident.com). Students were urged to fill out the cards, asking President Obama to push Congress for repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.

DeJesus said the event had exceeded his expectations. He hoped attendees took advantage of the chance to talk and share ideas across the various boundaries that sometimes separate people.

“This conference has truly provided an amazing opportunity for our community,” reflected current GSA leaders Liz Brown ’09 and Alina Pechacek ’09, in a statement to Bay Windows. “It is so rare to find an occasion in which so many young leaders come together to share ideas and experiences. It’s a privilege to build upon our progress within the gay rights movement and to honor those who led the way before us. A lot of progress has been made during our 20 years of operation, but it is our duty as future representatives of the movement to expand upon this transition toward a more open, unified world.”

It seems the future is in good hands.