Middletown High School’s (MHS) annual Diversity Week included a speaking event featuring 50 speakers on Wednesday, May 2. This year, the student group Peers for Queers collaborated with the high school to bring University students and faculty as speakers to the school.
Prior to the event, MHS students picked their top three choices to attend out of the 50 speakers and were later placed in one of the hour-long talks. The panels covered a variety of topics such as gender and sexuality, disability rights, religion, and ethnicity.
Madalena Henning ’15, Michael Leung ’15, and Emily Hoge ’15 founded Wesleyan Peers for Queers this semester. The group goes to MHS twice a month and works with the school’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA).
“It’s a support group for queer high school students,” Leung said. “We have groups of queer Wesleyan students who have meetings with them and work with their GSA to organize events or talk about issues.”
Peers for Queers led a panel that focused on gender and sexuality. Henning, Julia Benedith ’14, and Nico Vitti ’12 spoke to the students about coming out to their parents, what it means to be “queer,” and the difficulties of acceptance.
An estimated 40 University students have signed up for Peers for Queers, and about 14 are able to visit the high school each month. At their meetings, the students play games and read articles related to LGBT issues. Henning said that the small age gap between college students and high school students is an important factor in allowing them to bond.
“In high school I was the leader of my GSA, and I definitely felt the need for some sort of older support,” she said. “Not from a teacher, per se, because they’re too much of a generation ahead. I felt that having the support of college kids who are just a couple of years older, but who are that much more potentially comfortable with themselves would have provided a lot of help and support.”
Additionally, the University students helped raise funds and find speakers for Diversity Week. The leader of the high school’s GSA reached out to Leung and Henning for help finding speakers to reach the target goal. According to Henning, the event would have been cancelled had the GSA not brought at least 35 speakers.
“They had about 20 or 30 [speakers] when we helped, and we essentially helped get the rest by talking to professors and by pulling together panels of our own Wesleyan students,” Henning said.
Leung brought the idea for Peers for Queers to Dean for the Class of 2015 Noel Garrett and Director of the Center for Community Parternships Catherine Lechowicz, who then connected him with the GSA at MHS. He noted that the University has many programs that work with elementary schools; however, there is a lack of interaction with the high school.
“We want to procure Wesleyan’s participation and expand their reputation with the GSA because a lot of kids are afraid to come out in high school and join the GSA,” Leung said. “So maybe if Wesleyan students are involved, they may feel more compelled.”
Peers for Queers only visits MHS, but Leung said he would like to expand to other schools. He noted that many of the schools nearby are Catholic and less accepting of the queer community.
The partner group that Henning and Leung created, the Queer Organizing Committee (QOC), won the University’s Office of Student Activities and Leadership (SALD) Mosaic Award this year. The group has already organized events at the University, such as “Queer Roller Skating,” and plans to bring a film series to campus.
“The idea is that [QOC is] much more Wesleyan-based,” Henning explained. “It’s going to help foster more community activities that are not centered around alcohol in bringing queers together to make friends and find people.”
According to Henning, these events would be difficult to offer to high school students because of issues with transportation, school cooperation, and parental knowledge.
“A lot of them are not out to their parents, and in order for us to transport them anywhere they have to have permission slips signed by their parents,” she noted. “So that causes problems.”
Diversity Week was Peers for Queer’s largest effort this semester. They plan to continue working with MHS students next year.
“I think it’s really important that this Diversity Week came together, and I’m really glad that we were able to help make it happen because I think that no matter how modern you are, there are always aspects of your world that you don’t know about,” Henning said. “I think having a Diversity Week is a great way to broaden your horizons.”