Activism

The Cedar Ridge High School Genders and Sexualities Alliance prepares for the 2019 Homecoming Parade.

The Beginning

Elle entered high school as a lonely queer freshman searching for a community of other LGBTQ+ students who could help them better understand and navigate their identity. They had heard that joining a GSA was a good way to find this camaraderie, so they checked to see if their school had one. Upon finding that the GSA had been dormant for years, Elle got in touch with the former sponsor (shout out to Ms. Cardiff!) about re-starting the club. She said she'd be happy to sponsor again, as long as there was proof that students were interested in joining. Elle surveyed the cafeteria for a few days and collected signatures from interested students. Then, they began scheduling weekly club meetings!

Being elected president of the club freshman year began Elle's career as an activist and a leader. At the time, the state of Texas was considering two controversial pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation: SB 6 (AKA the bathroom bill) and SB 242 (which could force students to out LGBTQ+ students to their parents). This led Elle to get involved in legislative activism, so they hosted letter-writing campaigns, wrote essays to criticize the bills, and encouraged GSA members to call their legislators.

Elle also tried to ensure that the GSA gave students the freedom to have fun as well, so they hosted movie nights, had dance parties, and more. Unfortunately, over the course of the next couple of years, frequent changes in sponsorship combined with difficulty retaining members caused the club to stagnate. Talking to GSA leaders from other schools produced the realization that this problem was not unique to Elle's club, so they decided to try to fix it.

The Central Texas GSA Coalition logo. Learn more at ctxgsa.org.

Founding the Central Texas GSA Coalition

Elle realized that having a larger pool of people from which to generate ideas, advertise, fundraise, and advocate for change would solve many of the problems they had encountered in their school's GSA. In the Fall of 2018, they began the process of forming the Central Texas GSA Coalition (CTXGSA). They pored over the websites of every public middle and high school in a 30 mile radius to identify whether schools had a GSA, and if so, who the sponsor was. In November, they sent an email to every sponsor they had found, telling them about the idea of the GSA Coalition and asking them to share information with their students and with any other GSA advisors they knew.

Responses to that initial email allowed Elle to compile an initial list of members, and they invited those members to the Inaugural Central Texas Genders and Sexualities Alliances Coalition Meeting on January 17, 2019. With the help of Out Youth, Austin Pride, and the Austin LGBT Chamber of Commerce, I hosted a meeting for nearly 50 students, parents, and GSA advisors in my school's lecture hall, complete with lots of food, generously donated by Homeslice Pizza, Starbucks Coffee, and Lick Ice Cream!

Since that first meeting, CTXGSA has grown to over 100 members and has been involved in numerous student action projects across the Austin area. The organization is now a program of Out Youth's Texas GSA Network, the support of whom has given CTXGSA the integral tools, advice, and resources they need to be an active contributor in the community.

GLSEN Student Advocate of the Year

In October of 2019, in recognition of their advocacy work, Elle was selected to receive the GLSEN Student Advocate of the Year award. This opportunity gave them a platform to connect with changemakers from all over the country, and they have maintained a consistent connection with GLSEN since then. This April, Elle co-hosted two GLSEN webinars about virtual organizing in the age of COVID-19.

Read GLSEN's press release announcing Elle as the Student Advocate of the Year here.

Photo taken at the press conference hosted by Elle Smith prior to the October 28, 2019 Austin Independent School Board Meeting.

Advocating for Inclusive Sexual Health Education

In the Austin Independent School District, there has been a years-long fight for comprehensive sexual health education curriculum. In 2019, the fight was nearing an end, as the AISD school board was set to vote on the implementation of a new sex ed curriculum for 3rd-8th grade students. The Central Texas GSA Coalition joined forces with Informed Parents of Austin and other pro-LGBTQ+ organizations in order to bolster support ahead of AISD's October 28th vote about the curriculum's implementation.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, Elle wrote and published a press release endorsing the curriculum. They also organized students and community members to speak at the meeting. Prior to the meeting, Elle hosted a press conference, during which they shared their story, emphasizing why inclusive sexual health education was important to them, and invited others to do the same. Elle also presented testimony before the board.

The AISD school board voted unanimously in favor of the curriculum.

A poster detailing the process of Elle's advocacy for the implementation of Safe Space signs at their high school.

Creating Safe Spaces

In October of 2018, Elle organized and delivered a LGBTQ+ inclusivity professional development training to all 300 of their school's faculty. During that presentation, they encouraged teachers to utilize visual displays of allyship, such as hanging a pride flag or putting up a safe space sign. After the training, an anonymous feedback survey was sent out to all of the attendees. Many teachers felt that allowing safe space signs would result in discrimination against those who opted not to display them.

In response to this vocal disapproval, their school's principal banned rainbows. Teachers were no longer allowed to display any posters or signs that included rainbows or that mentioned the LGBTQ+ community. This shocking decision led Elle to engage in countless discussions with their principal over the course of a year in order to build rapport and find a solution that would minimize the potential for on-campus tensions, while still allowing teachers to display safe space signs.

In November of 2019, shortly after Elle received the GLSEN Student Advocate of the Year Award, the principal acquiesced and allowed Elle to organize and facilitate a safe space certification training that teachers could choose to participate in. About 50 faculty members signed up for the training in February of 2020, all of whom were given safe space signs upon completion.

View the training here.

Allies Who Lunch

In February of 2020, Elle served on a panel organized by RetailMeNot's LGBTQ+ resource group, during which they discussed how parents and other adults can best raise and support youth, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Learn more about Educate Out Loud here.

Educate Out Loud

In March of 2020, Elle was an opening speaker at the University of Texas College of Education's inaugural Educate Out Loud Symposium. They engaged in a conversation with Boston University Sociology Professor Dr. Catherine Connell about how educators can navigate queerness in the classroom.

Watch the virtual panel here.

Q+ EDU for SXSW EDU

Elle organized a panel entitled Q+ EDU: Meeting the Needs of LGBTQ+ students for the 2020 South By Southwest EDU Festival, featuring speakers Kathryn Gonzales, Heather Frederick, and Briona Jenkins. The festival was originally slated for March, but it was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In April, the speakers recorded a virtual panel for SXSW EDU Online.

Watch Elle's speech here.Watch the entire ceremony here.Find a description of the event here.View the program book here.

Human Rights Campaign and GLSEN Virtual Graduation

Elle spoke alongside amazing figures, including Rep. Maxine Waters, GLSEN Executive Director Dr. Eliza Byard, HRC President Alphonso David, and more, for HRC and GLSEN's virtual graduation ceremony. The ceremony honored the estimated half a million LGBTQ+ students who are graduating in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

What's Next?

Queering Education

June 2020

Queering Education 2020 will be an interactive virtual experience designed to connect, inform, and empower LGBTQIAP+ and ally students, parents, and educators. Content will fall into five categories: queer life, student leadership, parent support, education advocacy, and queer sex and relationships. Though these categories are bound to have overlap, structuring the event in this way allows for the provision of targeted content to demographics with different needs.