The week of September 26th is National Ally Week, sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Mr. Wanninger is the advisor for both Debate and Alliance here at LFHS. He also attended a conference in Washington DC in late August for Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) Advisors and we were fortunate enough to sit down with him as he shared his valuable insight on his experience of being an Ally.
The GSA at LFHS was started by Mr. Ferges and Mrs. Eccleston about 14 years ago, however, after some popularity, it met a lot of resistance and interest fell. Then about 7 years ago, Wanninger gained inspiration to reboot the club. With Ferges and Eccleston’s framework established, Wanninger rebooted the program to where Alliance is today, an integral part of the school climate in a changing world.
“I got interested in it with a former student, she and I were talking about it one day, and she had a friend who was really struggling with his identity. So we decided ‘Let’s go ahead and start this group’ and its been going strong ever since.”
Alliance meets every other Thursday in Mr. Wanninger’s classroom. In a typical meeting, they do anything ranging from discussing serious issues to playing games. Mostly, Alliance is a safe place to hang out, be comfortable, and be yourself.
“A lot of times the kids who are in the group just want a place to hang out and be comfortable and be themselves; a place where they can feel more open and be ‘out’ more than they are elsewhere, and for Allies, too. They can talk about issues that are important to them without any judgement.”
I asked Mr. Wanninger some questions to learn more about Alliance, the conference in DC, and most importantly what being an Ally means to him. I want to preface this by saying that you do not need to be part of Alliance to be an Ally. Rather, an Ally is anyone who supports LGBT rights–it’s that easy.
When did you start to champion LGBT rights?
“As long as I knew it was a thing. My parents were always talking to me about being open minded. I never understood why anyone would have a problem. It never occurred to me that LGBT people were people that should be discriminated against. And then in college a lot of friends and some family members were deeply affected.”
What can someone do to become more involved in LGBT rights or to become a better Ally?
“I would say the most important thing about being an Ally is to be vocal and open about it. Sometimes in a conservative community or a more close minded area, people, even Allies, feel like they need to come out and declare themselves as Allies. Being a vocal and open ally is important for LGBTQ identified kids to know that they have support. That support needs to be visible and vocal because there’s all kinds of issues that go along with students who are having trouble accepting who they are because of what society tells them. From school problems to depression issues, attendance issues, that is a nationwide statistic, that’s not just at Lake Forest. Anything that the school or the individuals in the school can do to make it a visibly and openly safe place for people to be themselves, then that is what is important.”
This includes standing up against anti-gay jokes or using inappropriate slurs. Even though these jokes aren’t used as much anymore, people still use them, and when you least expect it someone could be hurt by it.
“We all know people who are LGBT, whether you know you do or not, we all do. People are being affected and people’s self identity are being affected every time something negative happens.”
What are some LGBT/Ally events?
“[National Ally Week] is sponsored by a group named GLSEN. They have all kinds of stuff on their website about activities and they have a social media presence. This week they are doing a “#myallies” thread where LGBT students are explaining why their allies are important to them. October is actually LGBT History Month to celebrate known and lesser known influential people who you may or may not know were LGBTQ identified throughout history and some of their contributions. In April is the Day of Silence, which is sponsored by GLSEN. That always happens in the middle of April. That has grown a lot for us as well. We have gotten a lot of great participation and that’s an important day to recognize how bullying and harassment can have a silencing effect and make people feel like they can’t speak their minds or be themselves. Those are the three biggest things that we do throughout the year.”
Tell me about the conference in D.C. What is one takeaway that you found to be impactful on your own role at LFHS?
“The conference was amazing. It was called the GSA [Gay-Straight Alliance] Advisors, and it was sponsored by GLSEN along with the NEA, the National Education Association, which is the National Teachers Union. I was one of 38 people who got to go. It was a lot of really powerful sharing. One of the best takeaways I got from it was understanding how much privilege I have to work in a place like this. Compared to a lot of schools, especially some schools that were there from the South, we have such support here and so many resources that a lot of schools don’t have. I am very thankful for it. I also just bonded a lot with people who are trying to do what I am trying to do, which is make school safer for everyone.”
In the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Orlando, people all across the world both spoke out against terrorism and in support of LGBT rights. What was your reaction when you first heard of this attack?
“I was devastated. It really, really affected me emotionally. I couldn’t stay off the news for a while and then seeing the individual stories of the people that were there and killed or injured just because of the fact that they’re gay–and not even everyone was gay–but the fact that most of the people were gay. That’s the reason they were targeted. I mean, it is devastating that that happens in our society. That is the world we live in. Especially after a year of such celebration of things like marriage equality passing and you feel good that we are making progress in the world, and then something like that happens and it pulls the rug right out from under you. [The immense global support] was a bright spot in a dark place.”
You are also an advisor for the Debate team here at the school. If you could put in place any policy or law about LGBT rights, what would it be?
“Nationwide, one of the most important things we need is what’s called the ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which sometimes makes its way through the Senate but always gets killed. It’s basically a national law that says people can’t be fired for their sexual orientation or their gender identity. Most people don’t know that, in most states, you can be fired just for being gay. Illinois is not one of those states.”
Do you have any final inspirational or insightful thoughts you want to say?
“I would just end on saying that one of the main reasons I wanted to be a teacher is because I wanted to try to be a positive influence on people’s lives. I have always wanted to try to help people and help make the world better. All of my beliefs are focused around that. To me, this is something that I see as an urgent need, and so my work with Alliance and other aspects of the LGBT community of our school is just an offshoot of why I am in this profession, because I want to make people’s lives better and empower them to make their own lives better and the whole world a better place.”