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Hannah Johnson, The Bismarck Tribune, Published October 20 2013

Gay Bismarck teen starts club to foster acceptance

BISMARCK - Danny Heiden’s the type of kid everyone likes – friendly, engaging and quick to laugh. He’s actively involved in the school and was this year’s homecoming king.

He’s also one of the few openly gay students at Bismarck High School.

And he’s not shy about it. In fact, Danny Heiden isn’t particularly shy at all.

People were asking for years if he was gay, he said, before he officially came out his sophomore year.

“I didn’t feel like I was hiding it much,” he said.

Heiden was lucky – the reaction from friends and family to his announcement was a collective shrug or knowing grin.

With that support system in place, Heiden feels the need to help others who may be struggling with their identity. To that end, Heiden, a senior, has started a Gay-Straight Alliance club at his school, which has never had one.

Century High School had one, briefly, in 2007, but once it lost its president – and one openly gay member – it fizzled out.

That’s something Heiden is hoping to avoid. For now, though, the main goal is just to increase awareness about the club.

There is still a lot of misunderstanding and, sometimes, fear around lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, he said. Hopefully, an inclusive club like GSA – anyone of any orientation is encouraged to come, Heiden said – can help bring about more acceptance for all students.

There’s no one better to take up that task, said Rosann Fode, the club’s adviser and a BHS English teacher.

Heiden is charismatic and well-liked – not to mention being homecoming king, she said. For many of the teachers, she said, it was really moving when Heiden was elected.

“What a great thing that says about us as a school,” she said.

The club has met three times so far. The first meeting attracted about 10 students, the next two slightly less. However, Heiden said he is confident more will come as word gets out. It’s still really new, he said.

At its most recent meeting, members decided to meet after school every first and third Thursday of the month. They made signs for the next meeting, Nov. 7, and discussed ways to bring awareness to the club.

There also are potential plans for more social activities to engage other students, like a movie night or end-of-the-year dance.

Ideally, Heiden said, the Gay-Straight Alliance will become a fully school-sponsored club. With that school club status comes funding.

The club has faced some obstacles, however. So far, Heiden has followed the process step by step. He secured Fode as an adviser for the club and brought the plan to his principal, Michael Cary.

Cary, for his part, is on board with the new club. So he sent the idea along to Assistant Superintendent Mike Heilman.

With the sensitive nature of the issue, Heilman consulted the North Dakota School Boards Association about the club.

Heilman said the issue is not whether the administration supports the club, but whether taxpayer dollars should be used for a club that is not specifically an “extension of the regular school curriculum,” as is stated in the district’s policy on school-sponsored organizations.

The association’s answer was that the school was under no obligation to fund the new club because it isn’t specifically related to the educational mission of the school.

Even if not school-sponsored, any student club or outside organization can meet on school grounds, which the club has been doing. Other groups, such as ones with religious affiliations, also meet there.

Fode said she is planning to meet with Cary and others to discuss the status of the club.

“We’re obviously in support of our students feeling accepted and comfortable in our schools,” Cary said.

However, Heilman and Superintendent Tamara Uselman said the district needs to remain neutral – neither supportive of nor against the club.

Fode said the desire to be a school-sponsored club isn’t about the funding so much as it’s about recognition. If there’s a frolf – that’s Frisbee golf, to the uninitiated – club, then certainly the argument can be made that GSA is as important both to students and academic life, she said.

Fode was asked a few years ago by another student to head up a GSA club, but said at the time that she wasn’t ready. But now, a lot has changed – especially the views of her students.

When Fode started teaching at BHS eight years ago, there were many students who were quite vocal about their belief that homosexuality was wrong.

Now, she says, those views are more infrequent and regularly chastised by her other students.

“I feel very fortunate that I have the chance to go at it again,” she said of agreeing to advise the GSA club after being approached by Heiden over the summer.

Fode said she has seen too many students hide who they are during school, only to come out after graduating. Those students say they can finally be who they are, she said, but why shouldn’t they be able to do that at school?

While the club wants to be school-sponsored, Fode said she didn’t know how far she and the club would take it if the district remains set in its decision.

Uselman said she’s always happy to talk to students and hear their perspective. As much as she approves of students creating safe spaces at school, Uselman said, the district has a policy in place for school-sponsored clubs that are an extension of the curriculum.

“I think the district is taking an honorable road here,” she said.

Board President Matt Sagsveen said that he is not aware of the board having been approached by any club looking for school sponsorship in recent years.

If, after talking to district administration, the club wants to continue to pursue school-sponsored status, it can go before the Bismarck School Board.

If it is, he said, board members will take the time to hear it out.

“We like to listen to what people have to say,” Sagsveen said. “We like to make educated decisions.”

No matter what happens, Heiden thinks it will be worth it.

“Somebody has to get out there and do this so it’s easier for the people behind,” he said.