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Students in Gay Straight Alliance to attend diversity conference

Group provides safe place for anyone at Bayfield High School, members say

Bayfield High School's Gay Straight Alliance formed last year to create a place that members say is needed for those exploring who they are, and how they relate to other students and the wider community in a small town.

Students formed the alliance last year to provide a safe place for anyone to gather at Bayfield High School, said Andrew Stumpf, one of the founding members.

The premise to be themselves is important for the alliance members, said advisor Rachel Rosenthal, a special education-resource teacher at BHS. Member Ashley Weinmeister said just having a place where students can come and be themselves - even during a few hours a week at school - provides needed support.

"We just want to be there for each other," she said.

Alliance members added they've had different experiences in dealing with sexuality and transgender issues at school. Member Red Wageman said he thinks the culture, on the whole and also in Bayfield, is becoming more accepting of diverse students.

Anthony Swenk, another founding member of the Alliance, wasn't ready to agree entirely with that statement, but added, "I'm committed to every way I can to make it better."

One member said she used to hide behind hostility to others to cover the fact she wasn't sure of her own sexuality.

"I judged people in middle school," she said. In her experience, schools are now more open to discussing mental and emotional health, which helps all students going through tough times, "and I think many people are relatively accepting."

In June, some members of the Alliance created posters and marched in the Durango Pride Festival. Next weekend, seven students - about half of the group's members - are preparing to attend their first statewide meeting, the Cherry Creek Diversity Conference in Denver. The conference deals with a wide range of topics, including cliques; religion; gender; sexual orientation; physical and mental challenges; multicultural art and music; socioeconomic concerns; and teenage social problems.

"A lot of different people change," particularly in adolescence, "and learning those stories, and who they are, is eye-opening," Wageman said of their plans to attend the event. Another member of the alliance said she is ready to just be herself that weekend, without people questioning if she is a boy or a girl.

Rosenthal said she's looking forward to attending a talk by a Holocaust survivor. Weinmeister wants to learn more about disabilities, and she will attend a yoga workshop. Alliance members sold art and cookies to raise money for the trip, and families and community groups also donated funds. This is the 26th year of the conference, which is organized by Youth Celebrate Diversity, a Denver group that provides conferences, workshops, events and experiences for high school and college youth to share ideas relating to human diversity.

At this year's conference, more than 1,000 students and staff will represent 102 schools and groups in Colorado. The Bayfield group received scholarships from the group to cover the registration fee, as well as the hotel rooms in Denver.

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