I just finished my junior year of Ridgewood High School. I like to keep busy over the summer, and right now I am really excited to be in the pit orchestra for our summer high school musical, The Pajama Game.
What got you to join the Ridgewood High School Gay-Straight Alliance? What do you feel like the impact of that program has been for you?
I joined the Gay-Straight Alliance my freshman year. At the time I had friends who were a part of the LGBTQ+ community and I thought joining the club would be a good way for me to provide them with support. From there, I became passionate about activism. At the time, gay marriage was not yet nationally legal, and this was the main injustice that made me want to work hard to create a safe place for LGBTQ+ students in the school as well as do something to make the school environment a better place for them.
I became a co-leader of the GSA my sophomore year and worked hard to give the club more of an activist atmosphere and make it a safer place for the LGBT youth in the school. The club has had a tremendous impact on me these past two years. Not only has it taught me about leadership and responsibility, but it has also taught me to work hard for what I am passionate about. I think the club has really thrived this past year, raising money for the New Jersey Pride Center, selling pride flags to the community, having over 270 participants for day of silence, and, finally, being the first school in Bergen county to raise the pride flag in celebration of Pride Month.
What prompted you to bring the raising of the pride flag to the attention of the school? What was that process like? How did your friends and other GSA members support you?
Beginning in May, the GSA was running a pride flag sale at the school in support of Pride Month. Another teacher of mine asked me if we were planning on putting the flag up outside of the school, and I thought it was an amazing idea. I brought the idea to the club’s teacher advisor, Ms. Soucy, and together we brought it to the principal, Dr. Gorman. The idea was met with little resistance. At first there were concerns of backlash from the community and worry that the flag would be seen as a political statement. After discussing further, Dr. Gorman, Ms. Soucy and I decided the flag was not political, but instead a necessary declaration of support and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ youth in the school and community. The process included countless emails and planning, but with a lot of hours and work, the flag went up about 2 weeks, which I think is amazing!
Since the flag has gone up, the responses of the town and my classmates have been unbelievable. I worked with the hope that the flag would make just one person feel more supported by the school, and now seeing how many people the flag has touched inside and outside of RHS, is absolutely incredible. I really could not have done this alone. Everything we do as a club is tremendously supported by all the members, and getting the flag up was no exception. Many members stepped up to raise awareness and express the importance of the flag raising. Without Ms Soucy, Dr Gorman, and the entire club putting in so much effort, this would not have been possible. To them, I am very grateful.
What does LGBTQ+ Pride mean to you?
Pride is a word that carries a lot of weight in my life. To me, pride is how someone sees and holds themselves. For so long, member’s of the LGBTQ+ community have been deprived of this crucial human right to be proud of who they are. As the world becomes more and more accepting, people of all sexual and gender identities can now, some for the first time, have pride in themselves. This new age of love and self-acceptance deserves celebration, and demands attention. Even allies to the LGBTQ+ community should be proud to live in a place where people are not belittled for their sexual or gender identification. I believe everyone, gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, and so on, should be ecstatic to be living in this changing time where love can just be love.
How do you define bullying?
Bullying is targeting someone to make them feel worthless, ostracized, and alone. Whether the victim is targeted because of race, sexual orientation, gender identification, or for just being in the wrong place at the wrong time is beside the point. The intention of a bully is to gain power by stripping it away from someone else, leaving them defenseless. By harassing someone physically, emotionally, socially, or online, a bully is destroying the self-worth of another human being in the cruelest way possible.
You go to the school that Tyler went to many years ago. How does that impact you?
I was just beginning 5th grade at the time of Tyler’s death. At the time, though I couldn’t fully comprehend what had happened, I could see a definite shift in my home, in the school, and in the town. When my mom sat me and my sister down to talk about Tyler, I couldn’t understood more than that a boy got bullied for being himself, and he shouldn’t have. Tyler’s death stayed with me until I could fully comprehend what had happened, and I realized that the town had been faced with accepting the pain that LGBTQ+ youth go through. The shift in the town wasn’t just a somber one, but one that strengthened the community. Parents, students, and everyone that was touched by Tyler’s death knew changes had to be made to prevent more heartbreak in the town. Walking through the halls of Ridgewood High School, the thought of Tyler sticks with me, like I think it does with most of my fellow classmates. When deciding how to treat people and how to help people, or even if I should hold open the door for the kid running down the hall with their hands full, I think of the impact my actions can have on the people around me. Tyler’s death taught me, along with the rest of the town, to consider others even if I don’t know them. Because anyone can be going through the same struggles as Tyler, even if no one knows it.
If you could share with him some of your thoughts with Tyler, what would you share?
When the flag was raised, many LGBTQ+ alumni from Ridgewood High School told me how grateful they were that the flag is up and about how much the school and the community has changed since their teenage years. I wish I could just show Tyler that things really do get better. It could take months, it could take years. But change is constant, and right now things are changing for the better. If Tyler could see the flag in front of the school and the community-wide support for everything the GSA has done, I hope he would be proud of how far our community has come. Knowing what Tyler went through, I want nothing more than to do my best to prevent anyone else from going through the same thing.
How often do you feel like LGBTQ+ people you know (and this may or may not include yourself) experience bullying? Have you ever experienced bullying? Have you ever witnessed it? If so, please share as much as you feel comfortable with and what the impacts on your life have been?
I have not directly experienced or seen bullying at Ridgewood High School, but have witnessed more of a general misunderstanding or subtle lack of acceptance for LGBTQ+ students or LGBTQ+ pride. One of the things I would like to do is spread education of sexuality and gender, and show how simple it is to accept others even if you don’t understand them.
Do you feel like you have a place to go or people to talk to if you have been bullied? Do you know other students that might not have a support system around them?
I believe that Ridgewood High School has an exceptional support system for students seeking help from the school, whether it is about bullying or any other issue. We have two incredible crisis counselors that many students utilize who are readily available and easily accessible. I make sure to make it clear to our club members how easy it is to get help from the school. I believe that the GSA provides a safe place and support system for students who may feel ostracized. I really do think that the students at RHS have extraordinary resources to seek help, and I would love to ensure that students at all schools could be provided with the same level of support, from their administration and peers.
What’s the thing you want an LGBTQ+ person or an ally to think when they see the pride flag raised over the school?
My goal in getting the pride flag raised was for even just one person to know that someone out there is fighting for them. I hope that when passing the flag, LGBTQ+ students who may feel unaccepted or on the fringe can be reminded that there is a safe place for them in the GSA and that the administration truly does support the community, which I think is inspiring. I hope seeing such a prominent display of support for the LGBT community can also help to show students, LGBT or not, that it is okay to identify as whatever they want, and that it is necessary to accept and support each other in order to grow as a community. Aside from the GSA’s intentions, I really hope that the flag inspires other students to stand up and fight for what they are passionate about. Making change is difficult, but it is also far from impossible.
Charlotte Simpson is a passionate and dedicated student, friend, and leader. Besides being in the GSA, spends her time as a Piccolo and the Flute section leader in her school’s marching band and as the historian for the Band Council. On the weekends she enjoys working out, reading and spending time with her friends and family. Follow her on Instagram.
Photos courtesy of Ridgewood High School student Lia Collado
The views or experiences expressed are solely those of the contributor or interview subject and do not represent the views of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, its staff or board. If you have any questions or concerns regarding the material, please contact the Tyler Clementi Foundation, and we appreciate your support and commitment to end bullying starting on #Day1.