Incoming Bellport senior Marquise Steward first tried to establish a Gay Straight Alliance in the high school as a freshman.
To do so, he made a poster announcing an initial meeting for the group, which works to end homophobia and transphobia.
It was an ugly poster, he recalls.
Much to his surprise, 40 people crowded the classroom after school that day in September.
Included were several upperclassmen.
“It was very weird, because I was just wondering why everybody would look up to me,” he recalled.
Now 17, he’s since realized that under-represented people are always in need of a strong leader — no matter that person’s age.
The club fizzled out due to budgetary and contractual issues. But when a school district social worker who had tried to help Marquise back in 2012, Lynette Murphy, and a South Country school board member, Danielle Skelly, attempted to revive the effort this past school year, they turned to Marquise.
Marquise’s impassioned letter to the South Country school board helped get the district’s first-ever official Gay Straight Alliance club funded and approved for the 2015-16 school year.
That approval came this summer.
“He just naturally is a leader,” Murphy said. “He’s the type of person who doesn’t pull any punches. If he sees something that he think needs to be rectified, he speaks up. He advocates for himself. He advocates for others.”
“So many social issues come with the experience of being LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender),” Skelly said. “Either they’re out and not dealing with it well, or having trouble with parents. For Lynette, it’s probably the population she deals with the most.”
Yet South Country remained among the few Long Island districts to not have a Gay Straight Alliance or another such club to help these young people and their peers find friendship, guidance and support.
“I don’t know if prior administrations were afraid to acknowledge that this was something that we needed, but I think we’re definitely in a position now where we’re more progressive,” Skelly said.
Murphy said the Gay Straight Alliance has proven to be the number one anti-bullying method at the secondary level.
As for the crux of his letter, Marquise — who has also served as president of the school’s Future Business Leaders of America club going on three years and is Bellport’s only male cheerleader — said no child should live in fear simply for who they are. (See the letter below.)
“There are children in this community who don’t necessarily feel safe, because of their sexuality,” he said. “Either at home, being bullied by parents or their parents not understanding, or if it’s just kids in school.”
“I felt like it was just under the rug, something you couldn’t talk about, sexuality,” he continued. “So to actually have that platform for people to step up, and talk about it, is just freeing.”
He now calls himself the unofficial founder of the Bellport club.
A unique challenge for Marquise and the other students who will lead the Gay Straight Alliance, is that the members will not only have to help and support one another — no easy task in and of itself — but also find time to enlighten their fellow high school students and even adults.
“One of the things, being part of the LGBT community, is that it’s all right and it’s not a choice and we’re all human,” he said. ‘And it’s just to educate people and the parents.”
He said this year he’ll be “planting seeds,” of change he hopes will continue to grow after he graduates from high school and goes off to college next fall.
“I felt like I’ve been given one more chance to fight for my dream of seeing a more accepting school grounds,” he said, “And to see people happy to be able to express themselves or just be able to hold hands with someone of the same sex and just to be free.”
Even when he’s away taking classes next year, he said, he’ll be checking in often back home.
Not just in the schools, but in the larger community of Bellport.
“And if people are still afraid, and I have to step up and take the heat for them, then I’ll continue to do so,” he said.
Read Marquise’s letter: