Connecticut Voice

Your LGBTQ+ Voice

Safe Haven 

Danbury’s GSA gives students a place to be their true selves

By Dawn Ennis

Given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, educators and students across Connecticut are experiencing school this autumn in a way that is unlike anything they have seen before – even compared to last spring. On March 13, uncertainty over the risk of contagion abruptly forced most districts to move classes online, creating homeschool alternatives that had immediate consequences for students and their families.

School sports: canceled. High school proms: canceled. Field trips: canceled. And commencement ceremonies, from kindergarten through 12th grade, were also canceled. The decision to shutter schools and cease in-person education led to one disappointment after another, all in the interest of stopping the spread of Covid-19, and thereby saving lives.

But most straight and cisgender students have not experienced the same consequences as their LGBTQ, nonbinary, gender nonconforming and asexual classmates.

The students who take part in Gay-Straight Alliance clubs lost something essential when schools closed in March: not just face-to-face interactions, but the safe space in which they had them. High school is often a time of self-discovery and exploration, and that’s best achieved in a supportive environment. A GSA provides exactly that, out of sight from less-than-accepting peers, siblings, and parents.

Zoom meetings, Skype, Webex and Google Classroom connections are a poor substitute for the kind of face-to-face interactions that happen in a GSA. And they also can pose a danger for closeted kids, says Kimberly D’Auria, the teacher who leads Danbury High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance club.

“A lot of their parents don’t know,” D’Auria says. “So, if, God forbid, their parents walk into the room and we’re on a conference call or Zoom meeting or whatever, you might just out them.”

“Before, we had a lot of kids who couldn’t meet after school because then their parents would know. So we would meet every single Thursday, during ‘flex,’” says D’Auria. “Flex” is a flexible period of 45 minutes during the school day in which students can attend club meetings, band rehearsals, school plays, and the like.

To further protect closeted students, D’Auria says, the school dropped the name “GSA.” “We changed it from GSA to Diversity Council so all kids can come and not tip their parents off. I don’t want it to be a secret, but some of these kids are not out,” she says of her 15 or so students. “So this was a safe place.”

But all that ended on March 13th when Danbury High closed its doors. The Diversity Council went on hiatus. Despite scheduling conference calls that no one joined, and making individual wellness checks, D’Auria confesses she felt abandoned, and sad.

“Well, I think we all abandoned each other at one point,” she says. “I felt like my students and my GSA were more connected. But they were going into situations that were the unknown. And that was my biggest fear, because I’m like a mama bear.”

“Miss D’Auria is just the example of what an ally should be,” says Danbury High School alum Ashley Corrie. “She doesn’t care, on God’s green earth, who you are or what you are, as long as you are just a whole-hearted human being. Miss D’Auria accepted anybody into that room with open arms.”

Corrie was president of the Diversity Council for two years. She graduated in 2019 and is now a sophomore at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, where she is an English major pursuing a degree in secondary education. Corrie identifies as bisexual.

“For the longest time, as many bisexual people do, you come to terms with your internalized homophobia,” she says. “And then you get people who are telling you that, ‘Oh, well, you just need to pick a side,’ or ‘Oh, you just don’t want the label. You don’t want the stigma that comes with it.’ I’ve always just kind of had to have that stance, ‘Well, you’re not me. You don’t know how I feel. Therefore, you can’t tell me what I do and try and identify as.’”

Both Corrie and rising Danbury High School senior Viktoria Wulff-Andersen say they’ve encountered pockets of anti-LGBT sentiment at their school, even though most students are accepting. They say D’Auria has been key in giving them tools to survive those who aren’t.

“There were kids who would come up to us and call us slurs, or they would try to pick a fight,” recalls Corrie. “We had people who would come and pretend to join the club and then slander it and yell and make a big scene in front of everybody.”

Wulff-Andersen, who was also a student in D’Auria’s psychology class, says, in the past, she’s kept her membership in the GSA a secret from some “conservative” people. “Because I just don’t want to open up that can of worms.” D’Auria, she adds, empowered her and her fellow students in the Diversity Alliance.

“We have to fight back,” says Wulff-Andersen. “We have to continue getting our name and recognition out there; the more you normalize homosexuality and the LGBT community, the more you can fight the stigma and the heteronormativity of a society.”

Corrie also credits D’Auria for helping her find her way.

“Honestly, if Miss D’Auria hadn’t been there my freshman year, I am absolutely certain I would not be the person I am today,” Corrie says. “She welcomes anyone. You can be like a roach on the ground and she’d be like, ‘Oh yes, please come in, make yourself comfortable.’”

D’Auria, who is married to a man and identifies as a straight ally, says the story of how she became Danbury High School’s GSA leader is “crazy.”

“I wasn’t an educator at first,” says D’Auria. “I was a crazy person! I was a fabric designer. I was working in the garment industry; I’m a hat maker. This was in the mid-‘80s when I did that.”

The 1980s were, of course, when the world first learned about AIDS, and D’Auria, now 56, was living in one of the epicenters of that crisis.

“I was hardcore, living in the AIDS crisis, and being part of the whole social activism of the ‘80s in New York City,” D’Auria says. “My first cousin died of AIDS … I was with him when he passed. And it was the saddest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. He didn’t want to tell my aunt because we were a Christian family and what was my aunt going to think because he’s dying of AIDS? It was the whole crazy story with my family with that.

“I always wanted to keep his memory alive. I went through the whole journey with him, and that’s where it started,” she recounts. “And that was the turning point for me to say, ‘Hey, what is going on in this community?’ ”

D’Auria decided to pursue a master’s degree, the study of humanistic, multicultural education. She researched all the “-isms,” she says: racism, sexism, genderism, classism, all of which she said led toward her goal “to make a change on all human rights, and it led me to do my penetrative research project on transitioning youth.”

That was in 2007-2008, and D’Auria says that was the beginning of her journey to better understand life within the transgender community. “It was a calling,” she says. “It was like a spear. It’s like the craziest thing. I’ve met the most fabulous people in my life this way. I’m just following this journey and it’s really paid off. It really honestly has. It’s gotten to the point that my students, especially my trans students, trust me.”

“I am proud to be a GSA advisor, but I’m not just an advisor; I am a community [leader] within our school. And I’m proud of that, because it took many years to build that trust, to have that in my school with my students, my colleagues, and my administrators,” D’Auria says.

“Kimberly is a champion for the cause and a protector of the kids,” says Chris Davis, the mother of a nonbinary graduate of Danbury High. “She is an advocate to the extreme. And I’m really, really proud to know her.”

Davis’ child, Chase, was a member of the Class of 2020. After a gap year, they plan to attend the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University.

“They were very confused internally,” Davis says of her child. “And I’m very happy that the GSA helped Chase to learn how to identify and learn how to relate with themselves better.”

At the time of our interview, Danbury’s administrators, like many across the state and the nation, were deciding how to teach students this fall, and keep everyone safe from the coronavirus. D’Auria says the memories of the sudden shutdown in March still linger.

“It was like we were not prepared for this,” she says. “I don’t think anybody’s had a reality check. And the reality check is: we didn’t go back on that Monday and we didn’t go back on that Tuesday. And we are where we are right now.”