One of Sarah Graves' favorite memories from the fourth annual Stevenson High School Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) Danceheld at the suburban Lincolnshire campus Feb. 10was when a male security guard starting dancing spontaneously with others.
"He felt so comfortable," Graves said. "That [moment] just goes to show that the GSA dances are for everyone. They are free, non-judgmental."
About 150 students from close to 20 area schools attended, with about 20 adult chaperones present. Another 30 adults volunteered to support the event, although Stevenson GSA faculty advisor, Bill Fritz, politely told them they were not needed.
However, Stevenson principal John Carter did attend.
"I've been to three of four Stevenson GSA dances and I think the event gets better every year. We learn what works, what doesn't work and build from there," said Graves, 17, a senior open lesbian and co-president of the Stevenson GSA.
Dance attendees came in all forms of the LGBT rainbow, plus about 15 straight allies. There were students from such high schools as Elk Grove, Mundelein, Wheeling, New Trier, Evanston Township, Deerfield, Lake Forest, Highland Park and others. There were fewer Stevenson students attending than past years, likely because the traditional Turnabout Dance was the next night at the school, Fritz said.
One female student from Walter Payton College Prep in Chicago attended. Her dad drove her to Lincolnshire, waited three hours at a nearby restaurant and picked her up. "I thought that was unbelievable. The level of commitment from the parent was amazing," Fritz said.
"What a great group of kids [that attended], and it was so good to see them happy, carefree and just enjoying each other's company. I really thought it was a great, strong networking event, much more than a dance where the kids were looking for someone [to find] to date. It was a celebration of LGBT."
Fritz heard many students attempting to build a network of friends, finding out what other school's GSAs do in comparison with theirs, discussing administrative policies and more.
"Next year, I think there will be more kids [attending] and more schools [represented.] In fact, I think we will need a large space in the future," Fritz said. "The problem is [wondering if we should] expand, making the event bigger at the cost of losing the intimacy that the kids are getting."
Fritz said that dance attendees are not identified by sexual orientation, but rather who they are as people, although the majority fell under the LGBT umbrella.
"The kids are creating identities based on who they are, not on who other people want them to be," Fritz said. "I think more straight students will want to go to the GSA dance in the future, if it's not just because they are supporting someone who is LGBT, but because they don't feel trapped; they will feel free."
Fritz, 48, an English teacher, is openly gay. He is married to Jamie.
"These kids are so hungry [to have] a bigger role in the world," Fritz said. "They are so socially aware and feel an importance in what they are doing in the worldand that's not common for people even my age."
Fritz graduated from Loyola Academy in suburban Wilmette.
"I do not come out to my kids in the class, [but] if a student says something to me, I will answer the question. The kids all know," he said.
"I can't even compare [generations], from when I was in high school to today," he added. "Every day I walk in the doors at Stevenson and it's a little bit better than the day before, and I also forget a little bit more about how bad things were. I think the dance helps cleanse [adults] any baggage [from the past.]"
The event was school-supported, not school-sponsored, though it would be if the GSA had asked, Fritz said.
"The [snowy and icy] weather was unfortunate. I think that resulted in having fewer [students] than we expected," Graves said. "Still, everyone really seemed to have a great time. Everything was planned well."
That included the balloon drop, timed in conjunction with Lady Gaga's "Born This Way."
"The first year of the dance, we were using an iPod [played] into speakers. This year, we had a great DJ," Graves said. "We keep raising the bar every year, and it really was raised high this year.
"I'll be away at college next year, but I'm sure [the 2013 dance] will be even better than this year's.
"I don't normally attend the traditional school dances, such as Homecoming or Turnabout, because they don't really compare to the GSA dance. The GSA dances are so comfortable, so open, non-judgmental, etc. It's just a fun, free environment."
Nick Holcman, 16, who lives in Vernon Hills and identifies as "transguy," said the dance was, "great" and the balloon drop "really pumped people up."
Holcman, a junior who is dating a high school senior who lives in Maryland, said GSA dance attendees are "more open, more able to be themselves more."
Holcman, co-president of the Stevenson GSA with Graves, said the group plans to invite more GSA clubs next year.
Corissa, 18, a Stevenson senior, has been a GSA member all four years and attended all four Stevenson GSA dancesand Corissa is straight.
"I think the appeal of the Valentine's Day Dance is that it strengthens the entire GSA community," she said. "We often get students from GSAs all over the Chicagoland area [to attend]. I think being gay or bi or trans can be very difficult when you feel you are alone, [but] the dance allows students to be a part of a community, to connect with other teenagers going through the same process of self-realization.
"Stevenson has been very supportive of the GSA. My first year at the dance, we had an iPod on shuffle; this year we had an entire DJ setup. It has been amazing to see this organization grow over the years."
The Stevenson GSA had its regular meeting the following Monday at the school, where the group reminisced about the party and started planning for its next major event: the annual Day of Silence, to be held April 20. Fritz said the Day of Silence has become a "huge" event at the school, where 300 or 400 students make a pledge and remain silent to honor the voices of LGBT kids who are silenced from bullying, fear or insecurity.
"It's a really powerful day," Fritz said.
Hersey High School in suburban Arlington Heights will host a GSA dance March 16.