When Stephanie Whitesell attended Bellefonte Area High School in the '90s, she did not think it was a safe place to be "out.”
She had gay friends who were open to her but didn't feel safe enough to be out to the whole school.
"It wasn't always accepted," she said. "We have the privilege of just being ourselves everyday and they didn't always have that."
It's a different place for her transgender daughter, who graduated from Bellefonte High this year.
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“I wouldn’t say it’s completely safe, but she felt more comfortable than anyone going to school in the '90s when I went to school, identifying as part of the LGBTQ community,” Whitesell said.
As the home of the Centre LGBTQA Support Network, the LGBTQA Resource Center at Penn State — where Whitesell works — and other organizations, State College is known to have a variety of resources available for LGBTQ people. But there's still a lack of resources outside of the Centre Region. And conversion therapy — practices intended to change a person's sexuality to fit heterosexual expectations — is still legal everywhere in the county except State College.
As a mother of a transgender daughter, Whitesell said there's also a need for reform within the local health care system.
“Having to remind providers to use the correct pronouns on more than one occasion was frustrating," Whitesell said. “Just having access to the care close to home, we traveled to Hershey for endocrinology appointments. For folks who don’t have the budget for that or have a means to do that, that’s really tough.”
'All kids are welcome'
Whitesell said her daughter was one of the first students at Bellefonte High who was openly out.
“The administration reached out to us to work with them on how can we support not just my daughter but other students who came through the school,” Whitesell said.
Principal Michael Fedisson said the school has a Gay-Straight Alliance club that meets with faculty advisers to bring awareness to LGBTQ issues.
He said there is also educational training at the district-wide level, including a mandatory presentation to help educate staff on the topic of transgender people, as there were students in the process of transitioning.
“We want to be sensitive to that as well and be able to understand where they are coming from and how we can respond,” Fedisson said.
Gregg Paladina, the superintendent at the Philipsburg-Osceola Area School District, said in the beginning of the upcoming school year, teachers will have training on how to better support students and student rights within the LGBTQ community.
“We are a small community so we want to make sure all kids are welcome,” he said.
And Nate Althouse, the athletic and community relations director at Penns Valley Area School District, said there is a diversity club at the high school that addresses LGBTQ issues.
Kerry Weissmann, the co-chair of the Centre LGBTQA Support Network in State College, said the center is the main community resource provider for the area. The center created monthly youth and family support groups, and events such as Drag Bingo, Friday Night Live and a queer prom. However, she is hoping to start a specific resource for LGBTQ elementary-aged children.
Within this past year, the State College Presbyterian Church created a youth group called Bring Your Own Queer to provide LGBTQ youth a space to support one another.
Around half of BYOQ members came from outside of State College — from as far away as Mifflin Township, Reverend Michael Ozaki noted.
He thinks this is due to the difficulty in finding resources in more conservative areas, and said it's not always even safe to outwardly search for them.
“In order to feel fully secure in who you are, especially in a phase of life where you’re developing a lot of that, you need a strong community who can be that with you,” Ozaki said. “These kids aren’t in any sense weak or troubled or in need, but they understand and feel the sense of need for community.”
On Feb. 5, State College Borough Council voted to ban conversion therapy spurred in part by the efforts of a group dedicated to protect LGBTQ rights known as Front and Centre. Anthony Zarzyki, the treasurer of Front and Centre, said he is trying to incorporate the LGBTQ community into “a part of the fabric of State College and Centre County as a whole.”
“There is currently one out LGBTQA member on the State College Borough council, which is an extreme help because not only could they have our insight, they have someone on the actual board who can relate to this issue,” he said.
After successfully banning the practice in State College, Front and Centre is now moving its focus on campaigning to ban conversion therapy in Bellefonte. In order to mandate a state law banning conversion therapy in Pennsylvania, Zarzyki said he wanted to start reform in local townships.
“The smaller and smaller we get and the closer we get to the township level, the less likely it is that these ordinances are going to be challenged by the legislature,” he said.
One of Front and Centre's main goals is to create change in rural areas.
“We want to state that people who are being protected aren’t just in these large metropolitan areas,” Zarzyki said. “LGBTQA people exist everywhere, and in fact a lot of problems that we see facing them are being faced in areas where they are extreme minorities, like in rural Pennsylvania.”
Rylee Cooper, the chairperson of Front and Centre, said there is a stereotype that rural areas are only conservative and intolerable. But even though there are no pride parades in rural areas surrounding State College, that does not mean that the townships are not open to learning more.
“We’re finding out that there’s a lot of rural progressivism going on and it’s just a matter of breaking it down past partisan politics,” Cooper said. “Getting to the root of human rights and what people care about.”