By: Tynan Power/TRT Reporter–
Polly Bixby and Karen Grzesik didn’t set out to become pioneers in the Massachusetts schools. When the two gym teachers helped establish one of the state’s first Gay Straight Alliances, they followed the lead of determined students at Ralph C. Mahar Regional School. Yet they brought convictions born of their own experiences with homophobia to their roles as GSA advisors.
When the two women first met, neither was out as a lesbian.
“In the 70’s,” Grzesik says, “You didn’t ‘come out.’”
Especially in Orange, Massachusetts, an industrial town north of the Quabbin Reservoir.
When Bixby realized she was a lesbian, she was married to a man and had two children. She already knew Grzesik as a colleague and her children’s teacher. They eventually fell in love. Today, they’ve been together almost 30 years.
The early days weren’t easy, though.
They were ‘outed’ at work by a local man who saw them together and spread rumors, according to Bixby.
“The faculty was good about it,” Bixby recalls, “One day, the vice principal came up to me, put his arm around me and said ‘We love you anyway.’”
The school often treated them like any married couple, putting them on “early bird” duty together instead of on separate days.
A turning point came when they began taking graduate classes in the social justice program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In one memorable class, they heard a powerful message that has stayed with them.
“You’re either part of the solution, or part of the problem,” Bixby recalls. “If someone name calls you or calls someone else a name, you have to confront them. If you don’t, you’re part of the problem.”
Bixby started treating slurs and insults as opportunities to challenge homophobia. Then an even greater opportunity came in the early 90’s.
“The kids came to me and wanted to start a GSA,” she says. She agreed to help. While GSA advisors today often receive a stipend, Bixby and Grzesik received no compensation for the time they devoted to the GSA.
For the students, two key events served as catalysts. A girl from Athol had been badly beaten at a bus stop because she was perceived to be a lesbian. At the same time, Mahar students participating in a regional student council advisory meeting in Boston were talking about the need for safe space for gays and lesbians in schools.
Bixby is careful to note that at the time public discussion centered around gay and lesbian students; bisexuality was starting to be part of the conversation and transgender came later.
The students chose to call their new GSA “Save Our Students” or “SOS.”
“Back then, we couldn’t even use the words. It was like [gay] was a dirty word,” Bixby recalls. “GSAs were all called something else. In North Adams, they were ‘A Bunch of Grapes.’
Even though the group was officially called ‘SOS,’” Bixby says she always made sure to use the word “gay.”
Bixby and Grzesik weren’t alone in their efforts. Teachers in the high school and the middle school helped and the support of the administration, under Dr. Francis Zak, was crucial. Parents got involved, as well.
“People weren’t complacent,” Bixby says. “Now they are complacent.”
“Things can take generations to change,” Bixby says. “But then you have to be vigilant.”
Thirty to forty students would show up for the GSA meetings. Sometimes, what they needed most was just to tell their stories.
Once, the students performed a skit on the steps of the state house as part of a spirit contest. They won a rainbow flag, which was kept in the school office and brought out for special events.
“Dr. Zak instructed the custodial staff to put up three flag poles,” Grzesik recalls.
Thereafter, the rainbow flag flew alongside the American flag and the state flag. After a new building was constructed for the school, the flag poles were removed. Today, all three flags hang in the school library.
In 2007, the two women received an unforeseen honor. The school’s two gyms were named after them, in a ceremony honoring the retired teachers’ contributions to Mahar over careers that spanned more than 30 years each.
“We were in the right place at the right time,” Bixby says of the honor. “If it was 10 years later or 10 years earlier, it wouldn’t have been our names on that building.”
“It’s such an honor to have a facility like that named after you,” Grzesik says. “You know, that was my life down there [at the school]. It’s nice that this town has grown to be that accepting.”
Many of their friendships are based more on common interests, they say, and less on shared identity.
“I don’t believe gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people or heterosexuals should live in isolation. We live in the world together,” Bixby says.
Both women name Pat Griffin, a professor emerita in the Social Justice Education program at the University of Massachusetts, as a role model and inspiration.
“She gave me courage,” Bixby says, “and she inspired me with the message that this is important.”
The two also say they are each other’s inspiration.
“Polly has given me the strength to deal with things I couldn’t have dealt with alone,” Grzesik says.
“Karen has been a major supporter,” Bixby adds.
Over time, their support for each other has nurtured a whole town.
“I treat being lesbian as normal,” Bixby says. Her message for people who don’t see it that way is simple: “Get over it.”
“It’s easy for me to say that, at 70. I’ve built a reputation,” she says. “But we have to be careful not to put that [gay] 14 or 15-year-old in danger.”
“Sometimes,” she says, “they’re not ready to hold hands.”
“Then,” Grzesik adds, “we have to hold their hands.”