EASTHAM — Nauset Regional High School students packed the bleachers on Friday, Oct. 15, whooping, whistling, and hollering as clubs, one by one, paraded down the turf field. It was the pep rally leading up to homecoming — Nauset’s first school dance since Covid shut things down in March 2020 — and the four grades were competing to be the loudest and most boisterous.
But when two seniors, Jaiden van Bork and Nell Hamilton, marched by with a banner for the Gender & Sexuality Alliance (GSA), the cheering subsided. Booing crescendoed from the freshman and junior sections, following the pair as they crossed the field.
“I was really hoping we had misheard it,” van Bork, the GSA president, recalled. “We were asking each other afterward, ‘Did that really happen?’ ”
In the following days, van Bork and Hamilton checked in with other GSA members. The pep rally had rattled the school’s queer community, leaving many angry and upset — but soon GSA members sprang into action, meeting with school administrators and urging the school to denounce the booing as acts of homophobia and transphobia.
At an assembly held on Oct. 26, Nauset High Principal Chris Elsasser acknowledged that the GSA had been “booed by some number of students.” Then he expanded the focus of his speech, broadening the question into one of how to “nurture an inclusive culture, where everyone feels respected for their differences,” according to an audio recording of the assembly obtained by the Independent.
The GSA members were disappointed. “We’ve told the administration many times that there’s a need to be specific, to address the real issue,” van Bork said. “The real issue here is homophobia and transphobia.” While administrators say they’re concerned about that issue, van Bork says their actions don’t go far enough in addressing it.
A week before the Oct. 26 assembly, the GSA had its first meeting after homecoming. Van Bork and Hamilton hoped it would be a chance for students to process their reactions to the pep rally. But Elsasser had emailed Alana Collins, the GSA’s faculty advisor, asking if he could attend the meeting.
The request caught Hamilton, the GSA’s vice president, off guard. Some people in the group don’t feel comfortable meeting with teachers or administrators present, she said. “GSA members rely on that being a safe space, so when we have to say at the last minute, ‘Oh, the principal’s coming,’ it can be a jarring thing,” Hamilton said.
Elsasser did come to the meeting. He told the group he was planning an assembly and asked for their suggestions.
“We talked about the need to address very specifically what happened and to educate people about why that impacts the LGBTQ+ community,” van Bork said. “We also talked to him about the need for queer voices to be included, for us to be heard in some way.”
As Elsasser jotted down the students’ recommendations, van Bork was candid in her doubts about the assembly-style format. “I told him that I didn’t think that this larger-scale lecture is going to be taken seriously,” she said. A more effective approach, she told Elsasser, would involve “smaller, more intimate conversations.”
The next week, on Oct. 26, Hamilton left her American sign language class and sat with queer classmates in the auditorium. Elsasser had arranged for the assembly to take place in smaller groups — of 70 or 80 students.
He touched on the pep rally incident, identifying the GSA as the target of the booing and describing the day as one that “has caused students, faculty, and staff to be sad and to feel pain, loss, confusion, and anger.” He then talked about the need for students to respect differences. “And by differences,” he said, “I’m referring to nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, age, political affiliation, and the cultural subgroups that you belong to.”
Hamilton and the other GSA members sat through the assembly, then texted friends scheduled for later sessions, telling them to lower their expectations. Their advice to Elsasser, in their view, had gone unheeded. They took issue with how his remarks gave short shrift to the experiences of queer students specifically and how the assembly failed to include an LGBTQ+ voice.
“I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about groups being marginalized more broadly,” Elsasser told the Independent. “I didn’t want to focus on the one group from the school. That was a decision that I made so that I could have a more universal conversation about the culture and the climate on campus.”
This approach, however, comes with drawbacks, say advocates for gay youth. One consequence is what Scott Fitzmaurice, executive director of the Cape & Islands Gay & Straight Youth Alliance (CIGSYA), calls “invisibilization” — that is, when a marginalized group’s distinct experience gets lumped under a “diversity umbrella.”
The CIGSYA has been working with the Nauset schools for nearly 20 years. Fitzmaurice said he has observed that schools tend to frame discussions in vague terms. “When we talk about respect for the LGBT community, we can’t get lost in other things to make everyone more comfortable,” he said. “That’s the key thing.”
Leading the Way
Since then, Nauset’s GSA members have been far from invisible.
The group has stepped up its advocacy. GSA member Lucy Swain, a junior, has collected more than 600 signatures on a petition urging Nauset to “boldly and productively” address allegations of microaggressions and harassment.
On March 24, the club joined with other social justice groups at Nauset and organized a community night aimed at educating the public on discrimination faced by different marginalized groups. And during those Thursday GSA meetings, members have been keeping tabs on the news and discussing the surge of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in state legislatures across America.
Van Bork and Hamilton have also held more meetings with school staff and administrators at the district level to discuss ways to better support Nauset’s queer students.
When the school was putting together its renovation plans, the administration reached out to the GSA for input. While a majority of Nauset’s current GSA members will have graduated by the time the rebuilt high school opens in fall 2025, members eagerly gave their recommendations on how to make gender-neutral bathrooms more accessible. Currently, the school has two: one is in the nurse’s office, and the other is a staff bathroom beside the main office.
Students who want to use these bathrooms have found themselves being asked uncomfortable questions by staff. “People aren’t on the same page,” Hamilton said. “The nurse will ask, ‘Why are you here?’ And if a student uses the other bathroom, someone might say, ‘Why are you in the faculty bathroom?’ ”
For athletes, there’s a gender-neutral changing room, but the space is attached to the weight room, where teams do strength training during the off season. Deakan Arcomano, a junior who identifies as a trans man and played on the junior varsity field hockey team, would have a friend walk with him through the weight room and keep watch outside, so he could feel safe using that room.
“It was just a precaution,” Arcomano said, “but I’ve always felt really uncomfortable just even walking through the weight room. There were so many people who’d watch me come in.”
Elsasser acknowledged the weaknesses in the school’s current accommodations. But Nauset’s renovation plans, he said, will have gender-neutral bathrooms and locker rooms.
“We’re just so proud of the students for taking on leadership roles,” Elsasser added. “The fact that they took something negative and turned it into something positive is impressive. The future is in good hands with kids who can take something like that and turn it into a productive means for spreading the idea of inclusion.”