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FreeZone gives students a voice

     Vianca Yohn has come a long way from being denied a gay-straight alliance at her high school.

     In the fall, the junior English major will start her second consecutive term as president of FreeZone, Otterbein's gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer (GLBTQ) organization. She's been a member since the first quarter of her freshman year, when she stepped in as secretary.

     Yohn didn't have an organization like FreeZone in her high school in Madison, Ala. Both of her attempts to start a gay-straight alliance (GSA) were halted by the high school's principal, who thought it would promote sex.

     "He said, ‘All told, letting you have a GSA will be like letting you start a Nazi club. It wouldn't be read as you hoped,'" Yohn said. "He tried to take the stance that parents wouldn't want a GSA. We're not here for the parents, but for the students."

     Yohn was discouraged, but didn't give up. The principal told her that if she could bring a sizable number of students interested in a GSA to his office, he would reconsider. A couple weeks later, she and a group of 30 students spent two hours there explaining why a GSA would make them feel safer.

     His response? "He pulled out the outdated anti-sodomy law. He kept 30 people after school for nothing. It still didn't happen," Yohn said.

     The gold may have been scarce at the end of that rainbow, but things changed in college.

     "I didn't have a huge community of queer-identified people other than my girlfriend," Yohn said. "When I came to FreeZone and we were able to discuss it in a safe environment, it helped me validate my identity that hadn't been validated for the first 18 years of my life."

     FreeZone tore down the strict boundaries of gender for Yohn, who grew up thinking everyone had to be either a boy or a girl. She now identifies with the "Q" in the GLBTQ acronym, which stands for "queer" or "queer-identified."

     "I identify with being female-bodied, but in my head, I don't necessarily identify as a boy or a girl," she said.

     For some, FreeZone is a haven away from judgment and intolerance. Like Yohn, sophomore creative writing major Jessica McGill didn't have a GSA in the small farm town where she grew up.

     "Coming to college and finding a safe place to explore my own sexuality was good because I couldn't do that back home," she said. "I could also help my friends who were stuck get the resources they need."

     One of FreeZone's goals this year is Thursday's 5 p.m. Day of Silence Speak Out. During this annual forum, students take turns standing in front of a microphone at Towers Plaza and sharing experiences in which they've felt silenced by others.

     "It's very rousing," Yohn said. "I usually tear up at least once."

     A topic that's caused a lot of discussion among FreeZone members is the value of adding another letter to the acronym: "A" for "ally," meaning someone who is straight but supports other kinds of sexuality.

     "The allies are just as vital a part of the community," sophomore English major Beth Merritt said. "They have just as much of a voice. They're part of the majority helping the minority."

     FreeZone may represent a minority, but when its members come together, they become their own majority – and it's here that they feel most compelled to be themselves.

     "In FreeZone, we can be whoever we really are," Merritt said. "It's like going home."   

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