By Lily Grier, originally published in teh Detroit Jewish News
Last summer, Ethan Lis, 17, of Bloomfield Hills attended BBYO's International Leadership Training Conference, where he led a program and discussion on inclusivity for those in the LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) community.
Though he does not identify within the LGBTQ spectrum, Lis is passionate about creating equal opportunity for all people. The teens contemplated ways in which BBYO could become a more inclusive organization in order to fully embrace its mission: "More Jewish Teens, More Meaningful Jewish Experiences."
Lis was inspired to propose a motion, which was passed at BBYO's August Executive Conference, to change the wording of the organization's constitution so teens can join AZA or BBG chapters based on the gender with which they identify. Jayson Olson, 16, of West Bloomfield was excited to get involved in BBYO but felt he would be more comfortable in a gender-inclusive chapter.
"If an opportunity doesn't present itself to you, you have to present yourself and make an opportunity," Olson said.
Olson's sister connected him with Lis, who was also investigating the possibility of founding a new chapter, and the two of them approached BBYO Associate Regional Director Jacob Gussin with their idea. Zu Weinger, 17, of Franklin joined as the chapter’s third founder and so began the recruitment process. In the past, coed chapters were founded as a preliminary step toward introducing BBYO in a new area and then divided into separate male and female chapters once enough members are recruited.
"Founding a coed chapter not out of logistical necessity, but out of an ideal that teens can best work together in an inclusive environment has never been done before," Lis said.
The founding members decided to name their new chapter Milk BBYO, in memory of Harvey Milk, a popular Jewish advocate for the LGBTQ community who became one of the nation's first openly gay elected officials after winning a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. A year later, Milk and then-San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by a disgruntled former supervisor.
"Harvey Milk dove into the unknown, and that's what we're doing with this chapter," Olson said. The existing AZA and BBG chapters in Michigan Region have been supportive and eager to hold programs with Milk BBYO. Throughout the recruitment process, it was important to the founding members that their chapter did not become known as "the queer chapter." The chapter, which currently has 12 active members encompassing a spectrum of gender identities, is one of the fastest-growing new chapters in the region's history.
"This chapter is a place where everyone can come together, gain leadership skills and make a difference in the community," Olson said. With the goal of bettering the community, the members of Milk BBYO decided to focus this year on increasing positivity within Detroit through service.
Gussin said, "I was elated when I saw the passion and the drive the founders had for their chapter and the way they were collaborating. I really wanted to help them get off the ground." The founding members have taught Gussin - and Michigan Region - much about what it means to identify outside of one's biologically assigned gender. "These are not things that are necessarily taught in schools, and this really is an incredible opportunity for all of us to learn from these teens," Gussin said.
The formation of a coed chapter has posed challenges to the traditional structure of programming, but Gussin says finding solutions to make everyone feel comfortable will be an exciting and educational process.
The annual BBYO Regional Convention, a weeklong competition between chapters in December, proved a challenge, as AZA and BBG chapters traditionally compete within separate tracks. Milk BBYO divided its competitions evenly between the AZA (male) and BBG (female) groups. The chapter placed in several events, including winning first place in BBG storytelling, and was also awarded the widely coveted Sportsmanship Award.
The BBYO Michigan Region hopes to form more coed chapters in the future and create a third coed competition track. Olson said the convention provided the chapter with the opportunity to say to the region, "We're proud to be in this chapter, and we're here to stay.