“I felt comfortable and represented.”
“I loved to get the opportunity to be part of such a free space.”
“Inspiring and needed.”
The first ever Virtual CEESA-Wide Pride was a student-led conference held entirely online on April 9, 2021.
Two hundred registered for the event, from more than 16 schools. The conference included club organizers, leaders, and members – middle and high school students from CEESA (the Central and Eastern European Schools Association) schools and beyond. While adults provided technical and logistical support, students created, shaped, and led the day-long online event.
“I loved the planning meetings. How the organizers included everybody´s proposals for workshops and presentations,” wrote one student afterwards.
“Forgot I was on zoom for hours. I felt a real connection to all the people I met and I loved how flexible it all was,” added another participant.
How did it come about? The first CEESA-Wide Pride conference was held in person, in November of 2019 at the International School of Prague – and for the 60+ participants, it was a highlight of that year – a chance for young people and adults to meet face-to-face, share resources, and create a greater sense of community for LGBTQ+ students and their allies.
Then came the pandemic and in-person gatherings became complicated and eventually impossible. School events were cancelled. Activities were postponed. At the same time, LGBTQ+ students were at increased risk, due to isolation and sometimes difficult home environments.
“I’m missing my friends’ support and I feel very tired and sad all the time since I’m stuck in a house full of people who I know won’t accept me. What really helps me is talking to my friends online and suppressing my feelings and not talking about them while I’m around my family.”Student interview quoted in “The Bite,” the American International School of Bucharest student newspaper about the effects of quarantine on the LGBTQ+ community.
Something needed to be done. Students who had been involved in the first CEESA-Wide Pride conference began reaching out to each other, supported by the faculty and administrations of their schools. What would it be like to hold a virtual conference – entirely online? Students began meeting twice a week to organize publicity, invite a keynote speaker, and discuss workshop topic ideas.
They decided that the conference would be for middle school as well as high school students, and so all ages were represented in the planning group. Students would propose and lead the majority of the workshops. To be sure the conference was a safe space, everyone attending would follow agreements about privacy and mutual respect.
Was it a success?
One student described it as “the most interactive zoom call I’ve ever had. It was so interesting to learn through discussion instead of a lecture, and talking to everyone was really nice.”
“Over zoom it felt less formal and therefore more comfortable,” wrote another participant. “We wonder if there isn’t always a place for this online option. Being in person would be great but this allowed many to attend that might not have been able to attend.”
“The opportunity for LGBTQ+ students and allies to connect virtually, during a year of such isolation and uncertainty, was wonderful,” said Jennifer Michalsky, ISP’s Spectrum co-advisor, looking back on the event.
And students have already asked when the next conference will be.
Elizabeth Perry is a co-advisor for Spectrum, at the International School of Prague