When Anna Weingart’s mom knocked on her bedroom door, she asked her to turn off the lights before she entered. Weingart had finally decided to come out to her mom, and she couldn’t look her in the eyes.
Weingart came out in 2008 while attending Stephen F. Austin High School, where she often felt lonely because she didn’t know anyone like her. It wasn’t until she was a freshman at UT and started attending the Gender and Sexuality Center’s weekly hangouts that she realized there were many people in Austin experiencing the same feelings as her.
“In my case, I was suicidal through most of high school,” Weingart said. “I talked to other people and they had different stories, but it all came down to that lack of community. That was the underlying cause of our pain.”
In June 2014, Weingart created SanghaLink, an online, invitation-only social network aimed at creating safe communities for high school LGBT students. The online platform helps alleviate the loneliness LGBT students often feel in high school. The organization, which was launched statewide in 2015, is developing a smartphone app set to be released in 2017.
The SanghaLink team creates accounts for high school representatives who can connect their peers to the site. Twice a semester students can plan #SLmeetups, where they can interact with their online friends in person to discuss issues and exchange ideas.
While there are many available resources for LGBT students, including school Gay Straight Alliances and online forums, Weingart said some students who had yet to come out may not attend these meetings and may face predators online.
“We all have that desire to be around people who are like us and going through similar things,” Weingart said. “With the LGBT community, because it’s not always obvious if someone is gay, it’s really hard to find other people to connect with.”
In 2011, Weingart took time off from UT and was inspired to create SanghaLink. But at 19, she didn’t have money or credibility. For the next two and a half years, she volunteered with local non-profits to promote SanghaLink. In May 2014, the platform ran a trial at Pflugerville High School, which was successful in helping adults understand what made this program different.
“One student said ‘I’ve been waiting forever for something like this,’” Weingart said. “What SanghaLink provides is so obviously needed in the eyes of students. I think the challenge is getting older people to understand why this extra step is necessary, because they didn’t grow up in the technology age.”
In December of the same year, one of her friends was going to the International LGBT Leaders Conference in Washington, D.C., and Weingart decided to attend too. During the conference, Weingart mentioned SanghaLink and other attendees wanted to know what it was, so she took to the stage to explain her idea. At the conclusion of the weekend, she had received $13,000 in donations.
“That was the founding of SanghaLink,” Weingart said. “That was the money to file the paperwork and hire an attorney. From then on, that’s when things became real.”
Greta Gatlin, a senior at Georgetown High School, started using SanghaLink after the statewide release in 2015 and attended a meetup in May.
“I was super scared,” Gatlin said. “But when I got there, [I saw] kids talking about their experiences and being so open about themselves in an environment that was super accepting and super comfortable. It gave me hope that there was a community that I could be myself with and talk freely and not be scared of anything.”