High school confidential.
My high school experience ended five years ago, but other teenagers are still trapped in that second-to-last row. In December, 15-year-old Anthony Colin stood before reporters prior to the meeting of the Orange Unified School District board in Orange, Calif., describing the harassment he had suffered at El Modena High School and how a gay-straight alliance could help him and other teens like him. With strength and dignity, Anthony addressed the misunderstandings of his conservative community, and more than 50 other students joined him in petitioning the school board to allow the GSA.
But the school board didn't listen. It denied Anthony's request in a 7-0 vote, and in true homophobic fashion ruled that the group was less about creating tolerance than it was about sex. That reasoning justified the board's refusal to comply with the federal Equal Access Act, which mandates that all noncurricular clubs be treated the same. But I know that no school board can or will stop Anthony's vision for an inclusive, more respectful America.
Discrimination and apathy on the part of administrators, school boards, and teachers is the rule, not the exception, for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered students. In a 1999 national survey by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, 69% of GLBT students reported having been verbally, physically, or sexually harassed or physically assaulted at school. What's amazing is that thousands of these youths are refusing to suffer in silence, as I did when I was 16. They're forming gay-straight alliances in small towns and city schools nationwide. More than 700 of these clubs have registered with GLSEN's Student Pride USA, a project that supports students working to end antigay bias in schools.
Now, at age 23, I'm no longer silent: I work for GLSEN full-time, having spent several years doing youth empowerment work in South Carolina and Baltimore. Through Student Pride USA I've met student activists of all colors, nationalities, ages, gender identities, and sexual orientations. They envision a future I wasn't sure existed when I was 16, a future when they will have a place to meet to discuss and counter the turmoil and harassment that too often intrudes on their lives. Each day I'm astounded by their numbers, their power, and, most important, their passion to right society's wrongs. Recently, for example, I met Morgan, a determined 14-year-old who last year brought her girlfriend to the prom and who is now forming her Alabama school district's first GSA.
Both Morgan and Anthony can attest to the fact that gay-straight alliances are needed--that they raise participants' self-esteem and reduce homophobia in schools. My years at Irmo High School would have been easier if I'd had the support of a club to fight the hatred I faced every day. But times are changing. Now I have hope even for a school that barred the Indigo Girls. There's no GSA there yet, but it doesn't seem impossible that there will be one.
The question is no longer whether these groups should start, but when. It's no longer whether GLBT students have rights, but when their rights will be recognized. When will our schools stand firm against antigay pressure and opt for programs and policies that serve all youth regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity? When will schools and teachers use their authority in our communities to stand up for all young people, instead of silently supporting those who bully GLBT youth?
Obviously, the battle is far from over. Most GLBT 14-year-olds still struggle alone, with no support in their schools or communities. But like Anthony and Morgan, many are now refusing to suffer in silence. These young people are not only demanding safety, they're demanding respect--in their schools, in their cities, and in their America.
Tuttle is national student organizer for GLSEN. Contact GLSEN through www.advocate.com.