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Gay straight revolution: an explosion of gay-supportive clubs at high schools across the country is helping a generation become crusaders for equality.

When Javier Lopez arrived at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis as a freshman last year he had already told his parents he is gay and was ready to come out at school. But like many gay teens first grappling with the reality of being different, he was scared of what might happen. The urban school seemed a friendly enough place, but there was no obvious support system for gay students. So Lopez held off.

That was until a lesbian teacher, who said she understood what it was like to be a closeted teen, befriended Lopez, and together they formed a gay-straight alliance--a school club in which gay students and their friends could come together. They set up a booth at the school's "information day" and got a few students to sign up. Now Lopez, who is 16 and a sophomore, is president of the group. And he is happy. "If there wasn't a GSA, I probably wouldn't be out in high school," he says. "When I realized there was something there that could help, then I felt safe."

Jessica Jarrell, a 16-year-old junior at Bear Creek High School in suburban Lakewood, Colo., had a similar experience. Her principal was tired of hearing students utter antigay epithets in the halls and pushed the idea of forming a GSA. "She told the administration, 'This is what your students have to put up with,' and said they need to do something about it," says Jarrell. Soon the club was formed, and Jarrell was its enthusiastic leader.

As a small number of students generate headlines with high-profile battles against parents and school officials over forming GSAs in some rural areas, there's a quiet revolution of gay clubs forming in high schools across the country. Over 3,000 GSAs now exist nationwide, with chapters in all 50 states, and while that accounts for only about 15% of the nation's high schools, the number is growing almost every day. Gay teens once wary of coming out now might encounter posters in high school hallways advertising the activities of other gay students. The clubs, which are increasingly backed by teachers and administrators, provide a safe place for gay and gay-friendly students to socialize and to support each other.

And they are grooming the next generation of gay activists, who are ready to fight for full equality without hesitation. On-campus awareness campaigns, teacher training programs, and organized rallies for gay rights on and off school grounds are just a few of the activities a typical GSA might coordinate. "There's a new generation of LGBT kids who are refusing to be treated like second-class citizens," says Kevin Jennings, 42, executive director for the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, which facilitates the formation of the clubs. "Ten years ago the adults were ahead of the students. Now the students are ahead."

The blueprint for GSAs was established in the late 1980s, when Jennings was a teacher at a private high school in Boston. A gay student there told him he didn't think life was worth living. "I developed a philosophy that every gay student was my kid," Jennings says. "I did a talk at my school about being gay, and a girl came up to me and said she wanted to start a club to help gay kids. She said her mother was a lesbian and she was tired of hearing her family get put down at the school. She said, 'I'm straight and you're gay, so let's call it a gay-straight alliance.' That was 1988."

Jennings formed GLSEN in 1990 and four years later left his teaching job to become the group's first executive director, helping GSAs form nationwide. "The great thing about GSAs is how remarkable they are, and how unremarkable," says Jennings, who now lives in New York City with his partner of 10 years, Jeffrey Davis. "Students are sitting around talking and having pizza. So many gay people in our generation didn't get to have their adolescence until their 20s. These young people are getting to have it now."

That's true for Lopez, who says his club is a diverse group of friends who get a lot done but also have fun just hanging out. After they put together a National Coming Out Day event earlier this year, in which club members handed out stickers and "chalked" the school sidewalk with pro-gay messages, they held a party, he says. The club has participated in several of GLSEN's "Days of Action," including the Day of Silence protest and the Transgender Day of Remembrance, and they went to the state capitol for a rally against Minnesota's proposed ban on same-sex marriage. "But we're also doing some fun events like movie night and going to a coffee shop," he says.

That kind of safe and fun environment is also available to Cory Ashby, 17, even if not through an official GSA. Administrators and parents at Winterset High School in his rural Iowa town of about 5,000 aren't receptive to the idea of an official gay club. But as in the case of Lopez, one of Ashby's teachers--who has a gay brother--stepped in to help, and now they have a "diversity club." "This year we participated in all of GLSEN's Days of Action," he says. "It's not really an official club, but we're very active. It's a group of like-minded people who want to come together for common goals. The majority of the people who come to the meetings are straight. They are so willing to reach out and help, even though it's kind of scary in this place."

Ashby, Jarrell, and Lopez all have been to GLSEN's leadership training, a summer conference held last year in Washington, D.C., where they learned how to coordinate activities, organize workshops, and raise awareness among school officials. And whether they are able to form a GSA or not, what they bring back to their schools is making a difference. Amid some controversy around the Day of Silence protest Ashby recently organized, in which gay students and their allies remain silent for the day in order to raise awareness about the silence gays have had to endure, Ashby's principal called him into his office. "He was supportive," says Ashby, who plans on joining the Peace Corps after attending Knox College in Illinois beginning next year. "It's really raised awareness. There's resistance, but the people who want to do it are willing to go against the current."

Most of the resistance to Jarrell's club comes from outside the school. One of her friends was kicked out of his house after his parents found out he was going to the GSA, and another was pulled out of school because his parents decided there were too many gay people there.

But in school, resistance is fading, she says. "The first year of our GSA, one of the student's cars got spray-painted with the word Tag,'" says Jarrell, who will graduate early and study art history at the University of Colorado at Denver this fall. "That same year a student was harassed in a parking lot. But now things like that don't happen as often. Our GSA has drastically improved our school."

And as for the once timid Lopez, who debated the risks of coming out: "Now everyone knows my name at school," he says "If there's ever a GSA question, they say, 'Go talk to Javier.'"
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Article Details
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Author:Caldwell, John
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1U4MN
Date:Jun 21, 2005
Previous Article:Young, happy, label-free.
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