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Rebels with a cause.

Youthful gay leaders take the fight for civil rights into the nation's high schools

For gay and lesbian teens, 1996 was the year two young activists burst into national headlines, energizing a movement that had been building in quiet isolation in high schools across America. As the press zeroed in on Wisconsinite Jamie Nabozny and Utahan Kelli Peterson, teens around the country took note and took heart. For the first time, says Rea Carey, director of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition, high school-age gays and lesbians had "heroes and heroines who are youth themselves. So when they're looking for role models, they don't have to look at adults - they can look at their peers."

With a groundbreaking lawsuit and a student uprising, Nabozny and Peterson broke from the way previous generations had dealt with antigay harassment in high school. "In my youth, in order to avoid a heating, we would just deny who we were," says David Buckle, a staff attorney at Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and Nabozny's cocounsel. Nabozny refused to deny he was gay, says Buckle, and Peterson organized, founding a club for gay students and their straight friends and refusing to back down when authorities said she couldn't.

For Peterson the battle that would change her life was one she almost decided not to fight. For about three weeks last winter, she says, she hid from the press and wondered whether to tell school officials she didn't want a club after all. But then she thought about how helpful it would have been if someone had been there for her.

"For me," says Peterson, now 18, "it was a world where staying in the closet was a top priority." After getting beaten up in her freshman gym class, Peterson would tell her parents she'd been hurt playing field hockey. She says she thought she had no right to protest "It still hurts to think about it," Peterson says, her eyes turning wet and red. "I hated myself so much for being gay."

But on February 6 - a week after Utah lawmakers conducted a secret meeting to plan how to stop the newly formed gay-straight student alliance at Salt Lake City's East High School - Peterson stepped up to the microphone at a rally inside the Utah state capitol rotunda. "I would like the legislators of Utah to know that I did not start this group to advocate homosexuality," said Peterson, her voice reverberating between the painted murals of Mormon pioneers. "I started this group to end the misery and isolation of being gay in high school."

The focus on equal rights is a fresh note in public discourse about gay and lesbian youth, says Michele O'Mara, cocoordinator of the October "Free 2B Me" national youth festival in Washington, D.C. Peterson isn't talking about how maladjusted and confused gay youth are, says O'Mara, "she's saying, 'I have this right. What are you going to do about it?'"

If Peterson represents the power gay and lesbian teens can wield through social activism, Nabozny represents the legal force teens and their parents can bring to bear upon the nation's high schools. On November 20, in the first case on antigay violence in schools to reach a federal court, a jury concluded that administrators at Nabozny's school were liable for failing to protect him from harassment. Wisconsin school officials agreed to pay Nabozny nearly $1 million in damages.

Nabozny attended high school in Ashland, where he was subject to vicious abuse. In the bathroom, boys attacked him and urinated on him. Nabozny had to have surgery after a boy wearing cowboy boots beat him to the ground and aimed sharp kicks at his stomach. "He would have eventually been killed," says Bob Nabozny about his son.

Nonetheless, when a U.S. district court threw out his case in October 1995, Nabozny says he was tempted to quit. "I really wanted to move on," he says. But by then he had discovered during one semester of college that he couldn't just move on.

"I'd have to sit in the back of the class by the door, so I could get out of the room if I had to," says Nabozny, now 21. "I had stomach pain all the time. Taking notes was almost impossible because I couldn't look down and look around the room [for trouble] at the same time." Nabozny was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and he realized his battle with Ashland High School was a personal journey as well as a public one. "I needed to close this," he says, "and I needed to do it in a positive way."

Nabozny and Peterson represent a trend in which teens are coming out as politically active gays or lesbians at increasingly younger ages, say gay activists. These youth are emerging into a world that offers them more role models in their own communities and more positive gay images in the media. There's more information about gay issues and politics, accessible through the Internet. Support groups have flowered. Service providers who work with youth say all this means many gay teens end up with a healthier identity.

Growing up in Bloomington, Ind., 18-year-old Phoebe Hanshew says she never had the sense she was alone as a gay teen. "I can't remember feeling isolated," says Hanshew, who founded a gay-straight alliance in 1996 at her high school for holding workshops on issues like heterosexism in the media.

These youth are busting an old myth about homosexuality, says Buckle: "It's going to become harder for America to sustain its stereotypes, because if lesbians and gays are kids, it's hard to view them as molesters and recruiters. They're just kids."

The first national alliance to unite gay high school clubs sprang up in Chicago in 1996, founded by 17-year-old Miguel Ayala. Ayala says the mission of Pride USA is to help students form gay clubs and link them up through the Internet. Ayala is creating a Web site that he says will ultimately include state-by-state regulations and instructions for forming such clubs.

A year after Peterson started her club at East High, life for gay teens there is already very different. Members of the gay-straight alliance say they still have to deal with occasional jeers. But where junior Ashley Birch used to turn away from it and feel rotten, now, she says, when kids taunt her with "You hang around with all those gay people," she turns to them and says, "Yeah...what's your point?"
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:young gay leaders in civil rights movement
Author:Snow, Kat
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Jan 21, 1997
Previous Article:Friends in high places?
Next Article:The marriage-go-round.

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