Sears, who came out of the closet his junior year because "I hated biding myself from my friends," says he'll be a role model for other young gay men and lesbians at his Lincolnshire, Ill., high school this year. "I know what they're going through, and I know how hard it can be."
While it's the school bell that traditionally signals the start of the school day, it's likely that the ears of gay and lesbian students this year will be ringing from America's stormy, ongoing debate about homosexuality.
From Alameda, Calif., where a teacher's license is being challenged because she discussed the coming-out episode of ABC's Ellen with her fifth-grade students, to Fayetteville, Ark., where 16-year-old Willie Wagner was hospitalized with a broken nose and bruised kidneys after he came out, gay and lesbian students are hitting the books this year not only with the same everyday worries of their peers but also with the knowledge that by simply being, they attract the ire of their classmates and the religious right.
The atmosphere in today's schools has changed in more ways than just the rise of same-sex prom dates. Gay and lesbian issues have become part of mainstream dialogue, as illustrated in part by TV sitcoms like Ellen. Unlike in years past, "it's highly unlikely gays and lesbians will grow up thinking they are alone," says Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). "They at least know there is Ellen."
The National Education Association's 500-member Gay and Lesbian Caucus recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. The group was formerly known as the Ichabod Crane Debating Society in deference to members' fears of using the words gay or lesbian in the name, but these days members proudly wear pink ribbons emblazoned with GAY AND LESBIAN CAUCUS, says caucus communications director Sharon Miken.
Whether the role models are teachers or comedians, however, their visibility is bringing gays and lesbians out at a younger age. "Before, gay teens suppressed their feelings, kept them hidden," says Jennifer Kruger, coordinator of Presence and Respect for Youth in Sexual Minorities (PRYSM), a Cleveland support group for gay and lesbian teens. "But now that gay issues are in the forefront, teenagers are getting terms and a culture to put with what they're feeling."
These same teens, however, are being socked with a paradox: With higher visibility they increase their vulnerability to antigay harassment and present themselves as a target to those who prefer that gay and lesbian topics stay out of schools altogether.
"The religious right is trying to isolate schools from what is happening around the rest of the country," Jennings says. "It's an interesting dynamic. First there is an increased pressure on schools to address gay and lesbian issues, and then there is the religious right, which has chosen the school ground as its last stand."
Two issues brought the plight of gay teens to the country's attention more than any others last year. In February 1996 Kelli Peterson's attempt to start a gay-straight alliance at her Salt Lake City high school sparked a controversy stoked by the decision of the school board--and later the state legislature--to ban nonacademic clubs.
Then in November a court decision and subsequent $900,000 settlement proved that Ashland, Wis., school administrators had failed to protect Jamie Nabozny against repeated harassment. The decision sent educators a strong message: There's a high price for ignoring gay and lesbian students.
Efforts like these are going to cause "earthquakes" in the schools again this year, says David Buckel, staff attorney at Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, who helped win the Nabozny case. "They've been brewing in Salt Lake for a year, and there have been skirmishes in Anchorage, Alaska; Oberlin, Ohio; and Niskayuna, N.Y."
Tremors have been felt in classrooms from coast to coast, as students, parents, and teachers step forward to argue for--or against--the rights of gay and lesbian youth.
In Chesterton, Ind., a mother challenged (unsuccessfully) a teacher's right to hang a gay-themed poster in her classroom. In Gaston, N.C., a school-board member elected on a conservative Christian platform took up 15 minutes during an August 4 board meeting to deliver an impassioned attack on gays. In Fremont, Calif., a school-board member said, "That's like letting the fox watch the henhouse," after it was decided gay activists would help school principals and counselors create a harassment-free environment for students.
In many cases individuals and groups are fighting back. In Pacifica, Calif., a 12-year-old boy is suing his former school district because teachers and administrators there allegedly refused to intervene after he was subjected to years of harassment-including taunts of "Girl!" and "Gay-gay!"--by classmates. In Kent, Wash., the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the school district on behalf of a young man who was allegedly brutally assaulted last year by at least eight other classmates yelling "Faggot!" and "Queer!" while at least 30 other students watched or even encouraged the violence. In the Canadian town of Surrey, British Columbia, gay rights supporters filed a lawsuit against the school board after it banned three children's books--Asha's Mums; Belinda's Bouquet; and One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dads--because they feature same-sex parents. And in Boulder, Colo., the city's Office of Human Rights is applying for a $9,197 grant to create a program aimed at educating teachers and administrators about gay and lesbian issues.
Students, whom Buckel calls "the cornerstone in the fight against antigay harassment," are the ones who will make sure "the seismograph needle moves." And this year, he says, "I think it's going to jump."
Gay-straight alliances started up all over the country after Peterson's efforts in Salt Lake City, says Phoebe Hanshew, an intern with GLSEN who is responsible for initiating Student Pride Network, an information and support link for gay groups and gay-straight alliances. Student Pride, which kicks off this fall, already has more than 100 names in its database.
The 19-year-old Hanshew, who started a gay-straight alliance when she was a senior in Bloomington, Ind., says the groups are essential because "school is a dangerous place for gay teens, in terms of both physical violence and emotional violence.
"It's also damaging when you don't see yourself reflected in any part of school life," she says. For example, "in health class there is no safe-sex education for queer sex."
In its first year the Bloomington gay-straight alliance organized the school's first Homophobia Awareness Day and, with a grant from the mayor's office, purchased more than 1,000 rainbow-flag stickers to pass out to students along with fliers on homophobia. "It was so cool to see the sea of rainbow flags down the hall," Hanshew says. "People wore them for weeks afterward. It became a cool thing to have a sticker."
But Buckel fears some school principals may try to sidetrack student efforts to form groups and may suggest, for example, that they rent school space, as community groups do. He emphasizes, however, that the federal Equal Access Act--employed to win the Nabozny case--is powerfully on the side of the alliances. "When most school attorneys see the law and how the courts have interpreted it," Buckel says, "they tell school administrators that they better back off and do the right thing."
The law is also on the side of protecting gay and lesbian students from harassment, as illustrated by guidelines issued this spring by the U.S. Department of Education. The department determined that antigay harassment that is sexual in nature is prohibited by Title IX, a federal statute that covers sexual harassment. Mock rapes and kissing noises, for example, are now prohibited under the statute. Other harassment, such as a boy's being excluded from a lunchroom table because he is gay, is prohibited the Equal Access Act.
While neither Hanshew nor Sears personally faced antigay harassment in school, incidents are well documented elsewhere. In Washington State, for example, where the Safe Schools Coalition has issued an annual report for the past three years, 77 attacks--seven of them gang rapes--against gay students were reported during the 1996-97 school year. "And these are just a tiny fraction of the incidents that occur," says Beth Reis of the coalition.
Other recorded incidents include a high school pep rally at which the entertainment included a slapstick reenactment of a gay bashing. These incidents, along with the Nabozny case, have "shown the general public the tip of the iceberg" and have served as a red flag for parents, Reis says.
Soon after the Nabozny case was settled, Buckel received a phone call from a tearful Carolyn Wagner in Fayetteville, Ark. Her son, Willie, came out at 14 and immediately became the target of extreme antigay harassment. It began with name-calling, escalated to death threats and broken windows in the family home, and culminated when Willie was hospitalized for injuries at 16.
"Parents are the most powerful force in the country," Buckel says. "And now they're choosing to love their gay kids rather than their dead kids. The conservative right has been very vocal, but these parents' actions are much stronger and more massive because they are motivated by love for their children and a fear for their future."
Since contacting Buckel, Wagner has successfully lobbied the school board to institute a nondiscrimination policy that includes wording pertaining to sexual orientation. And though Willie will be going on to college this year, his mother says she'll make sure his high school enforces the policy. Students still in school have promised to let her know if harassment continues, and she plans to attend every school-board meeting.
"We have not a clue what life has been like for our son," Wagner says. "We asked a friend of his one day what it was like, and he laughed and said, `William got harassed in every class on every day of school.' And it kills me. I can't understand how people can allow children to hurt other children for any reason."
In the end, after all the politics and ideological battles have been peeled away, what it comes down to is learning to care for our gay and lesbian children. "We get so excited about ENDA and gays in the military," says PRYSM's Kruger, referring to the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act. "But our youth are sort of hidden in the shadows. For all the effort and progress we've made, the stereotypes are still out there. They're being passed around from parent to child, from peer to peer. And schools still aren't a safe place to be."
RELATED ARTICLE: SCHOOL SUPPLIES FOR GAY STUDENTS
These are items or resources that the New York City-based Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network recommends no gay student should be without:
* A copy of How to Start a Gay-Straight Alliance in Your School, provided by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network; call (212) 727-0135, or visit their Internet site at http://www.glsen.org. (Their Student Pride Network, a free service that provides support to high school students working to end antigay bias in their schools, can be reached at StudentPride@glsen.org.)
* Toll-free national hot lines staffed by other gay students, including the Indianapolis Youth Group (1-800-347-TEEN; effective October 1) and Out-Youth Austin [Tex.] (1-800-96-YOUTH)
* The support group Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG): (202) 638-4200
* For children of gay men and of lesbians: Gay and Lesbian Parents Coalition International and its partner organization, Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere: (202) 583-8029
* Youth groups, which can be found on-line by visiting the Internet at http://outproud.org.forum
* Three books no high school library should be without:
Becoming Visible: A Reader in Gay and Lesbian History for High School and College Students, edited by Kevin Jennings (Alyson, 1994)
Free Your Mind: The Book for Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Youth--and Their Allies by Ellen Bass and Kate Kaufman (HarperCollins, 1996) Growing Up Gay/Growing Up Lesbian: A Literary Anthology, edited by Bennett L. Singer (The New Press, 1993).
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||gay youth|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Sep 16, 1997|
|Previous Article:||All about In and Out.|
|Next Article:||Financial inhibitors.|