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TEACHING SCHOOLS A LESSON.

Undaunted by the opposition, gay students are giving their schools a lesson in tolerance

Morgan Frieden, a 15-year-old girl in Huntsville, Ala., developed a "huge crush" as a sixth-grader on an eighth-grade girl just out of the closet, sending the entire school "into an uproar." By the time Frieden got to high school, she was even gutsier. Only a few teachers and students knew she was a lesbian when she arrived, but in the fall of her ninth-grade year, she took her girlfriend to the homecoming dance. "It was a blast!" says Frieden, who is now a sophomore. "We got a few evil looks, a few `Ooh, can I butt in?' looks, and many `Way to go!' looks."

Huntsville may not seem the most likely place to find an openly lesbian student, let alone one who would show up at a dance with her girlfriend. But increasingly across the nation, gay and lesbian students are coming out in their schools with a sense of confidence that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago. And if a flourishing gay student culture seems extraordinary to gay and lesbian adults, it's downright disturbing, even shocking, to many straight ones. Almost overnight school districts, youth centers, clergy, counselors, and parents have found themselves dealing with demands for gay-straight alliances (GSAs) at school and with same-sex dating, including at the prom. The "problem" that teachers and administrators have for years been too frightened to confront is suddenly walking through the schoolhouse door every weekday morning.

For thousands of gay teens, life is still hellish. But more and more, gay and lesbian students are out, brave, and happy despite the obstacles they still face. Mostly they are normal American teenagers, complete with all the joy and drama that come with their age. The closet seems at most a temporary stop. Lamar Lottie (who spoke on the condition that his real name not be used) is a 17-year-old jock at a private school in the Dallas suburbs who says if he were outed, "it'd be OK. But it would make things more difficult." But, he adds quickly, "I'm considering coming out next year, when I'm a senior."

In fact, many students seem equally at ease with their orientation, even if being honest about it causes them problems. For Justin Ruben Irizarry, a 17-year-old senior in Elizabeth, N.J., coming out was more difficult, partly because his parents are dead. He realized he was gay "at the tender age of 8" and told his extended family a few years later. His uncle promptly threw him out of the house. Irizarry now lives with other relatives.

Other students tell more innocent stories. Jascie Williams, a 16-year-old junior-at Philadelphia's High School for Creative and Performing Arts, remembers having little girlfriend "bathroom buddies" she would get caught making out with. Then, at age 13, while reading her favorite book, Rita Mae Brown's Six of One, Williams discovered what a lesbian was and liked it. Nick Fulcher, a 17-year-old junior from Maple Grove, Minn., says his friends, mostly girls, "were very accepting. They all wanted details about my gay friends and the guys I was dating."

The presence of out gay students is changing schools. Speeding that change are national groups such as the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network that bring information, contacts, and resources to even the most isolated young people. As a sign of just how much schools are being transformed by the demands of gay and lesbian students, gay-straight alliances are popping up at an astonishing rate, sometimes in the most conservative of places, such as Orange County, Calif., and Baton Rouge, La.

These alliances "have exploded in this country in the last several years," says Kevin Jennings, GLSEN's founder and executive director. "Just a short while ago, there was a general denial that there even were gay teens."

Jennings notes that the movement has succeeded in spite of, not because of, the education system: "What we see happening is a real grassroots movement led by students and isolated faculty." The schools' response, he says, "has ranged from indifference to overt hostility. Active support, at least at the initial stages, is, frankly, virtually unheard-of." One reason: The median age of public school teachers is 47. "They started college the year of the Stonewall riots," Jennings says. Even today, most teacher training programs offer nothing about gay kids at all.

Virginia Uribe, who in 1984 founded Los Angeles's Project 10, the first on-campus gay group in the country, says the prospect of out gay kids terrifies administrators. "There is a great fear of parents, especially at the administrative level," she says. "They are afraid of controversy, of opposition, that they will look bad. And the higher up you get in education the more cowardly you become. But we are making some progress." In Los Angeles, for example, at least 40 of the city's 49 high schools, along with several alternative schools, have some form of gay group on campus. But not every place is like Los Angeles. In most of the country, Uribe points out, teachers still fear, "whether justified or not, that they will lose their job if they even talk about gay and lesbian issues or allow a group to form."

Not surprisingly, there are still no gay-straight alliances in the Huntsville school system, but that's not because Frieden's not trying. "I'm doing my best, slowly but surely, to open people's eyes," she says.

However, acceptance in many schools is still hard-won, both from peers and teachers. Gina Russell, a 17-year-old senior from Ames, Iowa, has made a point of becoming a beacon for other gay kids: "I've been as blatantly out as possible, so people sort of flock to me if they're unsure." She founded the first alliance in Iowa as a freshman, saying "it was relatively easy." The hard part, though, "has been maintaining the energy to not only keep things going but also fight back against the antiqueer mentality of the student body." She also took her then-girlfriend to the prom last spring and reports it was "fantastic." There were no harsh words, "but we did get some strange looks. I wrote a column about it for our school paper, actually." Still, like most gay teens, Russell does get harassed sometimes. "I've been called a `queer' and a `fucking dyke' in the hallway, but only twice," she says. "I reported them, and it was dealt with."

Once out, gay students are often quickly stereotyped to the exclusion of the rest of their personalities. "I'm known as `the gay guy' at school," says 18-year-old Galen Newton, a senior in Clive, Iowa. "Although the intent is more likely descriptive than hurtful, I am assigned this title with little thought or consideration." The words, says Newton, who is Asian-American, "could never justify my personality. They could never show the depth of my character. For some reason, they rank my orientation before my character, benevolence, and hard work. My sexuality is even ranked before my race, which I consider to be much more obvious."

More disheartening is the response from some teachers, who are supposed to be concerned primarily with their students' well-being. Not all teachers know how to handle having gay students around. Russell says that days after she came out, a teacher at her school "spent the day telling his classes how sick and wrong gay people were and that he would hate to have a gay student in his class." When she heard about it Russell told her counselor, who told her the teacher was retiring and "we should just let it go." Other teachers have been better, Russell says. Some have put up signs for the group she founded, and a few even come to meetings. But others ignore gay slurs in the classroom, "and that's strained my relationships with them," she says.

Newton says he can tell his relationship with a faculty member "has surpassed that of mere teacher-student to friendship when I disclose that I am gay." Still, it's not easy: "I'm terribly frightened that if I just come out and tell all my teachers, they'll stereotype me immediately. I am more than my sexuality, and I have to make that clear before I am open with a teacher. It would be nice to think that a teacher leaves his or her prejudices out of the classroom, but this would not be realistic."

Even in the face of obvious harassment, some school officials prefer to keep their heads in the sand. Jascie Williams, who was recently selected as one of 20 outstanding teens in Teen People magazine, was outed one day by a fellow student, and the harassment began. "I'd spent so much time being free in my home, and suddenly people were banging me up against walls," she says. "Word got around fast, and I couldn't walk down the hallway without being called a dyke. I didn't know what to do." Finally Williams saw a counselor. "He said, `Things like that don't happen at this school.' He made me feel like I was crazy, like my problems weren't valid," says Williams, who began cutting classes and feeling sick about her life. "I had a stress sickness, the harassment was so bad."

But with the help of her parents, she fought back. Philadelphia schools have no-harassment policies, including harassment based on sexual orientation. "We reminded the school that they could be sued for this," Williams says. After considering a transfer, she decided to stay and went on to become coordinator of the school's gay-straight alliance.

Fighting back helped check the physical and emotional stress all that harassment had engendered. "I had a big talk with the principal," Williams says matter-of-factly. "I really started demanding things."

As a result, Williams has begun to change attitudes of school officials and other students. She got involved with a GSA-sponsored program to make public schools safer for sexual minorities, and she helped expand her school's alliance to make it a more comfortable place for a larger number of students, specifically bisexuals. "There really are so many bisexual kids out there," she says, "and they are too often excluded."

Williams also started a speakers' bureau for gay kids to talk in high school classes, a pretty gutsy move. "Sometimes kids are uncool, but I allow them to ask any question they want," she says. "They think it's all about sex, but I teach them there's a culture and history, that we are a people, not just a sex act. My message to them is important, and some of them really get it. I hope it makes them think twice before they harass someone. Only they are the ones who can put a stop to harassment."

RELATED ARTICLE: YOUTH QUAKE

EVERY SO OFTEN a student uprising--like that at California's El Modena High School--catches the nation's attention and, therefore, newspaper headlines. But it's impossible for those headlines to illustrate the battles gay and lesbian youth face every day. This map, as a result, just scratches the surface of recent antigay attacks and the subsequent struggles of gay youth on campuses across the country.

OREGON

* August 1998: The far-right Oregon Citizens Alliance files an initiative for the November 2000 ballot that would prohibit public schools from discussing homosexuality and bisexuality "in a manner which encourages, promotes, or sanctions such behaviors,"

* February 2000: A junior at Sam Barlow High School in Gresham is told he can't cross-dress or wear a T-shirt that reads, SORRY, GIRLS, I'M GAY,

CALIFORNIA

* April 1999: Five students file a lawsuit against the Morgan Hill Unified School District claiming that officials at Live Oak High and Murphy Middle schools did nothing to stop antigay harassment between 1994 and 1997, One of the plaintiffs, a seventh-grader, was hospitalized after a group of boys repeatedly beat him at a school bus stop while shouting antigay epithets, The bus driver, the suit says, did nothing,

* October 1999: The state provides gay-inclusive nondiscrimination protections to students,

* February 2000: A judge rules that a gay-straight alliance at El Modena High School must be allowed to meet while a court case against the Orange Unified School District, which prohibited the club, proceeds,

* February 2000: A proposal to start a gay-straight alliance at Mission Viejo High School is shot down because of the school district's policy against all noncurricular clubs,

NEVADA

* January 2000: Derek Henkle, a former Reno student, sues the school district for failing to protect him from antigay harassment, including an incident in which a lasso was thrown around his neck and he was threatened with being dragged from a pickup truck,

UTAH

* November 1999: A U.S. district judge rules that the Salt Lake City School District did not violate high school students' First Amendment rights by preventing them from forming a gay-straight alliance,

* November 1999: Two female students at Ogden's Weber High School are suspended after kissing in the school hallway,

LOUISIANA

* February 2000: At least 36 students are suspended for protesting the formation of a gay-straight alliance at McKinley High School in Baton Rouge,

WISCONSIN

* August 1985: The state enacts gay-inclusive nondiscrimination protections for students.

MASSACHUSETTS

* 1993: The state provides gay-inclusive nondiscrimination protections to students.

* May 1999: Two students at Northfield Mount Hermon School corner a 17-year-old fellow student and carve HOMO in five-inch block letters across his back with a pocketknife, They say they targeted the boy because he likes the British rock band Queen, whose lead singer, Freddie Mercury, died of AIDS complications in 1991.

* January 2000: A Boston High School student is sexually assaulted and beaten unconscious on a subway by a trio of female classmates who assumed she's gay because she holds hands with girls, The victim, a Morrocan, grew up in a culture where hand-holding among schoolgirls is customary.

NEW HAMPSHIRE

* July 1999: Two students at Manchester High School file a lawsuit against their school district and the school principle for denying them the right to form a gay-straight alliance, The board later agrees to recognize the GSA rather than fight the lawsuit.

CONNECTICUT

* 1997: The state provides gay-inclusive nondiscrimination protections to students.

NEW YORK

* September 2000: After many days of being subjected to antigay harassment, a 16-year-old gay student at Shenendehowa High School in Clifton Park is "ganged up" on by five students, After he hits one of his tormentors on the head with a stick, he is suspended, School officials allegedly take no action against the assailants, The incident prompts school officials to add the words sexual orientation to the school's antiharassment policy.

NORTH CAROLINA

* February 1999: Samantha Gellar, a 17-year-old student at Charlotte's Northwest School of the Arts, is chosen as a winner in an annual drama festival, The judging committee decides, however, that the play, which is about two women who become friends and then fall in love, is too racy and should not be performed at the festival.

FLORIDA

* March 1999: An 18-year-old male student at Taylor High School in Pierson is told he can't wear a dress to the prom. Officials capitulate when the student threatens to sue.

Kirby is a regular contributor to The New York Times.
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Article Details
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Author:KIRBY, DAVID
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1U6AL
Date:Apr 11, 2000
Words:2522
Previous Article:AHEAD OF THE CLASS.
Next Article:Making a living off of homophobia.
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