It's a Bash
Despite small inroads of tolerance, harassment ofyoung gays and lesbians continues in public high schools.
By Ben Fulton
NOVEMBER 10, 1997: Four years of high school is a distinctly different experience if you happen to be a young gay or lesbian. Your curriculum can involve slurs, threats and hostile looks. It's an education in taunts, a lesson in pain, an exercise in humiliation.
Imagine words like these, said right to your face: "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't just kick the shit out of you right here?"
Imagine the snide, denigrating remarks of a person sitting next to you every time you answer a question in class.
Now, picture little or no response from supervising adults when you present these problems to them, asking for relief.
Gabe, a 16-year-old student at East High School who also chose a pseudonym, doesn't have to imagine any of the above. It's all happening to him. "After a while I sort of get numb to it," he says. "Part of it is that I'm used to being harassed. The other part is that I'm so focused on getting to college that I know I have to stay in school. I also know that if I drop out then I will not be able to change the system."
For some, the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that they no longer have the luxury of being tough-skinned idealists out to change the world. For a few, attending high school is a dangerous proposition. Justin, a 15-year-old student at Alta High School who prefers to go by his abbreviated first name only, came out to his classmates indirectly when he chided them for using words like "queer" and "faggot."
"Everyone knew I was gay, even if I hadn't said it," he remembers.
The barrage started almost immediately. First came the name-calling. Threats followed. After a few months, the police were called in.
Sitting in class, Justin heard one student remark to another, "Want to kick the shit out of the queer after class?"
Passing others during lunch he heard the words, "You've been warned," and "Those damned queers should be shot."
Rumors circulated that members of the football team would beat him up after the season was over. That way, the team wouldn't have to forfeit games after being suspended for carrying out the threats.
To all this Justin rarely gave a retort. He didn't feel the hostility deserved a response. Instead, he reported all incidents to his vice principal, who talked to some of the perpetrators. In some cases, the harassers were reported to their parents.
But matters only became worse and, according to Justin, the school office did less and less in response. "The last time I went to my vice principal with an incident I was told, 'Well, this isn't at the top of my list,'" he says.
His attendance, and as a result, his grades, plummeted.
The last straw was a break-in of his school locker. In the past he had only had epithets like "Queer" or "Poopdick" etched into the paint. This time it was vandalized on the inside. Rainbow stickers, symbolic of gay pride, had been torn out, and it looked as though someone had masturbated onto his belongings. "Either that, or someone went to the chemistry lab and got something that looked just like it," Justin says.
The police were notified, but without probable cause no investigation was conducted. Since then, he hasn't attended school for two weeks.
"The school knows why I'm not going," Justin says. "I don't even see the point. It's just not safe. The only way I'd go back is if I had eight bodyguards to walk me through the halls.
"I think it's great that the school administration is trying to do something, but it's not enough. If it were, it would be stopped."
The floodgates, of course, were opened two years ago with the quiet formation of East High School's Gay Straight Alliance. Unable to fathom the idea of young people coming out of the closet at such an early age, much less the reality of homosexuality, Utah's politicians and the Salt Lake City School Board fought the student club with no artillery spared.
There was the myth of "recruitment," or the idea that adult homosexuals sweet-talked the young into their lifestyle. There were sentiments that youth should not be "encouraged" into such a life. Finally, the Salt Lake City School Board voted 5-3 to obliterate all non-academic school clubs rather than allow a group of gay, lesbian, bisexual and heterosexual students to meet for support and fellowship.
High school students valleywide came together for a protest on the Capitol steps. It was a heady time, exciting, yet full of anger and hope. For perhaps the first time in the Salt Lake Valley, gay students could consider coming out. If only a little understanding waited on the other side.
That invitation was promptly canceled by the school board's vote, but the courage of students behind East High's Gay-Straight Alliance coupled with dialogue surrounding an issue that had long been undiscussed left a lasting impression on anyone hesitant about proclaiming their sexual identity.
High school students have come out in greater numbers, but the safety net protecting them is only partially constructed, if at all. Individual schools profess a sincere desire to prevent and punish the harassment of any student for any reason, but the school board's cold refusal to allow young gays a gathering place in public schools only validated strong sentiments that homosexuals are less than equals. The chain reaction started by the school board's vote one-and-a-half-years ago leaves high school gays and lesbians on the receiving end of the blow.
This year alone has seen the suicide of a young high school student, Jacob Orosco, and some young gays and lesbians have given up on school, dropping out to live on the margins before deciding their next move.
"The dam has broken. The kids are coming out, and we're not equipped to deal with it. The club was a call for help, and adults are called to help. Meanwhile, the state refused to do anything for gay and lesbian kids," says Doug Wortham, a teacher at Rowland Hall and a member of the Gay Lesbian and Straight Teachers Network (GLSTN).
Camille Lee, an East High School science teacher and fellow GLSTN member, agrees. She's also heard first-hand about increased harassment of gay and lesbian students since school began in September. "It started at day one. I had a kid come up to me and start talking about how he was being harassed," she says.
But if the state is unwilling to step into the controversial arena of gay issues, Wortham and the teachers network gladly pick up the responsibility as best they can, with limited means.
Under the Civic Center Act, the students of East High's Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) can meet in the school as citizens, provided they pay a $400 annual fee for insurance purposes. That money isn't hard to come by, as the publicity of the club's past has drawn enough contributions to foot the bill.
In the final analysis, the school board's vote did nothing to stop students from meeting, but GSA members know their short history hasn't come without a cost.
Gathered in a classroom of undisclosed location every week, they meet to talk about school, offer support and keep journal entries of their experiences. Their fellow students are still bitter over what they view as the loss of their clubs due to the GSA's formation.
"One student and his friends wanted to know where the group met so they could crash it and physically assault people," says Gabe.
Comments like "that stupid gay club" are commonplace. The bitterness toward the club is so pervasive, it's almost subconscious. Most of the club's members have stories of harassment.
Holly Peterson, sister of GSA founder Kelli Peterson, says she was repeatedly called a "shitty dyke" by a group of boys during the first few weeks of school.
"You hear the comments: 'This is so gay. That's so gay.' It sounds innocuous, but you notice it. If you hear someone say the word 'nigger' you know they're going to get trouble, but 'fag' is a word we can toss around pretty easily," says a GSA member who requested anonymity.
Lee, the GSA's adult monitor, began to notice an emerging pattern of harassment as club members began discussing their journal entries.
In a culture increasingly weary of the excesses of political correctness, name-calling might not sound like such a grievous crime against individuals. Words, though, cut deep when the hatred behind them is real.
Heterosexual students are afforded a whole host of advantages their gay and lesbian students go without. Foremost among them is safety, which in turn allows a student to concentrate on learning. Belonging, or a sense that you're valued as a person, comes next. No one in GSA has any illusions about attaining either of those commodities.
"If people would walk in my shoes today I think they would be scared," says Gabe. "They wouldn't be ready for what would come down on them. The fear is destabilizing."
A 17-year-old student attending Bountiful High School in the more conservative environment of Davis County, puts it this way: "It's like a can of pop. Everytime someone says something it shakes it up harder. Sooner or later it's going to get so compressed it's going to blow."
The irony of GSA is apparent. The club was formed as a fortification against bigotry, but once gathered, they found a battle and latent opposition that can be violently active. Being gay, they know, is viewed by a large portion of society as a lifestyle choice, not an ethnicity. So it is that words like "faggot" and "dyke" live on while the epithets of "kike" and "spic" are lesser known.
In spite of the harassment they still experience at East High, the GSA gives school principal Kay Petersen high marks. Ever since the club's founding, Petersen has made sincere efforts to understand gay and lesbian issues in schools. At the beginning of this school year, Petersen's administration sent out literature to all students and their families stating, "Harassment of any kind will not be tolerated at East High School." In a list of "most common" groups harassed, "sexual orientation" was named along with race and ethnicity. That language is now part of school policy.
But Petersen knows that the administration can't catch every epithet before it's hurled. "It's so far from perfect that it's still very painful for some people," he admits. "I feel good about what we've tried, I feel less good about what we've succeeded. There's a long way to go. We're a society that's evolving in the right direction. My responsibility is to accelerate that process in terms of making my school safe for every kid that comes here."
Even in the face of horrors experience by Justin, Alta High School principal Linda Sandstrom remains optimistic. She admits there are "no specific guidelines" regarding harassment at her school, although every reported incident is looked into. Words like "spic" are not tolerated, and epithets like "faggot," she says, "are worth addressing also."
"My own philosophy is that people ought to be nice to one another," she says. "That might sound a bit provincial or archaic. You don't necessarily have to agree with someone or their style, but that doesn't mean you have a license to abuse someone. We're here for education."
No one would argue with that. What's left unsaid is how far short of the mark Utah falls when it comes to protecting gay and lesbian youth. Considering the events of the past two years, that hardly comes as a shock.
Educational administrators at district and state levels will tell you that harassment of any kind, for any reason, will not be tolerated in public schools. But while ethnic and religious groups get specific language for protection against harassment in written policies, gays and lesbians warrant not even a mention. "I don't think anyone even thought of it when this policy was written, to tell you the truth," says Nancy Woodward, director of student services for the Salt Lake City School District. "Sexual orientation was never specified in anything directed from the board."
Instead, talk of sexual orientation is left to training sessions, where teachers can talk about the subject if it's raised. "It wasn't until we started conducting training sessions that someone mentioned sexual orientation," Woodward says.
The Utah Department of Education is even more complacent. Statistics about the harassment of gay and lesbian youth are not recorded, and there are no programs addressing the needs of sexual minority youth. "We have no data at all," says Suecarol Robinson, education specialist for the Utah State Office of Education. "Most schools have a zero-tolerance policy [for harassment]. It should be the same with this issue. But [gay and lesbian] kids at school feel that harassment does take place, and the schools put up with it."
Suicide by gay and lesbian teens is another issue the state is ill-equipped to deal with. Utah has the fifth-highest rate of teen suicide in the nation, and studies are underway to find the best routes of prevention. For now, however, young gays and lesbians are out of the equation, despite the estimate that they are twice as likely to kill themselves. The reason for that, studies show, is fear of claiming their sexual identity in a hostile world.
"It [staying in the closet] almost killed me," says Justin "When you can't be yourself, you suffer. It's like asking someone who wears Gap clothes to start dressing Gothic. It's just not going to happen."
Helping them cross the bridge to coming out is a vital step to saving their lives. That's a bridge the state department of education is too timid to build.
Stepping out of her position with the department of education, Robinson says, "That would be something desirable to have, from my own personal view. But from the state office's view it would seem an unreasonable request. We're bound by community standards and a moral climate that the state office of education complies with."
While Salt Lake City and Utah sit in stagnancy, or in the case of the club issue, move backward, other school districts nationally have taken bold steps forward.
Consider the Portland School District of Oregon, which oversees the education of 56,000 students. In addition to providing money for special programs addressing the needs of gay and lesbian students, the district boasts a sexual diversity committee that meets monthly, with the school superintendent attending. The committee's goal is clearly stated: "To promote a climate for learning which enables all students regardless of their actual or perceived sexuality to feel successful, safe and supported in academic and social situations in group identification and in group or individual expression."
Although fraught with complications, protecting students isn't rocket science. When it comes to harassment, there is no middle ground. For every action there is an equal or opposite reaction. If you don't want kids harassed, support them.
In the Boston Public Schools District, nothing happened overnight, but school administrators and counselors developed over time what many consider a model of support for gay and lesbian youth in public schools.
According to Deb Jencunas, coordinator of student support services for Boston Public Schools District, it started with counselor training. Gay and lesbian youth knew they had people they could talk to if they saw a pink triangle in a counselor's office. Students could also get information about support groups in their community. These first steps offered a small refuge in which students could come out.
"You can't tell kids it's safe to come out when it's not," says Jencunas. "That's the reality we live in."
Besides the usual moral issues lobbied between liberal and conservative sides, there is another dimension that should concern anyone worried about lawyers knocking at the door.
Based on legal precedent, public schools can be sued for monetary damages if they fail to respond to a student's complaint of harassment. In November 1996, the Ashland, Wis., school district agreed pay out more than $900,000 to student Jamie Nabozny after the district did nothing to prevent harassment from fellow students over his sexual orientation. If schools can't find the moral fortitude to prevent harassment of gay youth, then legal reasons might suffice.
"We're talking about basic rights for all people. More than a religious or moral issue, it's one of civil rights," says Jencunas. "It's about engaging people around the issue in a way that's constructive. It must be understood that schools, teachers and administrators are responsible for providing a safe and nurturing environment for students, and may be liable if they choose to ignore repeated incidents of harassment."
Boston, with its past battles over school bussing and desegregation, has a civil rights history that in some ways lends itself to the same civil rights understandings behind gay rights. In Utah, parallels have been drawn between past persecutions of Mormons and homophobic bigotry to build bridges of empathy between the gay community and the dominant religion, but to no real effect.
So, while Salt Lake Valley schools all agree that harassment is a bad thing, no one seems anxious to imitate schools on either coast of the nation that truly reach out to youth in support and understanding. But if the Salt Lake Valley is bad, rural Utah is even worse.
"There are no openly gay people at my school, and I wouldn't want to be the first," says James, a 16-year-old student at Pleasant Grove in Utah County. "Here [Salt Lake City] it's still not accepted, but down here it's not something that's even spoken about."
Back at East High, Gabe can't wait for his high school years to draw to a close. "At the U. you can report to the campus police, who will actually handle this stuff. We won't have to report to a vice principal."
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