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Reach Them And Teach Them

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It wasn't an isolated incident, she discovered. The same student had to leave his former school under similar circumstances.

In response, Uribe started an informal lunch-time support group in her classroom for homosexual students. Six years later, that discussion group has evolved into Project 10, said to be the country's only counseling program for gay and lesbian students in a mainstream high school setting. The name comes from an often-cited statistic: that 10 percent of all Americans are believed to be homosexual.

Uribe describes Project 10, which is funded by the school district, as a dropout-prevention program designed to meet the unique needs of homosexual students. "Homosexuality is the last of the taboo subjects,'' she says. "I think the homophobia of the education system encourages [students] to drop out.''

Belinda Young, an openly lesbian senior at Fairfax, says she believes she has benefited from the program. "It's a big help to be yourself,'' she says. "If I had gone to another school, I would have probably still been in the closet.''

Over the past few years, a number of Uribe's fellow teachers across the country have become interested in the often-controversial issue of providing support services to homosexual adolescents. These young people, the educators have found, are far more likely to be isolated than their heterosexual classmates. In many cases, the parents and friends of homosexual teenagers can't accept their homosexuality. So instead of getting support, these teenagers are often rebuffed--or worse, forced to leave home.

The education system's record on this issue is no better, educators say. Indeed, schools can often be a threatening place for homosexual adolescents. A survey done by the Los Angeles school system found that there were 65 incidents in which homosexual students were the targets of some form of harassment during the 198889 school year.

As a result of these pressures, many mental health professionals believe homosexual teenagers may be at especially high risk of dropping out, abusing drugs, or even committing suicide. A report released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last year concluded that homosexual adolescents are two to three times more likely to try to kill themselves than their classmates. The report also said that as many as 30 percent of all teenagers who commit suicide each year are homosexual.

For male teenagers, there is another worry: AIDS. Federal health officials estimate that about 40 percent of the young people under 21 who have developed acquired immune deficiency syndrome contracted it through homosexual or bisexual activity, or through same-sex activities combined with intravenous drug use. More than a third of the other young people with AIDS got it through exposure to AIDScontaminated blood or blood products. The rest got it through intravenous drug use or heterosexual activity.

Jeff Fisk, a special-education teacher at Fairfax, first became interested in the problems facing homosexual teenagers when he had one in his class. That student, he says, potentially faces a "triple whammy'' of discrimination because he is gay, black, and mentally retarded. "There was not a lot I could do to help him, except to be more sensitive to his situation,'' Fisk says.

To learn more about homosexual teenagers, Fisk took an inservice training class offered by Uribe. Now, he says, he feels "confident dealing with a kid who says, 'I'm gay, I want to kill myself.' We have to reach them and teach them how to love themselves.''

Even with heightened awareness on the part of teachers, reaching out to gay teens is no easy task, perhaps in part because no one knows how many young people are homosexual. Some may truly have a same-sex orientation, while others may be experimenting.

The figure of 1 in 10 is commonly cited, but experts note that it is only an informed estimate. Alfred Kinsey, the pioneering sex researcher, believed that sexual orientation for many is not sharply defined. He concluded that 8 percent of the men and 4 percent of the women he interviewed as part of his research in the 1940's engaged exclusively or predominantly in homosexual behavior for three years between the ages of 16 and 55. Kinsey believed, however, that these numbers represented only the tip of the iceberg.

Experts believe sexual orientation is formed early in life. However, teachers may not know who among their students are homosexuals because they tend to "stay in the closet'' until they reach their late teens or early 20's.

"By the time the child enters school, his sexual orientation has already been determined,'' says Gary Remafedi, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota and a leading researcher on teenage homosexuality. "Teenagers do not say that they are lesbian or gay casually.''

Given this evidence, some school districts are beginning to take the issue seriously.

Probably the most famous program for homosexual teenagers is the Harvey Milk High School in New York City. Established in 1985, the school is a small, alternative program for students who are mostly homeless, truants, and runaways--in addition to being gay.

But gay activists, mental health professionals, and the National Education Association are calling for schools to provide services to homosexual students in a more mainstream setting. In San Francisco, for example, at least one teacher or school counselor in each of the city's 23 high schools has been designated as a "point person'' for young people who think they may be gay. Besides providing a sympathetic ear, the educator is expected to tell the student about community and counseling services for homosexuals.

Other activists have focused on trying to change the curriculum to discuss issues of interest to homosexual teenagers. Most current sex education classes barely refer to homosexuality and offer little information about "safe sex'' practices for homosexual or heterosexual teenagers.

Echoing an argument made in behalf of black and other minority students, some argue that teachers should help create role models for their gay students by pointing out important literary, historical, or scientific contributions made by homosexuals.

Robert Birle, an art teacher at Antioch (Calif.) High School and a spokesman for the Bay Area Network of Gay and Lesbian Educators, says students are often assigned works by Tennessee Williams or James Baldwin in English classes, but are never told that these authors were homosexuals. "Homosexuals should be mentioned and acknowledged throughout the curriculum,'' he says.

But programs to provide information and support for homosexual students will not come easily. Many teachers, administrators, and school board members feel un- comfortable raising the issue of teenage sexuality, not to mention homosexual concerns. And efforts to support gay students, not unexpectedly, are highly controversial. Probably the most outspoken critic of these programs is William Dannemeyer, a Republican Congressman from California who has sponsored bills that would prohibit federal funding for programs he considers to be pro gay rights.

Paul Mero, a spokesman for Dannemeyer, says that Project 10 and similar programs are not in the best interests of children. "We do not believe that these troubled kids need to be supported in their troubles,'' he says. "They need medical help.

"The Representative does not believe that [homosexuals] are born that way,'' he says, adding that homosexuals were "probably traumatized as children.....Study after study supports the idea that that's the way it is.''

Such a view is often disputed by scientists and mental health experts. In 1974, the American Psychiatric Association dropped its classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder; the group now views it as an alternative way of expressing sexuality.

For some educators, however, these arguments may be of secondary importance. Says Fairfax Principal Warren Steinberg, "Our function as a school is to meet the needs of the kids we have, not the kids we wish we had.''

--Ellen Flax, Education Week

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