Most gay teens feel unsafe in their schools, according to the recently released “2001 National School Climate Survey.” In the study, nearly 70 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students—a demographic with a high rate of substance abuse, truancy, and suicide—say they feel threatened in their high schools. Eighty-three percent report verbal attacks, such as being called “dyke” or “faggot”; 42 percent have experienced physical harassment. However, the New York City-based Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, the organization that interviewed more than 900 students for the study, offers a glimmer of hope.
Students say their feelings of security and belonging increase with the presence of a supportive faculty, and a number of schools have mandated in-service tolerance training for teachers. What’s more, many students, gay and straight, have decided they’re not going to put up with intolerance either. In the past dozen years, more than 1,000 Gay-Straight Alliances, groups that work to create safe and welcoming schools for all students, regardless of sexual orientation, have popped up nationwide.
Following are a few particularly noteworthy examples of how faculty and students are combating anti-gay bias on their campuses.
Where: Wayland High School, Wayland, Massachusetts.
What: Using grant money provided by the Massachusetts Department of Education, guidance counselor Virginia Buckley brought a traveling art show—“Love Makes a Family: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People and Their Families”—to Wayland High School last spring. The exhibit includes 40 photos and interviews about sexuality and growing up in a gay family. The school hosted an open house and a reception, inviting members of the community to its media-center-turned-art- gallery.
Why: Wayland High’s been home to a GSA for more than a decade, and each year the group plans one big event, including tolerance training for sports captains. Last year’s art show was a “school-community effort.”
Impact: Buckley, who lauds the exhibit as “very inspiring,” says it brought a taboo topic out into the open. “Typically gay and lesbian families are not very public, but this is all a part of our town.”
SAY IT WITH CANDLES
Where: New York State Capitol, Albany, New York.
What: Last August, Nick Lanni and Graham Murphy, then students at Guilderland High School, organized about 50 students and adults for a two-hour candlelight vigil in front of the capitol to show their support for a school-related pro- tolerance bill.
Why: The New York State Legislature is negotiating the Dignity for All Students bill, which would require school districts to provide harassment-free learning environments and set guidelines for nondiscriminatory instruction and counseling, among other provisions. Argues Assemblyman Steve Sanders, a sponsor of the bill, “Acting out to make others uncomfortable, or to intimidate, whether manifested as a racist remark, an anti-gay slur, or any other bigoted reference, is simply unacceptable, and every school district must have a strong policy to address this.”
Impact: Sheila Healy of the Empire State Pride Agenda Foundation says legislators have been delighted by the level of student interest in the bill, including their lobbying efforts. She adds, “Every single action is important.”
READ THEIR LIPS
Where: Boulder High School, Boulder, Colorado.
What: When the yearbook adviser refused to print a photo of two girls kissing last spring, the school’s GSA, along with another student activist group, protested by organizing a same-sex “kiss-in”: The groups encouraged gay, lesbian, and bisexual students to smooch on a bike path behind the school one day in May.
Why: Student activists claimed the yearbook was promoting a double-standard after the adviser refused to print the picture of the lip- locked girls without signed permission slips from their parents—consent heterosexual kissers pictured in the yearbook didn’t need. In the end, under the deadline crunch, staff members opted to scrap the snapshot.
Impact: About 150 high schoolers of all sexual orientations took part, or at least watched, and as one senior told the Denver Post, the demonstration proved “that kids can mobilize around an important issue like homophobia and address it in a creative, constructive way.” Still, administrators refused to say they were wrong and are considering a policy some might call a cop-out: All kissing scenes, gay or straight, may be eliminated from future yearbooks.
Where: Jenks High School, Jenks, Oklahoma.
What: When an anti-gay minister decided to picket Jenks High School’s graduation ceremony, one gay student sent an e-mail to 30 friends, asking for pledges—per minute, per hour, or flat donations—for however long the minister’s homophobic rally lasted.
Why: Senior Kevin Barker upset Fred Phelps, a well-known anti-gay minister from Topeka, Kansas, by establishing a GSA at his school in Oklahoma’s Bible Belt last February. The student found out about the minister’s plan to protest his graduation after Phelps posted it on the Internet.
Impact: Barker’s message got forwarded around the globe, and donations poured in from across the United States, England, Germany, and Australia. Barker raised $5,000 for the 90 minutes that Phelps picketed the graduation with signs that read, “God Hates Fags,” and he gave the money to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network to promote gay acceptance in schools. The experience also profoundly affected his classmates’ attitudes toward homosexual students, Barker says. On graduation night, people from whom he’d hidden his sexual orientation for 12 years “embraced me, said how sorry they were, how much they loved me. . . . [The climate] didn’t just change—it did a U-turn.”
THIS TIME, IT’S PERSONAL
Where: Ansonia High School, Ansonia, Connecticut.
What: Health teacher Patricia Nicolari has led a number of professional- development workshops on gay tolerance in the classroom for her co-workers, as well as teachers in other schools. She starts by clarifying jargon, defining words such as “bisexuality” and “homophobism.” Teachers then role-play various scenarios—what to do, for example, when a student yells, “You fag!” at a peer across the room. Afterward, she offers participants a chance to discuss their feelings and experiences regarding homosexuality.
Why: Nicolari began offering the workshops four years ago, after coming out to the school where she’d been an educator for 15 years. She says her goal is to “put a face on homosexuality.”
Impact: According to Nicolari, this type of professional development “breaks so many barriers within faculty. . . . If you can create a safe environment from the top down, teachers feel comfortable talking about it.”