Special Problems of Homosexual Students Need Special Attention, Advocates Urge

By Ellen Flax — February 07, 1990 12 min read
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Los Angeles--For homosexual students at Fairfax High School here, Room 308 is a place they can call their own.

The room, which doubles as a science classroom for this racially and ethnically diverse school, is the headquarters of Project 10, a counseling and resource program for students who are grappling with their emerging homosexuality.

The program, sponsored by the Los Angeles Unified School District, is thought to be the only one of its kind in the country. Unlike the more widely publicized Harvey Milk High School, an alternative program for gay teenagers in New York City, Project 10 seeks to help students in a mainstream environment.

Critics of the Los Angeles program, who include some conservative lawmakers, say it promotes an unacceptable lifestyle and should have no place in a public school.

But many educators, mental-health experts, and leaders of gay-rights groups argue that such school-based programs are needed nationwide. They characterize gay teenagers as an “at risk” minority whose distinctive problems have been ignored by most schools.

According to advocates of services tailored to the needs of gay adolescents, such young people are more prone than their heterosexual peers to dropping out, abusing drugs, and attempting suicide. When these teenagers turn to their families, friends, or churches for support, experts on the subject say, they are often rebuffed, and may even be kicked out of their homes.

Teenagers who are homosexual, or suspect that they are, do not fare any better in schools, these experts say. They note that students who are known or thought to be gay frequently are physically or verbally abused by their peers. And the curriculum, from history to AIDS-prevention classes, typically ignores homosexuality, they note.

“Homosexuality is the last of the taboo subjects,” said Virginia Uribe, the Fairfax High science teacher who founded Project 10. “I think the homophobia of the education system encourages [students] to drop out.”

“If schools acknowledged that [homosexual students] exist, then they would have to meet their needs,” added Gay Bossart, the national director of family support and chapter development for the organization Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. “They are as homophobic as the rest of society.”

‘A Difficult Place To Be’

There are no firm statistics on how many young people are homosexual.

The pioneering research done by the sexuality expert Alfred C. Kinsey during the 1940’s found that 8 percent of men and 4 percent of women out of thousands interviewed were predominantly or exclusively homosexual for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55. A rough, and often disputed, estimate used by Kinsey and many current experts is that about 10 percent of the total population is homosexual.

Researchers also estimate that an even greater percentage of the population, including many heterosexuals, has had a homosexual experience during adolescence.

Relatively few homosexuals, however, are willing to “come out"--identify themselves as gay--before their late teens or early 20’s, specialists in the field point out.

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

He and others said the stresses on such young people who are trying to accept their sexual preference has caused a disproportionate number of them to adopt self-destructive behavior, including substance abuse.

“Schools are an extremely difficult place to be,” Dr. Remafedi said. “You don’t have to be flagrantly different to be targeted” by other students.

In a recent survey on so-called “hate crimes” in Los Angeles County public schools, administrators reported 65 incidents in which gay students were targets of some form of harassment during the 1988-89 school year.

Health Threats

For gay males, another factor complicating the issue of sexual orientation is their potentially greater risk of exposure to the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, which can lead to AIDS. About 40 percent of people under the age of 21 with the disease have contracted it through gay or bisexual activity, or through such activity combined with intravenous-drug use.

Typical AIDS-education programs, which stress abstinence until a heterosexual marriage, do not discuss so-called “safe sex” techniques for homosexuals, educators and gay activists said.

Homosexual students are also said to be more likely than their peers to attempt suicide. A controversial report on youth suicide released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last year concluded that gay teenagers were two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than other adolescents, and that as many as 30 percent of all teenagers who kill themselves each year are gay.

“Schools need to include information about homosexuality in their curriculum and protect gay youths from abuse by peers to ensure they receive an equal education,” the report said.

Handful of Initiatives

With relatively little national attention, educators and gay-rights advocates have undertaken a number of efforts to address the needs of gay students. For example:

  • The Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force last month sent an information package to counseling departments in all of the state’s nearly 700 public high schools on how to help such teenagers. The task force developed the package after a survey of counselors it conducted last year found that most had little information on homosexuality.
  • In each of San Francisco’s 23 public high schools, at least one teacher or school counselor has been designated as a “point person” for students who think they may be gay. The educator, who may or may not be gay, is supposed to serve as a friendly ear, and refer them to community services and counseling if needed.
  • Across the bay in Oakland, the school board voted in 1988 to include information about homosexuals, as well as about members of other minority groups, in the curriculum. To date, the new curriculum has not been developed.
  • Gay activists have asked the school boards in Seattle and Milwaukee to endorse services for gay teenagers. No action has been taken on the proposals.
  • The National Education Association last year adopted a resolution stating that “every school district should provide counseling by trained personnel for students struggling with their sexual/gender orientation.”

New York City’s Harvey Milk School remains the best-known initiative for homosexual students. Established in 1985, the school is a small, alternative program whose students are mostly homeless, runaways, or chronic truants, in addition to being gay. The program is jointly run by the school district and the Hetrick-Martin Institute for the Protection of Lesbian and Gay Youth. (See Education Week, June 12, 1985.)

A Safe Environment

But the Los Angeles district’s Project 10 appears to be the best-developed effort to make services to gay students available in a regular high school.

The program, whose name refers to the estimate that 10 percent of the population is homosexual, was started by Ms. Uribe in 1984 after a gay student was harassed by classmates into leaving Fairfax High. As a result, a major focus of the program is providing a safe school environment for homosexuals that leaves them free from taunts and physical abuse.

Besides providing counseling to about 25 students during the current school year, Ms. Uribe has trained several hundred teachers and counselors districtwide to be sensitive to gay students. Her room, which is filled with books and articles about homosexuality, serves as a resource center on the subject.

The school district, which funds the program, allows Ms. Uribe to teach part time and to spend the rest of her workweek as the head of Project 10.

She and other school officials said it was difficult to estimate how many students have been helped by the program. They said there was no way to tally the number of students at Fairfax and in other district schools who have shared sensitive information about their sexuality with school personnel trained under Project 10.

The demographics and location of Fairfax High have worked in the program’s favor, agreed Ms. Uribe and other school officials interviewed.

They said the diversity of the school’s enrollment of nearly 2,000 students--equally divided among whites, blacks, Latinos, and Asians--has made students relatively tolerant of ethnic, racial, and other differences. In addition, the school’s middle-class neighborhood borders on West Hollywood, which has a large and visible homosexual population.

‘To Be Yourself’

Belinda Young, a senior at Fairfax, said she liked having someone at the school she could talk to about her homosexuality.

“It’s a big help to be yourself,” she said. “If I had gone to another school, I would have probably still been in the closet.”

Jeffery Fisk, a special-education teacher at Fairfax who has taken Ms. Uribe’s inservice program on homosexuality, said he, too, has benefited from the program.

“I feel competent with dealing with a kid who says, ‘I’m gay, I want to kill myself,”’ he said. “We have to reach them and teach them how to love themselves.”

Although, and perhaps because, the program has a high profile at Fairfax, some homosexual students have been reluctant to seek the program out. In response, the school’s counseling office has created a weekly “rap” group for students who want even greater anonymity.

At one such session, held in a room with no windows, some students said they were afraid to let other peers and their families know about their sexual orientation.

“I can’t concentrate on schoolwork,” said a sophomore who has moved out of his parent’s home because he wanted to avoid a conflict over his sexuality. “I go out too much.”

“My father said, ‘If I knew you were gay, I would kill you,”’ said the student, who asked that his name not be used. “He said, ‘Act like a man.”’

‘Traditional Family Values’

But efforts to address the needs of gay students remain highly controversial.

Conservative state legislators opposed to Project 10, for example, have attempted to cut off funding to the Los Angeles district.

And in the Congress, a measure that would have prohibited federal funds from going to schools that presented homosexuality as “normal, natural, or healthy” was killed in a conference committee last year.

The section on homosexuality in last year’s HHS report on youth suicide has also sparked debate.

In a letter last summer to the Health and Human Services Department, U.S. Representative William E. Dannemeyer, a California Republican, said the section was not consistent with “traditional family values.” He asked the Bush Administration to distance itself from the report.

In a reply that has angered gay activists and some educators, Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis W. Sullivan said last fall that he would “neither endorse nor approve the report.” Numerous groups, including the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, said they have received no response to requests that the Secretary clarify his statement.

Paul Mero, a spokesman for Representative Dannemeyer, added last month 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 said. “They need medical help. They need to be nurtured and given the medical attention they need.”

“The representative does not believe that [homosexuals] are born that way,” Mr. Mero said, adding that homosexuals were “probably traumatized as children. ... Study after study supports the idea that that’s the way it is.”

That view is generally disputed by the medical and mental-health communities.

In 1974, the American Psychiatric Association ended its classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder, instead calling it an alternative choice of sexual expression. And in 1983, the American Academy of Pediatrics called on its members to provide nonjudgmental medical services to homosexual teenagers, noting that there was no one cause of homosexuality.

For officials at Fairfax High, such medical arguments are of secondary importance.

“Our function as a school is to meet the needs of the kids we have, not the kids we wish we had,” said Warren Steinberg, the school’s principal.

Unease Over Teen Sexuality

One reason programs such as Project 10 remain rare, their supporters say, is that many people, including educators and school counselors, are uncomfortable talking about any form of teenage sexuality.

It is not surprising, they say, that school officials who may have been attacked by parents and community members for including information about heterosexual sex in the curriculum are unwilling to confront the even more controversial topic of homosexuality.

And even teachers and administrators who are willing to help gay students often know little about homosexuality.

“The guidance counselors and the teachers should be educated about homosexuality,” said Paulette Goodman, the national president of PFLAG, the group for families and friends of homosexuals. “My feeling is that most of them are ignorant about the subject, like we parents are when we we first learn about our children.”

Many advocates stress that support for gay students must come not only from counseling services, but also from the curriculum, especially in sex-education classes.

“It is important for these teenagers to learn something about the nature of their sexuality,” said Richard Isay, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Cornell Medical College and the author of a book about gay men. “If they don’t, these kids are bound to feel that their sexuality is either bad or dirty or immoral, and their self-images are bound to suffer from it.”

“In sex-education classes, they should be made to feel that their sexuality is a normal variety of sexual expression, and they should learn about safe sex,” he said.

And, in an argument that echoes those made in behalf of black and other minority students, some maintain that gay students need to have role models, and should be told when homosexuals have made important historical, literary, or scientific contributions.

Robert J. Birle, an art teacher at Antioch (Calif.) High School and a spokesman for the Bay Area Network of Gay and Lesbian Educators, said students are often assigned works by Tennessee Williams or James Baldwin in English classes, and yet are never told that these authors were gay.

“Homosexuals should be mentioned and acknowledged throughout the curriculum,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 1990 edition of Education Week as Special Problems of Homosexual Students Need Special Attention, Advocates Urge

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