Insults and slurs about homosexuality have long been fixtures of the American high school experience. Some students are trying to change that.
Slumped in her seat at the far end of classroom trailer No. 7, Calen Arbour braced herself. Her "current issues" class at Lakeside High School here was discussing a news article about gay couples raising children. "Ewww. Let's not talk about that," begged a student. "It's gross."
Images of history's heroes—including Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.—stared down from the dimly lighted trailer's walls. Calen's heartbeat quickened.
The student peppered his comments with "fag" this, "faggot" that. Calen's face got hot. Taking a deep breath, she nervously raised her hand.
"Mr. Lavender, um, can you maybe talk about respect?" the 17-year-old senior suggested. Social studies teacher Jim Lavender told his class that all opinions must be respected and that offensive language should not be used.
After class, Calen approached the student who made the remarks and said, "Look, I'm not trying to, you know, be mean—that's not my intention. I just want respect. Because, you know, I respect you."
The boy complained about having to listen to all that "gay stuff." Then suddenly he added: "No guy would ever want you. That's why you're gay."
Calen, who tears up retelling the story a day later, never uttered a word to the boy about being bisexual. She simply walked away.
Insults and slurs about homosexuality have long been fixtures of the American high school experience. But in recent years, more students like Calen Arbour have been striving to redefine their high school culture by forming and joining Gay-Straight Alliance clubs.
Emboldened gay students and their heterosexual classmates say that they are advocating respect and safety at their schools. The student-led clubs also try to teach classmates and teachers understanding of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students and their concerns.
"I try to keep in mind that not everybody was brought up to be open-minded," Calen says about speaking out. "I don't expect to change people's minds. I just want to get them to realize that they should respect everyone."
Since the late 1980s, Gay- Straight Alliances have become increasingly popular, with more than 1,800 now established at public and private schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. GLSEN does not sponsor the alliances, but some groups voluntarily register with the New York City-based advocacy organization to receive educational material and support.
"We're talking about a movement led by young people that is really sweeping the country," says Kevin Jennings, the executive director of GLSEN (pronounced "glisten").
Jennings was the faculty adviser for the nation's first GSA, started at Concord Academy, a private school in Concord, Mass., in 1988. He says that more alliances are forming because gay teenagers are more visible at schools, and their straight classmates are less willing to tolerate the "injustices perpetrated upon them."
GSAs are rapidly becoming lifelines for gay students and for youths who are perceived to be gay, says the Rev. Paul M. Turner. The 48-year-old pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church in Atlanta is also the board president of Enlight, a local nonprofit group dedicated to ending bias against and harassment of gay students in schools.
"It's not about whether a kid is gay or straight," emphasizes Turner, who is gay and was himself harassed in high school. "It's about whether the kid in your class is going to be respected. The violence continuum is short. It goes from 'faggot' to throwing a fist in an afternoon."
Still, Gay-Straight Alliances aren't always a welcome addition to schools. Public pressure to stop the clubs from forming has led to legal battles in schools from Kentucky to California.
Supporters of GSA clubs often cite a federal law that many religious conservatives lobbied for to make it easier for student religious groups to meet at schools. Under the Equal Access Act of 1984, schools that permit noncurricular clubs to meet on campus must treat all such clubs equally.
While the federal law makes it difficult to bar GSAs from meeting at schools, some school districts have dropped all noncurricular student clubs rather than recognize the alliances. Critics contend that the GSAs are affirming and proselytizing for sexual behavior that some people oppose for religious or other reasons.
"To some degree, we think these clubs are affirming a lifestyle that we consider unhealthy and not the appropriate choice," says Sadie Fields, the chairwoman of the Atlanta-based Christian Coalition of Georgia.
Next year, the Christian Coalition will make a second attempt to win passage of legislation in Georgia that would require parents' permission for participation in student clubs. Fields says parents have the right to know if their children are involved in GSAs.
"Because you don't agree with the new level of tolerance taught and preached in our schools, then there is something wrong with you," Fields says, describing what she sees as the attitude of the clubs' proponents.
Most schools with Gay-Straight Alliances, like DeKalb County, Ga.'s Lakeside High School, are managing community concerns while trying to figure out what role the clubs will play at their schools.
Nestled among towering trees east of downtown Atlanta, Lakeside is an amalgam of the well-to-do residential neighborhood that surrounds its campus. Roughly half the school's 1,400 students are white, a quarter are black, and the remaining students are Hispanic, Asian, or multiracial.
While Atlanta has a significant gay community, this Southern city still rests in the heart of the Bible Belt. So understanding the GSA's mission and the federal law goes a long way to assuage those wary about the club, says Lakeside Principal Randall N. Lee.
Lee, who carries the pressures of guiding the county's star high school, with its top test scores, readily admits that he's made mistakes navigating what for his school was the GSA's uncharted territory.
But teachers and students alike say Lee is "coming around." He recently gave advice to another local principal whose high school is trying to form its own Gay-Straight Alliance. A soft-spoken 53-year-old, Lee proudly notes that gay Lakeside graduates call to praise the club, which was formed in 1998.
"Their mission is one of awareness, not recruitment," Lee says of the participants. "That's the misconception people have."
"The Gay-Straight Alliance meets tomorrow at 8 a.m. in trailer number 4," says a young woman reading Lakeside's announcements over closed-circuit television.
"They used to 'lose' our announcements," confides senior Cassie Cope, the GSA's vice president. "But they don't anymore."
Students would giggle and make jokes following the GSA's announcements, too.
Today, students in Cassie's Advanced Placement psychology class pay little attention to any of the morning announcements. They're too busy finishing homework or catching up with the latest gossip.
Even though the temperature will top 80 degrees on this September day, Cassie wears a black leather jacket along with her jeans, which have gaping holes at the knees. At Lakeside, this self-described "grades-obsessed" student is the only "out" lesbian.
"I can't be the only one," the 17-year-old redhead says confidently. "There are lots of people not out. They're scared or they don't know."
Cassie and other students here have an informal, but tight-knit fellowship that starts with the Gay-Straight Alliance but doesn't end there. For them, it's more than the meetings, community service, and fund raising—the hallmarks of any student club.
An unspoken bond between them is exchanged in heartfelt hugs and knowing looks. They know the pain of name-calling, or they abhor intolerance and want to hang out with friends they can trust.
"I know people who've been changed by their experiences with the GSA," Cassie says, adding that some of her straight friends joined the club after she came out. "I don't want to be just tolerated. I would like some acceptance."
Lakeside High's Gay-Straight Alliance formed in relative obscurity compared with the public outcry and media attention that enveloped a DeKalb County school district employee who made derogatory remarks about gays during a student assembly last fall. This past summer, the 100,000-student district declined to renew the contract of Danny Buggs, a former professional football player who served as its motivational speaker.
Also in response to the incident, the school board amended its policy against harassment in February to include sexual orientation.
"The value of any policy is how it's put into effect, because in some cases we may be talking about people's behavior, and that's not going to change overnight," says DeKalb County school board member Bebe Joyner.
When German teacher Nicole L. Wilson volunteered to serve as the group's sponsor in 2001, she was determined to raise the GSA's profile and have the school recognize the group like any other club.
Wilson, who is a lesbian, says any teacher with a passion for protecting students' rights can advise a GSA. The club's first sponsor was straight. Wilson was already juggling duties as the junior-varsity girls' volleyball coach and the German club's sponsor, so she knew the web of school rules surrounding student clubs.
Yet Wilson, a slim, athletic 31-year-old who wears funky, cat's-eye-shaped glasses, recalls: "The first year, all I did was fight battles."
That meant pressing to ensure that the GSA was included on the school Web site, in the yearbook, and in the student planner. (It's unclear why the club still isn't listed in this year's planner.) And it meant admonishing students and teachers about using phrases like, "You're so gay." Along the way, Wilson met with pockets of passive resistance and mistrust.
"I think people thought we were going to have orgies at the meetings," she says, sarcastically. "We don't talk about sex. We talk about keeping kids safe."
This fall, the club has grown to about 20 students. For many of these teenagers, the GSA is a place where it's OK to vent because people will understand. It's where no one is asked to share his or her sexual orientation. New friendships are made, and old friends become closer.
Most of the club's members have been girls, Wilson says, adding that girls tend to be more bold and outspoken.
Declaring that he doesn't put "boundaries" on his affections, 15-year-old Kevin Wiggins, one of the few male GSA members, says it's easier for girls to date other girls because some students consider that "cool." Boys who join the club, he says, are more likely to be shunned.
Joining the club comes with a certain amount of peer pressure, even for the GSA's many straight members.
Alysha Beckett, a straight 16-year-old, says she wanted to be around open-minded people and take a stand against harassment. Friends that she's encouraged to attend club meetings in the past eventually "bailed out," worried about what others might say.
During a recent club meeting, students discussed making buttons and posters to recognize National Coming Out Day. They also made plans to hold a picnic so members could get better acquainted.
GSA members participate in the annual Day of Silence, a national, school- and college- based demonstration intended to raise awareness of discrimination and abuse directed at gay people. The club also sponsors an annual school safety forum to teach anti-bias lessons to student leaders.
Even students and teachers not involved in the Gay-Straight Alliance agree that the club is making them more aware of gay students' concerns.
"No one should feel like they're going to be harassed at school," María Self, a 16-year-old junior, says while standing with a group of friends under trees in front of the school. "Especially at a time when you're trying to find out who you are."
While another classmate says that he "doesn't believe" in homosexuality, 16-year-old junior Tiara McKnight points out that students are more likely to apologize to classmates for disparagingly using the word "gay."
English teacher Barbara Johnson says she's making a conscious effort to ensure students do not use slurs or insults about gay people, behavior she apologizes for condoning and engaging in herself in the past.
Although GSA members have made a difference, says Johnson, a 23- year teaching veteran, she acknowledges that "they haven't changed the school completely."
Last October, GSA members displayed posters for National Coming Out Day that were taken down by teachers and Principal Lee, who says he initially thought the material was inappropriate.
After heated discussions with faculty sponsor Wilson and others who explained that the posters represented a day of support for the gay community, Lee put the posters—the few that had not been destroyed— back up.
"The father figure in me was trying not to rock the boat," Lee admits. "It was a bad decision."
Television and newspaper reporters descended on the school along with a small group of protestors that picketed outside the school the following day. The demonstrators denounced homosexuality as a sin.
Wilson says: "I don't think that Lakeside is so accepting, and that's why we have a GSA. The GSA formed because students have a need."
These days at Lakeside, Cassie Cope says, some GSA members, many of whom currently favor wearing black clothing, are singled out for the way they dress more than their sexual orientation.
"Lord knows, we don't need to be more different," the GSA vice president says, laughing. "But if it wasn't my clothes, it would be my religion. If it's not my religion, it would be my sexual orientation, and on and on. The problem is that we're trying to fit in too much."
GSA members and their friends don't stand out in the crowd at Lakeside High. Some club members do wear rainbow-colored accessories—necklaces, bracelets, or belts—a subtle statement that mostly goes unnoticed. The rainbow is a symbol of gay pride.
During lunch, students in the club sit on the sidewalk or on benches at the front of the school. Cassie and her friends talk earnestly about the importance of following Lakeside's rules: Don't show up late for class. Don't forget your homework. Don't hold hands for too long. Don't defy the dress code.
"I watch my back a little," admits Hannah Stowe, a 15-year-old sophomore who identifies herself as bisexual. "I don't give [teachers and administrators] a reason to single me out."
Hannah's father, Chuck Stowe, acknowledges that he had some concerns about his daughter's involvement in the GSA, although he never worried that the club was trying to encourage students to be gay.
"My first thought," Stowe says, "was is this for real or is this fashionable—the cool thing to do?"
But for Hannah, Stowe says, the club is a safe place for her to share her feelings. With the GSA, he says, Hannah doesn't have to pretend to be like everybody else.
Later that night, GSA members gather at a local coffee shop to hear Cassie play guitar and sing. A shrieking blender intermittently drowns out her introspective melodies.
After wrapping up her 30-minute set, Cassie dramatically tells the story of two girls who were allegedly attacked by students in the school parking lot for holding hands several years ago. The story draws gasps from the young audience.
Lounging on the coffee shop's chenille-covered sofa, Kevin Wiggins, who wears a rainbow-colored choker, acknowledges that he's sometimes shoved and teased by other students. He says he's building up a thick skin under his black leather jacket.
To cope, the easygoing sophomore searches faces. He tries to find someone who may think or dress the way he does. Someone who will be his friend. The Gay-Straight Alliance gives Kevin a sense of belonging.
"We're in high school," he says, shrugging. "Nobody wants to be by themselves."
Vol. 23, Issue 7, Pages 31-34Published in Print: October 15, 2003, as School Pride