November 23, 2005 News & Opinion » Featured story

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Gay high-school students try to cope with discrimination

Even with the doors shut, the sound of excitement from the meeting room roared out into the hallway. More than 100 people --- students and their families --- were gathered inside, applause and laughter rising above the clatter of a screeching microphone as students walked to the front of the room, accepted awards, and posed with School Superintendent Manuel Rivera. Tables with trays of cookies, cheese, and fruit lined the back wall.

The Rochester school district's Hispanic Heritage celebration had all the earmarks of an important community celebration. As the festivities ran overtime, people expecting to attend the October School Board meeting stood waiting in the hallway.

When the celebration ended and the meeting finally began, Garland Miller-Lowe, a tall African-American student from Edison Tech, stood to address the board. In sharp contrast to the delighted students who had preceded him, a serious Miller-Lowe looked down at his notes and began to describe what a day in school is like for him as a gay student.

"Things are so bad, I can't get an education," he said. "Everyday, someone is harassing me and calling me names." One of his teachers, he said, jokingly calls him "Gay-lord."

Marshall High student Joshua Arpon was next. "I feel homophobia has reached an all-time high," he said. "Teachers stand there and do nothing when someone calls you a faggot. Discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation shouldn't be tolerated, just as racial discrimination shouldn't be tolerated."

Miller-Lowe and Arpon are not alone. Verbal abuse and harassment over sexual orientation are common in both city and suburban schools.

"I'm afraid sometimes to go into the bathroom," says Josh Winslow, another student at Marshall. "They [other boys] will say things like I'm going to try to rape them, or they'll turn around and put their butts up against the wall if I walk in. One day, they threw baby powder all over me. They said if I wanted to be a girl, I might as well smell like one. I don't want to be a girl."

"One kid asked me what I was carrying and if that was my purse," says Rush-HenriettaHigh School student Joe Giro. "I told him, yes, what about it."

"The constant teasing can really get you down," says Giro.

Miller-Lowe and Arpon spoke were among more than a dozen students and faculty members at the Rochester School Board meeting, trying to convince the board to act more aggressively about discrimination toward lesbian, gay, bi and transgender ---LGBT --- students. They also urged the board to be more supportive of Gay-Straight Alliance clubs, organizations of both gay and straight high-school students that discuss issues of diversity and discrimination and try to provide support for LGBT students.

Middle and high-school students who are openly gay are surprisingly common; gay teens are connecting the dots much faster than in previous generations. But this early self-awareness can have a high price.

In a national survey on bullying in public schools, "From Teasing to Torment," conducted by Harris Interactive International and released in October 2005, sexual orientation was cited as the most common reason for frequent verbal and physical harassment among teens.

A 2003 survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network found that:

• 91.5 percent of LGBT students report hearing remarks such as "faggot," "dyke," and "that's so gay" frequently in school;

• 64.3 percent said they feel that schools "are not safe for them to attend because of their sexual orientation;"

• Students who experience significant harassment have lower grades and are twice as likely to report that they will not attend college.

Feeling safe enough to go to school is only one issue. Suicide, prostitution, and drug use are problems for many gay teens. Trying to cope with their sexuality in the face of constant rejection and ridicule is tough for some. And they can't always rely on adults to protect them.

It's on this point that GSA's have found their footing. Nationally, the number of GSA's has grown from less than 100 in 1990 to about 3,000 in 2003, with an estimated 15 in Monroe County. Repeatedly, advisors from local GSA's told City Newspaper how important it is for LGBT students to have a place to talk to other students experiencing some of the same problems. Sharing experiences, they said, helps students alleviate their anxieties and depression.

Although the clubs include both straight and gay students, typically students don't identify their sexual orientation.

"There's no set rule for attending," says Brighton GSA member Jess Gersz. "Anyone can come in or go to another group if they like. There's no rule that says you have be out. There's no identification here. You don't even have to introduce yourself --- just come and be yourself and hang out."

Nor are the groups "all about gay stuff," says Rush-Henrietta student Spencer Sisson. The Rush-Henrietta club is organizing a silent auction to raise money for the Red Cross and its hurricane-relief efforts, for example.

Miller-Lowe and Arpon's presentation was not the first time the Rochester School Board had heard about gay students' problems. A similar presentation was made by students and members of the gay community in December 2002. In response, the School Board formed a 14-member Task Force on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Bias, representing the board, the Rochester Teachers Association, the Gay Alliance, and others. School Board member Jim Bowers chaired the group, which issued its report in June 2004.

The report was a thin one, giving a brief summary of anecdotal evidence rather than extensive documentation of harassment. "Incidents reported to the task force from 2003-04," says the report, "suggest that many RCSD teachers, staff, and administrators remain uncomfortable with and uncertain how to address LGBT students' issues."

Among the incidents cited: "Marshall High administration's uneasiness" with a recognition of Coming Out Day and "Franklin High administrators' concern over the formation and meeting of a Gay-Straight Alliance student group." Franklin administrators' e-mails showed a desire to avoid any reference to a "gay" club, said the report. And a Franklin staff member had suggested that one student stay away from another because "she believes in a lifestyle their church does not sanction."

The task force recommended that the district:

• Include a statement in employee handbooks saying that the Rochester school district is a "Bias Free Environment."

• Immediately implement top-down, district-wide sensitivity training for all school personnel.

• Provide domestic partner benefits for district employees by 2006.

The board accepted all three recommendations, and despite the report's brevity, Bowers says the task force was "extremely productive, given where we started."

"One of the first things we did was put into place a policy change that says the individual chooses their gender," he says. "We don't make that determination for them." That means, for example, that students who identify with the opposite sex, and dress accordingly, should not be sent home for coming to school in drag.

"We also passed the domestic-partner benefits, and they should be available here shortly," Bowers says.

But even though the board accepted the report's three recommendations, the one that would likely have the most effect on gay students --- district-wide sensitivity training for staff --- has not been fully implemented. And there was no sense of urgency in the report --- no timetable, for example, for the training.

Most important, there hasn't been a "top-down" message from the superintendent defining the issue or his position on it.

The first sensitivity training sessions took place only last week, in only two schools: Marshall and Charlotte. And attendance was voluntary. A total of about 200 staffmembers from those schools participated.

Bowers admits that the sensitivity training has been slow to get off the ground. "It's been hard to approach the superintendent" about the training, says Bowers, "when there have been so many other issues that have taken priority. I don't want to say it's been a case of out of sight, out of mind, but in a way it has been. I'm glad the people at the last board meeting brought it back to the spotlight, because it gave me the opportunity to push for it again."

"I don't believe the district is homophobic," Bowers says. Instead, he says, many faculty members don't know how to respond when straight students harass gays. "That's not the same thing as not wanting to respond or thinking these kids are doing something wrong," Bowers says.

Superintendent Manuel Rivera says he recognizes the need for sensitivity training. "You hate to see discrimination toward anyone," he says. "It can't be tolerated. When I talk about our organization going through a cultural change, when we talk about diversity, it has to include everyone. That's the organization I'm going for, and yes, it [the training] needs to deal very explicitly with discrimination toward gays and lesbians. That's the kind of environment we're creating. And I am very grateful to those students for addressing the board they way they did the other night. I was very impressed."

If white students were harassing black students, parents and the community would be outraged. But for many public schools faculty, even acknowledging student sexual orientation is a hot potato.

"School administrators sometimes fear that parents are going to think the school is promoting the so-called 'gay agenda,'" says Todd Plank of the Gay Alliance. But sensitivity training "is not about that at all," he says. "This is about providing a safe, secure learning environment for all students. These kids are not being set up for success. And if the superintendent is really embracing a culture of diversity, top-down sensitivity training demonstrates that commitment, because it works. And it works for all kids."

Lack of support by adults --- at home as well as at school --- makes GSA's particularly important. But it's often hard for the clubs to find adult advisors. Some faculty members are afraid others will think they're gay when they are either not or are not out at work. Others worry that attention to the GSA creates controversy. There is a GSA in the PittsfordCentralSchool District, but the advisor declined to talk about it for this article. And one suburban GSA advisor interviewed retracted most of her statements afterwards, saying she feared it would "rock the boat."

Even at Rochester's School of the Arts --- which health-education teacher Marybeth Mueller describes as "a very gay-friendly environment" --- there are concerns. "Some teachers would rather not be advisors," says Mueller, who is SOTA's GSA advisor. "We have an active GSA, but there's still some concern among the gay teachers. They would like a little distance from it, and I understand."

And at Webster's Schroeder High --- whose large GSA is in its fourth year and is solidly supported by administrators --- advisor Amanda Tierson says the school receives e-mails and complaints from some parents and residents.

"There's a lot of homophobia in the schools," says David Hursh, an associate professor at the University of Rochester's Warner School of Education. "And there are a number of reasons why teachers are not always prepared to talk about it or intervene in a problem between two students. Some teachers are questioned about their interest in the issue. And, says Hursh, teachers are already feeling pressure about raising test scores and other educational issues.

But, says Hursh: "Homophobia isn't just bad for homosexuals. It's bad for everyone. We all pay the price for homophobic language. It makes same-sex friendships difficult, because they become suspect. And it makes relationships with the other sex limited and fraught with innuendo. Men and women's relationships are distorted by it."

For much of the last 20 years, the gay community nationally has urged tolerance. But tolerance can be an empty box. It doesn't change relationships, and it isn't the message behind GSA's.

"I don't like teaching 'tolerance,'" says Joe Brown, head of the NAACP's Rochester chapter and president of a consulting firm that deals with diversity issues. "It's condescending. It really means that I don't accept you: 'I don't like you, but I'll put up with you.' It doesn't allow me to be appreciative of you as a whole person, based on all of your qualities beyond your sexuality."

"All students need to learn that words hurt," says Brown, "to understand what it means to be marginalized by nigger, faggot, and spic. Once we understand how these words join the same family of things that hurt and marginalize people, that demean and devalue people, we can all sit in the same room. That's how we begin to get through this together."

Social worker Erica Eaton, a GSA advisor in the Rochester school district, was among the group of staff and students making the presentation to the School Board in 2002, and she was back again last month, urging the district to provide more support to LGBT students and to GSA's. Eaton, herself a lesbian, says GSA's provide a critical support for LGBT students who face discrimination not only by other students but by school staff.

"They just can't take the constant tormenting," says Eaton (who emphasizes that she's speaking for herself and not for the Rochester district). "And it doesn't help when you have staff that says things like: 'Maybe we should just pray for him,' or 'Can't you just talk to him and tell him not to act so gay?'"

Eaton throws up her hands. "Can you imagine? These are people with master's degrees in education. Do we go up to African-American students and tell them not to act so black?"

Eaton's own situation illustrates the tensions that surround homosexuality in education. She was the adviser to the GSA at Rochester's MarshallHigh School for several years, and there have been rumors that the club was shut down. It has not, but Eaton was reassigned this year and now splits her time between three other city schools.

Eaton says the change was an attempt to isolate her because Marshall administrators objected to the GSA and to her publicizing its events. Marshall Principal Joe Bruno disagrees.

"I won't comment on a personnel matter involving Ms. Eaton," says Bruno, "but I tried to be supportive of her. This is not about me not wanting GSA's in the school. We have a GSA. I support them. I think they serve an important role in these kids' lives."

GSA's can have a major impact on schools. Two years ago, it was common to hear gay slurs and taunts daily at Rush-HenriettaHigh School.

"We had a definite problem on the buses with a lot of homophobic remarks and a few instances that got a little testy," says Lea Theuer, school nurse and the advisor to the Rush-Henrietta GSA.

Since they started the GSA, students say they've noticed a real drop in the remarks.

"Attitudes have changed a lot since last year. There was a lot of hostility last year," says member Joe Giro. "People had to deal with change."

"The kids have a genuine interest in impacting the school's awareness and safety for all students. They want this to be a welcoming and tolerant environment," says Theuer.

"I'm very proud of us for trying to eradicate the word 'faggot' from the school," says student Julia Eddy. "Do you know how many times a day you hear that?"

"Our teachers and administrators are very good about it. They've been supportive of us," says GSA member Marirose Dempsey. "A student in one of my classes said something like Oh, that's so gay or queer or something like that, and my teacher, who has an openly gay brother, turned to him and said: 'Do you know who you're talking to? Because my brother is gay, and I don't appreciate that comment.'"

At Brighton High, Shana Krisiloff, a straight member of the school's GSA, says the group is important to her because she has many gay, bisexual, and lesbian friends. "I've also got family members who are gay," she says, "and I see what they have gone through: the names, the bigotry, the pain they've dealt with from people who don't even know them. I like not being judged, and I find it comforting to know that all people are not blinded by stereotypes. I hope to be on the positive side of that social change."

Jess Gersz, a gay member of the Brighton GSA, says the group's meetings encourage debates on current events. "A lot of the students who come to the meeting are not anti-gay, but they were against gay marriage. And they felt comfortable expressing that to the group."

Krisiloff says she believes the day will come when groups like hers will become irrelevant in a multi-cultural society. "Sometimes it really confuses me," she says. "What's all the fuss about? I mean really, what's the big deal? Parents sometimes put so much pressure on their kids about it. Let them decide for themselves. Don't hide or censor information from them. It's the same with religion. My dad is Jewish and my mother is Christian. My parents introduced me to both religions when I was 13. They didn't say you have to believe one or the other --- or anything at all. They let me make up my own mind. I really respected them for that."

Leading the sensitivity training at Rochester's Marshall and CharlotteHigh Schools last week was Keith Powell, a Kodak executive and chair of the Rochester chapterof the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. The organization has a guide and videos that walk teachers and school administrators through the questions that come up during sensitivity training sessions: "How do I handle parent objections to the formation of a student club that addresses gay issues?" "A same-sex couple wants to attend a school dance. What is the proper course of action?" "I have students wearing both pro-gay and anti-gay messages on T-shirts. I'm getting complaints on all sides. What am I supposed to do?"

"A lot of teachers have been dealing with it [harassment] for a long time on their own," says Powell. "They didn't know there were specific techniques that can be used."

Powell instructs teachers to do three things: when they see harassment or bullying, intervene and stop it, point out the behavior, and remind the offending student about the school's policy.

Gays, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn said recently on NBC's Meet the Press,are "symptomatic" of the serious problems facing the American family. The comment illustrates the depth of discrimination toward gays, and why so many students feel the need for protection and support.

Marshall's Josh Arpon and Josh Winslow described their last two years in a GSA where, even there, discussions can be stressful.

"One of the first things, really one of the main things the straight students always ask is why? Why are you gay?" says Winslow. "They always want to know, how did it happen? How do you know?"

"Yeah, 'Why are you doing this?" --- like it's just something we decided one day," says Arpon. "'We went out with a girl and it didn't work out and now we're gay.'" Arpon shakes his head. "I don't even know how to answer that. It's like you're under a microscope or something. It's hard to give them an answer most of the time."

"There isn't an answer," says Winslow. "Everything doesn't have an answer."

"That doesn't mean I don't want to be treated with respect," says Arpon. "I'm not asking for special privileges. I just want to feel safe in school. They're always saying that this is a diverse society and we should be accepting of other people's differences. I guess they're talking about people with handicaps or inter-racial marriages or something. That's all fine. But what about us?"

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