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The experiences of three Massachusetts schools highlight three lessons we have learned about creating support for gay, lesbian, and bisexual students: the power of student activism, the ability of one person to make a difference, and the importance of community building. In one rural school, a gay/straight alliance (GSA) fought to have a rainbow flag displayed. In one urban school an openly gay guidance counselor inspired others with his courage and leadership. And in a suburban school, community members, teachers, and students rallied to counter opposition to classroom presentations.
Mahar Regional Junior Senior High School
If you were to venture into the small town of Orange, Massachusetts, you would see the requisite New England village green surrounded by a small business community. The economic difficulties of this formerly industrial town are evident in a handful of closed storefronts. Most of the people who live in Orange and the surrounding towns are White.
Ralph C. Mahar Regional High School, known by most simply as "Mahar," is just outside the center of Orange. The school is proud of its deep links to the community. The superintendent graduated from the local high school and has worked for the school district for over forty years. It is not unusual for young people to stay in the area after they graduate from high school or to come back after they attend college.
Before 1993, most people in Orange would have thought that discussions about sexual orientation were not relevant to their lives. Some might have recognized that there were gay or lesbian adults in their midst, but the subject wasn't generally discussed. One woman recalls that the teachers at her Catholic school would not allow students to go to a nearby gift shop because it was owned by two gay men.
Today it would be difficult to live in Orange and not be aware that gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are part of the community. Outside the school's main entrance, a rainbow flag symbolizing diversity and gay pride flies alongside the U.S. and Massachusetts flags. Inside the school a bulletin board for Save Our Schools, the gay/straight alliance, prominently displays the club's logo along with educational information and notices of upcoming events.
In the early 1990s, Rebecca Silver, a Mahar student and member of the statewide student advisory council to the Massachusetts Board of Education, heard about gay/straight alliances. Through Rebecca, Mahar's principal, Frank Zak, learned of the new state-supported safe schools initiatives. He acknowledges that his reaction to her request to form a GSA was mixed. While he calmly told Rebecca that she would need to find an advisor for the club, internally he was thinking "damn state." Despite his initial reticence, which he now laughs at, he says it was hard to be against the group because his philosophy is that all students should feel wanted. Any concerns he had about the group faded when he read the report from the education committee of the Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth. The information about the high suicide and violence risks faced by gay and lesbian students hit home.
Rebecca and the other students who formed the GSA were fortunate to find an exceptional advisor. Polly Bixby, an openly lesbian physical education teacher, has been key to the club's success. She grew up in Orange, graduated from Mahar in 1958, and returned right after college to teach there. Her family is well respected in the community, her daughter is an elementary school teacher, and her partner, Karen, also teaches at Mahar. Over the years, Polly has been increasingly open regarding her sexual orientation. Having been the target of homophobic actions from community members and students, she consistently champions the rights of students and teachers to be open about their lives.
With Polly's support, the students received permission to make presentations on antigay name-calling to all of the physical education classes. They asked students to stop using epithets such as "faggot," "lezzie," and "dyke." Many students reported that hearing the pain these taunts caused was an eye-opening experience. In a video about Mahar's GSA, a student athlete who joined the GSA soon after its formation talked about how he had been changed: "I was kind of homophobic before—now I'm different. I don't have just cause to feel anger or resentment toward anyone who has a different sexual preference. They're no different from anybody else.... I catch myself sometimes saying, `Like hey man, stop that, you're queer,' or `How are you doing, fag?" because [those were] terms my friends used.... [But] it's not acceptable."
In the spring of 1995, the Mahar GSA won a rainbow flag at the first statewide youth pride march in Boston. The group proposed to the student council that the flag be flown in front of the school, and the administration gave them permission to do so. Immediately, religious groups and members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars from outside of Orange spoke out against the flag, and approximately 350 people signed a petition in protest.
Some students also reacted negatively to the flag. The day it was raised, a GSA member recalls hearing a crowd of students yelling, "We don't want the fag flag here!" Lucy Snow, a transgender young person, was in ninth grade and the only openly gay member of the GSA when the flag was raised. For weeks, she was harassed by students who associated her with both the GSA and the rainbow flag. Despite this, she is glad the flag went up. "It raised a lot of issues. It made people look at their own views and question them. A lot of the people in town who were opposed to the flag at first couldn't tell you why. I think a lot of them changed their views."
Students had a strong presence throughout this dispute. They gathered support from teachers and parents, and they spoke publicly about why the flag belonged in front of their school. The tenor of the debate is captured in the following statements taken from an Associated Press article:
"We feel that the flag should be flying because ... it encompasses everyone, including people who are bigoted," said Micah Silver, who will be a junior and vice-president of the student council next fall. "This flag says that people who have different opinions can voice them freely. It represents anyone of any beliefs, any religion, any sexuality, any color."
"It represents things that most of us don't believe in. It represents homosexuals," said Bill Fellows, a Korean War veteran. "Either they're going to have to climb back in the closet or be a little bit more low-key."
Mahar Superintendent Eileen Perkins said the flag was meant to demonstrate that the school wanted every student to feel safe, regardless of race, color, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.
The school committee held a public meeting to discuss whether the flag should be displayed; nearly two hundred community members representing all sides of the issue showed up. The students eloquently testified as to why the flag should fly. Frank Zaklater said that this was the moment in his career when he felt most proud of the school's students. He respected those who stood up for their beliefs and presented well-researched information to a large group of adults. The school committee voted to keep the flag flying.
The school committee's vote was an important victory for the GSA, and the public debate strengthened the students' resolve to continue working to make their school and neighboring communities safer.
The Grover Cleveland School
The Grover Cleveland Middle School in Boston is housed in a plain brick building that stands out among the two- and three-family houses that line the street. The inside of the school is freshly painted. Brightly colored murals decorate the walls. This school faces challenges that are common in many large urban school districts. Despite the new paint, the school's facilities and resources fall very short of being up-to-date. School social workers are all too aware of the impact of racism, sexism, and violence on students, most of whom are African American and Latino. Teachers can easily feel lost in the vast city bureaucracy. Given all the other pressing issues the school faces, it is unlikely that the problem of homophobia would be widely recognized without the tenacity of Phil Robinson, a guidance counselor.
Phil's office is small; some houses have larger walk-in closets. But no one could mistake this office for a closet. It is a celebration of Phil's identity as an African American gay man. There are posters for local events that he has coordinated for years, such as the Bayard Rustin breakfast honoring the African American gay, lesbian, and bisexual community. There are others for local AIDS walks; Martin Luther King's birthday; Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG); and poetry readings by African American poets. Some advertise performances by Phil, who is himself a poet. There is hardly a spot of uncovered wall space.
Phil has been out in his school for over a decade. Asked why he feels it is important to make sure that middle school students know someone who is gay, he reflects:
I always thought that school should be a haven where courage and truth are personified. So if I'm going to be there, I need to represent who I am. It's interesting—a lot of people say, "Do you feel comfortable having this stuff on the walls?" Well that stuff is me, so they're really saying, "Do I feel comfortable about myself?" And I do. And even more so, as I sense that people come into the room and see something that mirrors themselves in some way. Even though they may not say it, I see it on their faces.
As a guidance counselor, Phil says he often sees students who are not in touch with their feelings and cannot imagine their own future. Although the reasons for this can be varied, ranging from societal inequalities to the difficulties of young adolescence, Phil seeks to be a model, an adult whose everyday life is connected to the essence of who he is.
The link between education and social change is part of Phil's worldview. Born in New York City, Phil attended Emerson College in Boston. He is the first member of his family to go to college. He became president of the Black Student Union there While at Emerson, Phil came out. He felt bolstered and inspired by the works of Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Walt Whitman. These writers were "people I had heard were gay, but no one ever talked about that in school, although in reading them I saw that their gayness was very much a part of their writing." As an educator, Phil wants to make sure that young people are aware of such role models.
Phil has experienced very little overt homophobia at his school. He has to go back quite a few years to recall an incident:
When I first started working at the school I realized that being out comes with a price to pay. I heard one kid call me gay and I said, "Did you call me gay?" He was silent. And then I said, "Because if you did, it's no problem that you called me gay. I just want to let you know that I am. And it's no problem for me. Now obviously it must be a problem for you because you called me a name thinking you were offending me. And it is offensive if you think you can call someone that and it will cause that person hurt. You need to understand that people are going to say to you, "Listen, it's none of your business," or "Why should it be a problem for you?" The student was quiet.
Within the Boston public schools Phil is known as a resource regarding gay and lesbian students; one student who was harassed for being gay was transferred to the Grover Cleveland School simply because Phil was there. It became apparent to Phil that being a visible resource was not enough. He convinced the school administration to offer an in-service workshop on gay, lesbian, and bisexual issues for the entire faculty. In the spring of 2000 an antiviolence day included workshops for students on respecting gay, lesbian, and bisexual people.
To reach more students, Phil teamed up with a community health center and developed a suicide prevention curriculum that integrates material about gay, lesbian, and bisexual students. Phil knew that gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth were at increased risk for suicide and was disturbed that his students saw few images of proud, self-confident gay, lesbian, or bisexual young people. The more he thoughtabout this, the more he wondered how many students were thinking, "There is no need for me to be here because I don't fit in."
The classroom lessons that address these issues help students talk about situations in which they might feel a level of despair so great that they might want to hurt themselves. They consider what it might mean if a friend says "I wish I hadn't been born," or "I feel like running away."
Phil tries to help students recognize that being isolated for any reason does not warrant suicide. Lists of resources are distributed to the students, including counseling centers and support groups for gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth. Students leave these sessions knowing that they can find the support they need and talk about these subjects with Phil.
Natick High School
Natick High School is nestled in a mostly White suburban residential neighborhood bordered by trees and a sprawling cemetery. The school is festooned with a blue and white balloon archway over the main entrance and a big blue banner declaring "Natick Cares." Since 1997, Natick students have learned about the harmful effect of antigay harassment through the efforts of teachers, students, and community members. Progress has occurred despite considerable controversy.
Teachers Marie Caradonna and Beth Grady have been active as school and community organizers. Each has different reasons for taking on these roles. Marie, an English teacher, becomes sad when she recalls a former student who committed suicide a few years ago. When she taught this student, she thought he might be struggling with his sexual orientation. Hearing that he had committed suicide, she wondered whether she and the school could have done more to support him. Before his death she had already attempted to incorporate positive messages regarding gay and lesbian people into her classes. News of this student's suicide made Marie resolve to do more. As a straight woman she feels a responsibility to address these issues, knowing that it is sometimes harder for her gay or lesbian colleagues to do so.
Beth Grady graduated from Natick High School in 1971 and has taught physical education there for more than twenty years Beth recalls that during the 1980s she was harassed by students who called her "dyke" and "lesbian." For years she feared being out at school and wondered whether being out would have a negative impact because she fits the stereotype of the lesbian physical education teacher. At the same time, she wanted to let students know that it is okay to be gay. Her compromise, she says with a laugh, is that she's not out but her car is. Her car has a rainbow sticker affixed to the rear bumper.
Marie and Beth joined with other teachers to form a safe schools task force dedicated to addressing the needs of gay, lesbian, and bisexual students. Students heard about this group and before too long a charismatic eleventh-grader and her friends had started a GSA. The task force convinced the principal to allow a mandatory faculty workshop on gay, lesbian, and bisexual students, during which the founder of the GSA impressed those present with her account of what it was like to be a lesbian student.
The group of teachers and the GSA decided that the next step was to educate students about the need to create a safer school environment. In preparation, they met with school representatives, the Massachusetts Department of Education, and people from community organizations—including a regional youth group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth. They planned to have a large assembly to be followed by smaller workshops in individual classrooms. The goal was to give everyone a shared reference point and also to offer students the opportunity for small group discussions. Kevin Jennings, the executive director of the national Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), was to be the speaker for the assembly.
To prevent parents from thinking that the student workshops were being conducted surreptitiously, a community meeting was planned. A panel of students, teachers, parents, administrators, and community representatives was assembled to speak. The evening was widely advertised in local newspapers and in letters sent home to parents. When the planning group met an hour before the meeting, the tension was palpable. No one knew what to expect.
As people began drifting in, it became clear that a local religious group that did not want homosexuality addressed in school had organized the majority of the two dozen people in attendance. Two of the men were ministers. Some attendees had children in the school, others did not.
Some parents who attended the meeting had concerns regarding what their children would be taught. Their questions ranged from "Will you be teaching them about gay sex?" to "Why is this being done in English class?" Some seemed at least partly satisfied with Marie's responses to these questions: "No, we won't be talking about how to have gay sex," and "I can't teach students Shakespeare if they're worried about their safety." Another group of parents asked questions like "Who are you to tell us what values our children should learn?" The most hostile participants spoke about the homosexual agenda and alleged links between pedophilia and homosexuality.
Dismissive of attempts to answer their questions, many of these parents remained opposed to the events proposed for students, and some asked that the whole program be canceled. Nevertheless, the principal, who the GSA did not always feel was in its corner, firmly stated that he would not cancel the event. The acrimonious meeting continued for hours past its scheduled ending time, but a turning point came when parents were invited to come hear Kevin Jennings speak and to be present on the day the smaller workshops occurred. Perhaps this helped some parents to realize that the school and presenters weren't trying to hide anything from them.
The following day, the local Catholic priest, who had not attended the meeting but had heard about it from parishioners, called to thank the meeting facilitators. Church members told him that they had felt heard. The telephone call boosted the planning committee's spirits.
A few days later Kevin Jennings addressed the school. He gave a passionate speech, and the audience listened respectfully. One senior approached Marie during lunch and said he owed her an apology. "I can tell you that going into that assembly the only thing I could think of was `I cannot bear to spend two hours in a room with a fag,'" he admitted. "And I want to apologize. I never knew. I never understood. I'm so sorry."
Some of the parents who attended the presentation were less impressed. They were angry that Kevin called on students to support equality for gay and lesbian people, and they were offended that he challenged students to make connections between those currently opposed to gay rights and bystanders in Nazi Germany. Despite some irate calls to the principal, the program proceeded with follow-up classroom discussions. A presentation identical to the workshops for the students was conducted for those parents who were concerned about the content of the day.
The drama at Natick High School did not end there. The next year the school presented a similar set of workshops for all ninth graders and transfer students who had not been at the initial presentations. As before, the task force determined that it was important to have a community meeting, and this one proved to be even more rancorous than the first. Many of the same participants returned, this time claiming that they'd been misled by the first meeting. A minister said:
I would have liked someone to give a Judeo-Christian perspective. Or for someone to say that AIDS and STDs are killers. I would have loved for someone to say that there is a God who designed us with standards, and if you break those standards you are going to run into complications.... I am deeply concerned. I would ask that this program not continue.
Although not everyone was in agreement at this meeting, two notable things happened. First, the administration sent a strong message that the program was not going to go away. Second, parents opposed to the in-school workshops were invited to be part of a community group that would address all forms of diversity. This was the genesis of a group called Respect, Acceptance, and Diversity for All (RADFA).
After the meeting, several key people were asked to be part of RADFA. The group's membership included representatives from the high school, the NAACP, religious institutions, city government, and the chamber of commerce. A mother of a gay student joined the group. Only one parent who had been a vocal opponent of the student workshops opted to participate. They became the core of RADFA, committed to dialogue regarding diversity in Natick. Steve Ridini, an organizer of RADFA, was impressed with the conversations that occurred among the members:
So many places people are just trying to push forward an agenda—they aren't listening. Here people were listening and engaged in dialogue, People shared some pretty amazing stories about what it was like to be a Black person in Natick. A gentleman who was Jewish talked about what it was like to live in Natick a good part of his life and still feel like an outsider because of the sound of his last name. A woman whose child is a Christian fundamentalist said, "My child was put up against a locker because she talks about her faith."
Some in the community believe that when Natick High School hosted student workshops on gay and lesbian issues for a third year, the dialogue among RADFA members averted another round of contentious public debate. It's also possible that everyone finally realized that the administration was not going to back down from its commitment to addressing homophobia. In any case, having an organization that brought together people with a common goal of fighting oppression strengthened both the school and the community.
Excerpted from When the Drama Club Is Not Enough by Jeff Perrotti and Kim Westheimer. Copyright © 2001 by Jeff Perrotti and Kim Westheimer. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|2.||Strategies for Change||20|
|3.||What Do Race and Gender Have to Do with It?||46|
|4.||Sports, Sexual Orientation, and School Climate||73|
|5.||Elementary and Middle Schools||98|
|6.||Controversy: Challenge and Opportunity||117|
|7.||Nuts and Bolts||143|
|8.||Sustaining Your Spirit||169|
|Appendix A||Addressing Sexual Orientation and Gender Stereotypes with Elementary School Children||189|
|Appendix B||Model Antiharassment Policy||193|