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West Valley Focus

CHATSWORTH : Program Helps Gays, Lesbians at High School

January 05, 1995|ERROL A. COCKFIELD JR.

It was Mother's Day--of all days--and William Netkin was arguing with his parents. He couldn't hold it in any longer. He told them that he was gay.

Wednesday afternoon, in a circle of gay, lesbian and bisexual students at Chatsworth High School, he recalled his "coming out." Now his mother makes jokes about who is going to throw the bouquet at the wedding, the 16-year-old junior said, but overall he believes that his parents respect him.

"They're both really supportive. . . . I thought they'd take it the wrong way," he said.

But for more support, William and a small group of students at Chatsworth High turn to Project 10, a counseling program for gay, lesbian and bisexual students that meets each Wednesday at the school.

Project 10, whose name represents the 10% of the population that experts believe are homosexual, has been at high schools throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District for 10 years. Its goal is to reduce the dropout, suicide and drug use rates for gay, lesbian and bisexual students, which experts say are above the average.

On Wednesday, six students met with Chatsworth's Project 10 facilitator, Mary Petersen, an English teacher who volunteered to coordinate the group.

"Not one of the gay teachers has come forward to run the group," she said.

Petersen, who has been at Chatsworth for 14 years, was teaching students about homosexual disempowerment way before Project 10, she said. She makes public address announcements about the hourlong weekly meetings, but few students attend. Some are afraid, one student in the group said.

Two months ago, a Project 10 member--who wasn't there Wednesday--had a book thrown at him in class. A report was filed with police, but the student is still afraid to walk home from school. His peers said he is obviously gay, which drew attention to him.

How obvious one should be as a homosexual is often a topic in the meetings. "I don't think we should flaunt our sexuality around. . . . If we want to be treated the same, then why should we act differently," said one group member, a sophomore identified only as Todd.

But William, who wears a chain with seven rainbow rings, a symbol of gay pride and diversity, responded that he doesn't believe that he is flaunting his sexuality. He compared it to African-Americans wearing cultural trinkets.

"I don't think we can make a formula for how you should be if you're gay," Petersen told the group.

Periodically, John Smith, the first openly gay police officer from the Foothill Division of the Los Angeles Police Department, visits the group to share his experiences. Smith has told the teen-agers about the phone calls he gets in the middle of the night from gay officers who want advice on coming out.

Project 10 was designed 10 years ago by Virginia Uribe, then a teacher at Fairfax High School. In 1984, an openly gay student named Chris dropped out of high school after he was continually harassed by fellow students. Further investigation showed that Chris had been kicked out of his home at age 14 after telling his parents he was gay. Fairfax was the fourth high school he had left after sexual harassment proved too much for him.

Gay, lesbian and bisexual students at Fairfax began meeting informally to discuss Chris' situation, and then the conversations evolved to issues affecting them.

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