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EDUCATION | FROM THE FRONT OF THE CLASSROOM / CHRISTINE
BARON

What We All Can Learn About Tolerance

March 08, 2000|CHRISTINE BARON

Again a high school is in the news because members of the school board and the community are trying to prevent students from forming a gay-straight club on campus.

When I read about the controversy this dispute is causing, it's hard not to identify. In 1993 my school, Fountain Valley High, established the first such group in Orange County. Despite the groundwork that we so carefully laid, no one seems to have learned anything from our experience, and the whole painful process is repeating itself.

If the current participants would take a look at other schools, like ours, that have had a positive experience with a gay-straight club, they could avoid a lot of anxiety.

When the group at our school, the Alliance, first tried to form, the response was almost identical to that going on at El Modena High in Orange. Although most of our students, teachers and parents did not have a problem with the group, a vocal minority caused quite a ruckus. Now that the Alliance is an accepted part of our campus life, it's easy to forget the tactics and rhetoric of those who originally opposed it. There were dire predictions about what would happen to our school and our students if this group were allowed to meet. The ills that could befall our campus, we were warned, were manifold. Most of the warnings centered around five issues.

First, it was claimed that students would leave the school in droves because the existence of a group like this would be so disruptive.

Next, we would become known as a "gay" high school, and no one would take us seriously, in sports or academics.

Others went on to predict that this would be the first step in a "gay takeover" of the school.

Another popular fear was that heterosexual students would become homosexual if they attended any meetings of this group.

Finally, there were those who insisted that a gay-straight club would do nothing in terms of helping the students who joined.

Let's look at how each of these predictions played out.

First, not only did no one leave our school, but we also continue to gain students every year and are now at a higher enrollment than when the Alliance began.

Next, we did not become known as a "gay" school, but we did gain a reputation as a tolerant school. We also remain strong in sports and academics.

The "gay takeover" of campus organizations did not materialize either.

When the Alliance was formed, a large number of gay and straight students attended the meetings to show support for the beleaguered group. Once established, however, the group shrank to about 15 students, a number that has stayed constant for the past seven years. There is no evidence that straight students turned gay. There have always been some heterosexual students in the Alliance to support their homosexual friends and to promote tolerance in general. They seem well aware that sexual orientation is not a matter of choice and something that's certainly not going to change by attending a series of high school lunch meetings.

*

The Alliance did in fact end up supporting those who needed it. Former members with whom I've stayed in touch have gone off to various colleges and are leading productive lives. They are not depressed or suicidal--no small thing, as any young person who has struggled with this issue will tell you. Not only did the support group make them feel less alienated in high school, it made them more confident afterward. This is not to say their lives are always carefree. The point is, they are coping better now because they had some support early on.

Our school's track record, going on eight years, should serve as a positive example to others. This support group's existence is a statement of tolerance in itself, and that commitment is not lost on our students.

Christine Baron is a high school English teacher in Orange County. You can reach her at educ@latimes.com or (714) 966-4550.

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