Last March, a simple question from a classmate pushed Ashly Massey from her comfortable life as an eighth- grader in the high desert community of Banning into the midst of a civil rights battle with her school.
"Are you gay?" a friend asked curiously, without any sign of hostility, recalled Ashly, now 15. The girls were in the school locker room, changing after gym class. As she thought of how, or whether, to answer, Ashly said another student didn't wait for her answer, loudly blurting out: "She's a lesbian!"
The exchange would lead to Ashly's expulsion from gym class, and weeks of taunts and insults by classmates about her acknowledged lesbianism -- actions that at least one state official said were probably a violation of the Education Code.
Banning Unified School District Supt. Kathleen McNamara said Tuesday that she would not comment on the case, nor would officials at the school, but a district official said the school's actions were improper.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 19, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 388 words Type of Material: Correction
Teenager's bias suit -- An article in Wednesday's California section about a lesbian teenager being excluded from a physical education class in Banning Unified School District misspelled the name of Martha Matthews, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, as Marcia.
Ashly and her mother, Amelia Massey, described the teen's experience Tuesday as they announced the filing of a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Banning district, the superintendent, the principal and then-vice principal of Coombs Middle School, and Karen Gill, the physical education teacher who threw Ashly out of class.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Riverside, says the district violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution. It seeks changes in school policies to handle harassment of students based on sexual orientation, as well as unspecified monetary damages.
One gay rights activist said she was not shocked by the incident, and that gyms and locker rooms are often scenes of the most difficult confrontations for gay and lesbian students.
Ashly recalled Tuesday that the exchange began almost innocently with the friend's question about her sexual orientation. But then the instructor, Gill, pulled her aside.
"She reprimanded me," Ashly recalled Tuesday in an interview at her house in neighboring Beaumont. "She said, 'It's nobody's business but yours. Keep it to yourself.' "
The next day, Ashly said Gill told her, without explanation, to go to the principal's office, where she sat until the physical education class ended. That became Ashly's routine for the next two weeks, during which, she said, no one told her why she was barred from class or whether she was being punished.
She said she soon found herself targeted by classmates who hurled insults at her. Friends drifted away, invitations to sleepovers stopped and she saw her name invoked in hateful graffiti around the campus in the working-class community on the road to Palm Springs.
Ashly, who acknowledges being gay, said she hoped her stand would inspire other youths. "I hope other kids see me standing up," she said, "and maybe they'll take a stand too. Nobody should have to hide who they are."
The Masseys said they had moved two years ago from Palm Desert, where the large gay population made the teen's sexual orientation much more acceptable. In that environment, as a 13-year-old, Ashly came out as a lesbian, her mother said.
Then they arrived in this more conservative, working-class region of new subdivisions, built atop grazing land, where her newly declared sexual orientation was not so readily acceptable.
When the taunts reached a crescendo last year, the girl said that at one point she even packed a bag and considered running away to San Francisco.
Randy Patterson, president of the Banning Unified school board, said the board regretted the incident and was sorry that a student had been treated unfairly.
"Yeah, we feel bad," Patterson said. "Nothing like this has happened before. No one should be made uncomfortable due to their orientation or religion or race, color, creed, national origin." Patterson said teachers in the 4,000-student district go through diversity training each year. He would not comment on whether any staff members were disciplined as a result of the incident involving Ashly.
Marcia Matthews, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer representing the Masseys, said the lawsuit is one of the first cases invoking the Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act, a state law enacted in 2000 following a series of campus shootings.
Roger Wolfertz, deputy general counsel for the California Department of Education, said it appeared clear that the girl's rights were violated.
"Just because this person is a disclosed homosexual ... it would be illegal to kick her out of the class just for that," he said.
Janeane Vigliotti, chairwoman of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network in Los Angeles, said she was not surprised by the incident.
"People get panicky whenever it has to do with sexuality and they'll do something rash," she said. "Gay children do not like going to P.E. classes, and this is one of the reasons why."