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Making Schools Safer, More Tolerable for Gay Teens

January 06, 2002|JAMES RICCI

The crunching of tortilla chips punctuates Friday lunch period in Room 223 at Fairfax High, and salsa from a giant jar on the teacher's desk spices the air. I'm sitting in the back of the room, watching the eight students. Among them is a girl in flowing black robes, with much-braided black hair and bold black lip liner; a heavyset boy fixing his eye makeup in a compact mirror; a girl with hair partially dyed turquoise; a thin boy who smiles shyly but says not a word.

I've never laid eyes on any of them before, but I'm thinking, I know these kids . . .

A boy in an aloha shirt appears at the doorway and peers quizzically in.

"The Gay Straight Alliance," faculty advisor Erik Travis explains.

"Oh," the boy says, and quickly disappears.

"He knew," Travis tells the students. "He knew." They all nod knowingly.

Fairfax High, which is adjacent to West Hollywood, has a reputation within the Los Angeles Unified School District as a gay-friendly school. Still, anti-gay behavior sometimes occurs among its ethnically diverse, 2,400-member student body. The Gay Straight Alliance, one of 220 such clubs in California high schools, counters it by promoting the safety and acceptance of gay students.

Within the school setting, gays and gay-seeming students are "the last group it's OK to hate," says Carolee Bogue, Fairfax dean of students. As a result, gay teens' absenteeism, dropout and attempted-suicide rates greatly exceed those of non-gays. Many eventually are lost to the streets, to drugs and drink, to self-destructive promiscuity, to lives of enduring psychological exile.

Almost 18 years ago, a Fairfax High teacher named Virginia Uribe undertook to fight this with sensitivity training and unambiguous censuring. Her Project 10 metastasized through LAUSD, which became the first school district in the country to formally address the problem.

California is far from the worst place to be a gay schoolkid. In 1999, after five years of trying and by a single vote, then-Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) managed to bring to pass AB 537, which gave sexual orientation the same protection under the state public education code as race, gender and ethnicity. California is one of only five states with such laws.

Written laws and school district policies, however, go only so far. Putting resources and heart behind them is what shows real commitment. Even LAUSD, which ought to be proud of its history in this regard, funds only one full-time employee, Project 10 teacher advisor Gail Rolf, to attend to the specific concerns of a category of kids Rolf estimates to be at least 4% of the district's students, something like 30,000. In L.A. schools, kids are still tormented, and some teachers still turn a blind eye to it. Some principals try to dump gay and gay-seeming kids on schools such as Fairfax High rather than work to change attitudes in their own schools.

"There are schools where it's hard to get a person on the faculty to step forward and say, 'I will run a support group; I will get trained,' " says Rolf. "They're scared to death. We're still struggling with some who, because of their religious beliefs or other things, don't see the necessity of being in compliance with this law."

Which is why the kids in Room 223 are focused on reaching the handful of recalcitrant or ineffective teachers at their school. They talk of producing a live skit, or maybe a video . . .

I know these kids.

More than a decade ago, kids much like them used to gather at my house with my oldest daughter. They'd watch movies and talk, and eat and drink their way through my stash of snacks and soft drinks. They were, on the whole, an artsy group, nonconformist, bright and funny, and clearly somewhat apart from the mainstream.

My daughter didn't come out to me and her mother till her freshman year in college. Such a thing isn't easy for a parent to hear. Nonetheless, it never occurred to either of us that we'd stop loving her or working for her well-being.

I told my daughter, however, there was one thing I would not tolerate: She must never ghettoize herself, never use her sexual orientation as an excuse for living a curtailed life. She must still develop her mind and embrace the wider society in a productive way. She smiled at my powerful command of the obvious.

Many of the kids in her high school group, it turned out, were gay or bisexual. They were lucky. The atmosphere at their school wasn't especially hostile. For the most part they were spared coming home each night sick to the stomach, and lying abed mornings crying at the prospect of having to face another day of hell at school.

Watching the kids in Room 223 at Fairfax High, I'm grateful for the advances in tolerance that permit them to meet and publicly insist on what some of us discover only in our private-most family lives. Namely, that gay kids, like all others, deserve to be loved and cared for. They deserve not to be hindered in getting on with the ordinary corn chip-devouring, world-inquiring business of being teenagers.

High school is tough enough as it is, remember?

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