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Gay and straight students aim to make hallways safer

August 03, 2004|Michael Ordona | Times Staff Writer

Nicole Smithy wasn't looking for trouble. But as if being a teenager weren't tough enough, Smithy came out as a lesbian in her sophomore year in the Central Valley town of Clovis.

"It was pretty bad," says the 18-year-old. "I'd walk down the hall and people would shout 'faggot' or 'dyke' every day, everywhere I went. I got spit on in my junior year.... The cops would walk me to my car. Teachers walked me to certain places; I felt like a prisoner. They wanted to put me in independent study."

Such harassment, though, isn't limited to farming communities.

"I played softball and there was a group of girls who were uncomfortable with me changing with them," said 16-year-old Mattye Dane of Tustin. "One time they cornered me in the shower and asked, 'Do you like watching me in the shower?' "

Vanessa Coe, 17, who recently graduated from Troy High School in Fullerton, turned her frustration inward. "I hated myself; I was trying to find something to live for.

"I decided that the only thing to do was to embrace my sexuality to make the situation better for everybody, not just myself."

Coe started a Gay-Straight Alliance club at Troy, as Smithy and others tried to do at Buchanan High in Clovis.

As its name implies, the club brings together kids -- gay, bisexual, transgender, as well as straight -- to combat homophobia and promote tolerance.

The Gay-Straight Alliance Network, the organization that connects the state's campus clubs, estimates that 20% to 40% of the clubs' membership is straight. Coe said at Troy only a small percentage of the school's club is gay.

Straight kids often join because they have friends or relatives who are gay and want to support them.

Aria Rostami, 16, is a "straight ally" at Scripps Ranch High School in San Diego, where half of the club is straight. "I had a friend who came out as bisexual, and I didn't know how to help," he said. She was really afraid because she knew she was going to get a lot of criticism."

The clubs are formed and run by students (though they have adult advisors) and are endorsed by the American Civil Liberties Union and can be found in more than 2,000 middle and high schools across the country. In 1998, California had 40 of them. Today, the state has 411, with a membership of more than 6,000 students, according to the network.

Lindsay Weber, a senior at Brentwood High, has seen a marked improvement in the way gay students are treated since the formation of a club on campus. "There used to be so many slurs in our hallways, and the teachers would do nothing. There were no 'out' people when I was in ninth grade, and now we have a lot who are comfortable being who they are."

The clubs organize activities such as an annual Day of Silence, in which participants vow not to speak, to "protest the silence that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender [people] face every day," according to the network.

At a retreat center in Pacific Palisades, about 25 kids from more than 20 Southland high schools recently plotted, networked and drank punch at the fourth annual Southern California Gay-Straight Alliance Activist Camp. Adult representatives from the network attended but stayed out of the way; it was clearly the teenagers' show.

"We're educating the next generation of activists," said student trainer Yve Laris Cohen, a graduating senior from Scripps Ranch on her way to UC Berkeley. Laris Cohen, 18, and Weber, 17, were among those who gave presentations on networking with other clubs, students' rights and effective activism.

Laris Cohen said that instances of harassment dropped sharply at Scripps Ranch after the launch of their club, but they still occur: "For our Day of Silence this year, we had organized resistance from a neo-Nazi group that is forming at my high school."

A recent California Safe Schools Coalition and UC Davis study estimates that more than 200,000 California middle and high school students are harassed for actual or perceived sexual orientation each year. It found that these students were twice as likely to report depression and consider suicide and three times as likely to miss school or carry a weapon to school.

Laris Cohen said that the "Safe Place to Learn" report also documented the benefits of Gay-Straight Alliance clubs: "On campuses that had the clubs, the risk behaviors were lower, harassment was lower."

But not everyone agrees that schools should host such clubs.

The Pacific Justice Institute and the Traditional Values Education and Legal Institute, among others, advocate litigation against schools that allow the clubs or are considering doing so. The Traditional Values Coalition website recommends that parents contact school board members and provide them with information from its report "Homosexuals Recruit Public School Children" -- specifically, a section called "HIV Instruction Used as Cover to Teach Perverted Sex Practices."

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