Monday, September 1, 2008

GLBT youths bravely pave way for change

This article was written by Ruth Schneider who contacted a Stonewall Youth Representative who contacted me to do an interview. Ruth writes for The Olympian in the OUTspoken column. I hope you all enjoy the article as much as I did.

It's tough being a teenager. Period.

It's even tougher being a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender teenager.

"It's kind of hard to be out there and try to be someone there for people to talk to when there's a lot of homophobia around," said Kaleigh Costello, a junior at Olympia High School and a member of Olympia's Stonewall Youth.

That's why it is up to schools to do their best to protect all students from discrimination.

A school district in central Florida failed to do just that last year.

In fact, the school so alienated the GLBT-supportive members of the student population that the American Civil Liberties Union was called on to help file suit against the district.

It all began with a lesbian student at Ponce de Leon High School in Holmes County, Fla. The student was being harassed about her sexual orientation by other students. She took the issue to the principal, David Davis.

The mission statement for area school district states, "The Holmes County School District shall provide a safe, nurturing environment and a comprehensive curriculum that will allow students to achieve their highest potential and become responsible, productive citizens."

Principal Davis' response falls disturbingly short of this mission. Davis told the student homosexuality was wrong, outed her to her parents and ordered her to stay away from children.

This is not exactly the "nurturing environment" the school district says it offers.

GLBT-supportive students responded by wearing gay pride T-shirts to school, including rainbows and pink triangles.

Then things began to get ugly. Students reported being singled out for harassment from school officials for wearing clothing with gay pride symbols. Some students were suspended.

One of those students was Heather Gillman, a senior at Ponce de Leon High who identifies as straight but staunchly defends GLBT friends. She was suspended for five days last school year, but had the gumption to do something about it. She gathered her peers and took the issue to the ACLU.

"I was upset by what the kids at school were going through and I felt wronged that the school board said I couldn't wear a shirt supporting the GLBT students," Gillman said in an online interview.

And it was the right thing to do.

Federal Judge Richard Smoak reprimanded Davis for what he termed a "witch hunt" against gays and lesbians.

The school district "probably had an opportunity, as the courts have pointed out, in the learning environment of schools, where not just comfortable issues are to be learned or debated, that this would have been an opportunity for leadership, it would have been an opportunity for understanding and an opportunity for civil discourse and a learning opportunity about tolerance and diversity," Smoak wrote in his order that forced the school to recognize the First Amendment rights of students. "Unfortunately, those opportunities were missed."

As the school year begins again, students at Ponce de Leon High School will be allowed to wear T-shirts expressing gay pride without fear of reprimands. Gillman said she already has worn her rainbow belt to school.

But the homophobia GLBT students face from their peers will persist. And it can be found in South Sound high schools as much as it can be found in schools in small towns in Florida.

Costello wears rainbow bracelets to school and walks around campus with a Parents and Families of Lesbians and Gays bag.

Just that is enough to incite taunts from peers.

"People always give dirty looks and whisper and act rude. And people yell 'Fag!' at you," said Costello, who has been out since her freshman year at Olympia High.

The barrage of homophobic insults pushed Costello to conduct a mini-experiment on campus. When a teacher would walk by, she or a friend would yell a derogatory comment to see whether the teacher would respond.

Of the 15 teachers she tried her experiment on, only one asked her to refrain for homophobic remarks. Costello maintains that with teachers allowing hateful rhetoric, it makes homophobia permissible and pervasive on campus.

The homophobia she deals with daily pushed her to become active in the GLBT community. As a youth board member of PFLAG, she is able to advise others on what it is like to be a GLBT student.

"I give them insight into the schools. It's helpful to have someone in high school and tell them what kind of bullying and harassment goes on," Costello said.

It's teens like Costello and Gillman who make a difference for other GLBT youths trying to survive the vicious teenage years.

And that deserves thunderous applause.

Ruth Schneider was not out in high school, but wishes she had been. Contact her at or 360-704-6873.

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