In August, I was reading an article that my Great Aunt Anita and Great Uncle Woody sent me. The article was called 'Gay/Straight Alliance Teens Coming Out' and it was from the Arizona Star Daily Star. It stated, 'The number of school-sanctioned clubs for gay students called the Gay/Straight Alliance or GSA's has risen from 900 to nearly 1,800 nationwide in the past two years.' Since 2001 Tucson's Alliances have jumped from six to 22. The first GSA was formed in 1989 to combat hostility and violence at Concord, Mass., high schools. The goal was to give gay students a solidarity and a safe haven for challenging homophobia in their schools, according to GLSEN.
After I read this article, I decided to interview some sponsors of the Gay/Straight Alliance from high schools in the Chicagoland area. I started with Highland Park High School, which I attended from freshman to junior year 1996-1999. I spoke with Paul Swanson, an English teacher who started the GSA in 1996.
'The students discuss about how to make a school safe, they have many lunch-time conversations where students talk to staff about their experiences,' Swanson said, 'Students feel safe at Highland Park High School. Our definition in the student and staff handbooks now define protection against harassment or discrimination as including sexual orientation.' Swanson mentioned that for a school like Highland Park, there has to be a support group, protective rules, and faculty role models. Pat Cannon a sponsor of the GSA at Highland Park, said, 'There is some harassment in the school, but probably very little compared to other schools. The administration is very supportive and outspoken in letting people know our policy and without their support we would not be as progressive as we are.' The GSA at Highland Park has hosted a dance and members have attended other school's GSA dances. They also have gay couples who attend the prom.
I decided to interview Warren Township High School in Gurnee where I went during my senior year. Cynthia Ruiz is the sponsor of the GSA at Warren, which started in 2002. 'Some students approached a teacher and wanted a GSA and the teacher was very understanding and supportive, and talked to the principal and the principal said it was OK,' said Ruiz. 'A lot of of the GSA members are straight and they don't like how homosexuals are treated in society and they believe it's OK to be gay, open minded and to be who you are and feel free.'
Ruiz also said the students feel safe and accepted. Some of the discussions the GSA had last year were based around getting accepted, informing people about what the GSA is, talking about personal experiences that they have outside of school or at home. Ruiz is proud to have a GSA and proud to be a sponsor of students she believes are open-minded and sensitive. The school is planning to host a GSA dance this year.
That last school I interviewed was Evanston High School, which is way ahead of the curve with their GSA. Eric Brown is the school sponsor of the program. The GSA at Evanston has been in existence for more than eight years. It was started by students interested in changing the school climate. 'Our first meeting of the year is always our most attended meeting. There were 27 members at last year's first meeting. From then on, membership declines as students find other activities ( sports, theatre ) that they also want to be part of. However, many students who aren't able to attend all our meetings do continue to support us in any way they can. This includes helping out during fundraising events, passing out buttons, and participating in the Day of Silence,' said Brown. 'Most of our students feel comfortable enough at school to be out. There have been incidents where staff have participated in the harassment of our students but our students do not feel comfortable pursuing acting against these people. That is what I see as a real problem at ETHS.'
The GSA mission at Evanston is to improve the school climate for students through activism and discussion. They began a Safety Zone Project, whereby teachers volunteer to designate their room/office as a place students can be out and not have to worry about harassment. The GSA also ran a staff development group to train new teachers. The GSA also listened to a speaker from Horizons discuss transgender rights. 'We brought in a speaker from Equality Illinois to talk about the state of GLBT rights in Illinois. We also have been able to screen movies of various sorts; Priscilla, Hedwig, The Times of Harvey Milk, Get Real,' said Brown.
There are many more schools with successful GSA programs. One can hope that many more will follow. See www.GLSEN.org .
Teen Suicide Case Settled Out of Court
PHILADELPHIA, PAA settlement in the shocking case of a teenager who committed suicide after two police officers threatened to 'out' him to his family sends a message to government officials to stay out of the private lives of lesbian and gay teenagers, the American Civil Liberties Union said.
'No amount of money can replace what our client lost because of the actions of the police, but in paying this settlement the police department is acknowledging the role it played in Marcus Wayman's death,' said David Rudovsky, who represented Wayman's mother Madonna Sterling as a cooperating attorney for ACLU. 'And an important part of Marcus's legacy is the message that his case sends to government officials that they must respect young people's privacy about their sexual orientation.'
The $100,000 award brings to a close a lawsuit filed by the mother of Marcus Wayman, a rural Pennsylvania high school football player who was in a parked car with a 17-year-old male friend when police questioned the two, found condoms while searching the car, and arrested them for under-age drinking. At the Minersville police station, officers lectured the two teens about the Bible's condemnation of homosexuality and threatened to tell Wayman's grandfather that he was gay. After the 18-year-old Wayman was released from police custody, he went home and shot himself in the head. Sterling sued the town and the officers for police misconduct, discrimination and violation of the right to privacy.
In an earlier ruling in Sterling's case, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled that police violated Wayman's constitutional rights when they threatened to tell his family that he was gay. The court rejected the argument that lesbians and gay men are not protected by the right to privacy. The officers had asked the federal appeals court to let them out of the case on the basis that it was not clear that the right to privacy protects lesbians and gay men. The appeals court denied that request and sent the case back to the lower court for a trial, which ultimately resulted in the settlement.
The Marcus Memorial Campaign, founded in 2001, grew out of the need to educate the public about the tragic case of Marcus Wayman. See www.marcuswayman.org .