Schools emerge as gay rights battlegrounds

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Tuesday June 19, 2007
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Moreau Catholic High School graduate Cristina Bautista is a member of the new class of LGBT students. Four years ago as a freshman at the East Bay school Bautista came out as a lesbian and petitioned school officials to launch a club for gay students and their straight allies.

The students couldn't label it a Gay-Straight Alliance due to the Catholic Church's anti-gay teachings. So the half dozen students – some out, some just coming to terms with being gay – decided to call the club "Diversity in Action."

"We always wanted one but we didn't get it started until junior year," said Bautista, who wrote the club's mission statement. "Most clubs' mission statements are one or two sentences. Ours was three pages; we had to cover all our bases. We had to explain how this fit in with the school's values."

The group's reasoning was simple: to be full participants in society the students needed to learn about the LGBT community. In December 2005 the students submitted their proposal; five months later they received approval.

"Even if people don't agree about it, they need to know about it. If they only know one side then they won't be ready to go out into the world," said Bautista. "We were pretty much on our toes the whole time. We weren't sure we would get accepted or get rejected. We understood it was a sensitive issue."

She is just one of the growing number of LGBT students with the courage to come out and speak up. They are turning schoolyards and classrooms into the latest battlegrounds over LGBT rights and visibility.

In Fresno, two transgender students campaigned to be king and queen of their proms this year. Roosevelt High School students crowned Johnny Vera, a 6-foot-4 cheerleader, as their prom queen, while Cinthia "Tony" Covarrubias came up short in his bid to be Fresno High School's prom king.

At Santa Cruz's Harbor High School, senior class president Ronnie Childers made news when he protested a Red Cross blood drive at his school because of rules that ban gay men from donating blood. At Madera High School near Fresno students who had waged a two-year battle to have their GSA approved finally reached an agreement with the school board in March.

Along with gay students speaking up and standing out, more and more school administrators are taking a hard line with anti-gay bullies. At Rio Linda High School outside Sacramento, a dozen students received suspensions this spring after they refused to remove T-shirts with anti-gay and biblical quotes. Officials at Maria Carrillo High School in Santa Rosa disciplined a female student for using the phrase "That's so gay."

Carolyn Laub, the founder and executive director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, said nearly 50 percent of the state's high schools have clubs for LGBT students and their allies. About 30 to 40 percent of the youth in GSAs are straight, either because their parents, a family member or close friend is gay, said Laub.

"Gay and straight youth see themselves as part of one community of activists and leaders working to change society, starting with their school," said Laub. "There is a growing student movement at the high school and middle school level."

The largest GSA growth in recent years has been in the more conservative Central Valley and southern areas of California. In more liberal areas the growth is due to GSAs now cropping up in middle schools.

"It makes sense. The average age of coming out is dropping. Kids are coming out at 13, 14, and are in middle school," said Laub. "They are seeking support, and their friends they come out to want to support them."

Not only is this new generation of youth "changing public attitudes about" the LGBT community, said Laub, they also are willing to wage legal battles for their rights. Across the country gay students are filing cases against their teachers and school administrators.

The lawsuits are "pushing the envelope on students' rights," said Laub.

Her agency has been a plaintiff in four lawsuits involving students suing school districts in California. The legal issues ranged from teachers harassing gay students in the Visalia and Los Angeles school districts to squelching Bakersfield students' freedom of speech by pulling a profile of gay students from the high school newspaper to a lesbian couple being disciplined for showing affection at a high school in Orange County.

Laub said her interest in joining the suits is not a financial one, but a policy one.

"We are seeking reform in school policies and school district policies," she said.

Under the terms of the lawsuit settlements, school officials hire Laub and her team to come in and train not just teachers and administrators, but students as well, on how to intervene in anti-gay bullying situations and file complaints about antigay harassment.

However, Laub said the media attention to such lawsuits may give the false impression that LGBT students need to be litigious to gain their rights. Nine states, plus the District of Columbia, have passed safe schools legislation protecting LGBT students. The measures in four states, including California, also cover gender identity.

"I think the number of actual lawsuits people go through with filing is a much smaller number than that of students coming out and starting GSAs or getting harassed and filing complaints," said Laub. "Lawsuits are a last resort for students and parents seeking remedy for harassment at their schools."

If anything, the lawsuits are a warning that discriminating against gay students can be costly. Settlements have ranged between a few hundred thousand dollars to more than $1 million in cash awards being granted to students.

"The lawsuits are small when you consider what is happening on the ground at thousands of schools with openly gay students, teachers, administrators and parents," said Laub.

After fighting to form the GSA at her school, Bautista then came out in her student newspaper this past January in an article tying the LGBT rights movement to the fight for civil rights. It caused a sensation at school.

"I didn't think it was that big of a deal but people would stop me in the hallway and say, 'Great job on the article.' I took a chance but I didn't expect for it to be so popular," said Bautista, who is Filipino-American and grew up in a family that attends church each Sunday.

Now 18, the Union City resident is one of six Bay Area students honored by ABC 7 KGO-TV this spring as one of the station's "Top Scholars." Bautista will receive a $1,000 scholarship toward her college tuition and be profiled in an upcoming special set to air in July. A softball player, member of the cross country team, and co-head of her school's creative writing club, Bautista sees her sexuality as just one piece of her identity.

"I don't think it is weird. I think it is perfectly natural for me to get married to someone who is female. I don't question it at all," she said.

As for her family, it has taken some time for her parents to come around and accept her sexuality.

"My parents said it was a phase. I wrote one of my college essays about it and I got into Stanford. They are okay with it now," joked Bautista, who wants to study communication and one day be a journalist.