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Acceptance of gay students improving But hostility still abounds, students say.

Oklahoma Daily 4/4/02


By Paula Caballero - Knight Ridder Newspaper

FORT WORTH - For years, Keith Uselton has been harassed almost daily at school for being gay, he said.

A recent confrontation seemed sadly familiar - until a teacher stepped in.

"The teacher told the guy, `If you don't stop, I'm going to write you up,'" said Uselton, 17, a junior at South Hills High School in Fort Worth. "It was amazing, a big accomplishment.

"But then there was another guy in the back of class who said, `Why are you writing him up? Why not write the gay slur up?'"

Many area teen-agers who identify themselves as gay or lesbian say they are more widely accepted than in the past. They say they have support networks of friends and families and have found ways to adapt and thrive in the classroom.

Yet the teens still encounter uneasiness and hostility at school. Initially, these students put up a brave front. But experts say verbal and physical harassment - or the fear of it - is substantial.

"High school, overall, isn't exactly a safe haven. It's not exactly hell, but it's not a safe haven," Uselton said. "You find people who are ordinary who do extraordinary things, and you find extraordinary people who do completely stupid things."

A survey conducted last year asked gay and lesbian young people about their high school experiences. In it, 83 percent reported that they had been verbally harassed, 42 percent reported that they had been physically harassed and 21 percent reported that they had been assaulted because of their sexual orientation.

Almost 70 percent of the students said they felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, according to the survey, which polled 904 students from 48 states.

"I think a lot of students feel like they are on probation - even if they are accepted - that at any moment they could fall victim to ostracism and violence," said Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). "That is still the case for too many students."

Most area students say they have never been physically harassed or assaulted at school because of their sexual orientation. But they wonder whether that could happen.

Sometimes, verbal harassment seems to verge on something worse. Peter, a senior at a Hurst-Euless-Bedford high school near Fort Worth, remembers being cornered in junior high and taunted with gay slurs. Uselton has had trash thrown at him as he walked down the hall between classes. T.J., a 15-year-old at Fort Worth's South Hills High, said she has been asked whether she's a boy or a girl and has been told "obscene things."

Although students seem to brush off such incidents, parents never stop worrying. For parents, typical concerns - about reckless driving and alcohol or drug use - are overshadowed by fears that their children will become random targets.

"That she'll be harassed. That she'll be beaten. People have died for absolutely no other fact than that they were gay," said the mother of Emma, a 17-year-old who attends a private school in the Fort Worth area.

In 2000, Cody Haines, a senior at L.D. Bell High School in Hurst, Texas, said he was invited to a party by two teen boys who came to his workplace and pretended to be gay. Haines said he had planned to go with them after work but changed his mind at the last minute.

Haines said the two boys then attacked him near his car, ramming his face into the car door, kicking his face and stomach as he lay on the ground and screaming gay slurs. Two other boys scratched gay slurs into his car, Haines said.

"And then they left me. They left me in a pool of my own blood," said Haines, now 19 and a student at Texas Christian University.

When Haines regained consciousness, he managed to drive himself five miles home. Doctors later performed emergency reconstructive surgery on his nose.

The two teens who beat Haines pleaded guilty to assault, and each received two years' probation, including anger-control counseling and 120 hours of community service at AIDS Interfaith Network. The youth believed to be the main aggressor in the attack also received six days in jail, said Alton Estrada, a Tarrant County assistant district attorney.

Not every story ends like Haines'.

One of the best-known cases is that of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming who was lured from a bar in 1998 by two young men pretending to be gay. They kidnapped Shepard, drove him to the outskirts of town, tied him to a fence and beat him. After lapsing into a coma, Shepard died days later.

One of the men pleaded guilty to murder. The other was convicted of felony murder. Shepard's death focused attention on the harassment and violence homosexuals often face.

"It was a major turning point in the public consciousness," said Lisa Tillmann-Healy, a communication professor at Rollins College in Florida and the author of Between Gay and Straight: Understanding Friendship Across Sexual Orientation. "Because even people who believe to their core that homosexuality is a sin can look at that crime and recognize that that human being did not deserve to be treated in that way." ---

In 2001, Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act. Under the legislation, prosecutors can seek stiffer penalties for crimes motivated by hatred of a person's race, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, age, national origin or ancestry.

Despite that law, Texas is not among the seven states that have civil rights statutes or educational statutes that specifically protect students from harassment based on sexual orientation.

In the 2001 National School Climate Survey by the GLSEN, students said verbal harassment is the most common type they face at school. Ninety-four percent of gay and lesbian students reported hearing homophobic remarks frequently or often.

"It does hurt," said Jesse Brown, 18, a senior at Martin High School in Arlington, near Fort Worth. "I think verbal abuse is worse than physical. Verbal wounds never heal."

Most students said they try to ignore slurs. Some, like Uselton and Emma, said they prefer to face their detractors. "I confront people about it, tell them they're doing something wrong," Uselton said. "I don't know, maybe then I bring stuff on myself. But my goal is to make things better for people 10 years down the road or five years down the road."

Emma, an A student and a competitive swimmer, said she feels sorry for people who use slurs. "I can't imagine what it is like to actually think that it is cool and funny to do something like that," she said.

Some teachers and students are working together to try to make school a more welcoming place.

"What is clear to me is that the level of victimization and harassment and bullying - while still prevalent in some areas - is going down as an increasing number of high school kids adopt a far more positive view about sexual-minority youth," said Cornell University professor Ritch Savin-Williams, an author of several books on the subject.

To try to end harassment and provide support for young people, two 17-year-old Fort Worth Southwest High School students asked veteran teacher Leanne Thomas in November to help them form an extracurricular Gay-Straight Alliance club.

Although the principal asked the students - Brad Carter and Shawn Poling - for time to research the issue, Fort Worth district Superintendent Thomas Tocco gave them the go-ahead 10 days later.

The club, which has about a dozen members, became the first of its kind in the county. Club members have participated in an AIDS walk and done volunteer work with Agape Metropolitan Community Church in Fort Worth. They plan to have a float in the Fort Worth Gay Pride Parade in June.

Shortly after that club was formed, South Hills High also formed a GSA, with T.J. as president and Uselton as vice president.

More than 1,000 Gay-Straight Alliances have been started nationwide since the first one was formed 12 years ago in Massachusetts.

The clubs remain controversial. Mike Haley, youth and gender specialist for the Christian organization Focus on the Family, said GSAs isolate gay students from their peers on campus and often provide students with false information about homosexuality.

Although he now has a wife and is expecting his second child, Haley said he had lived 12 years as a homosexual.

"Thousands of men and women have walked away from homosexuality," he said.

Cathie Adams, president of the Dallas-based Texas Eagle Forum, said gay and lesbian students are confused and "need to be steered toward the absolute truth about that lifestyle."

"Accommodating a behavior that is unnatural and immoral is uncalled for in public schools," she said.

Students without the support clubs said they are content to take whatever good they can find at their schools. If flying below the administration's radar makes life easier, so be it, they said.

Peter, 18, falls into that category.

A National Honor Society member, he is in the top 10 percent of his class. He spends his free time swimming, lifting weights and surfing the Internet.

His friends and family know he is gay. That gives him "the freedom to talk about what you want. You don't have to hide anything."

But like several other students, Peter did not want to be publicly identified. The youths thought better of letting the administration, school board and student body know.

"It tells you that they still experience their acceptance as something fragile, something that could be snatched away at any moment," said Jennings, of the GLSEN. "These are the most bright, most resourceful, most confident young people, and we still hear how fearful they are. What about the students who are too terrified to come out? Magnify that fear by a factor of 1,000." ---

ONLINE RESOURCES:

Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN): www.glsen.org
Matthew Shepard Foundation :"http://www.matthewshepard.org"
Hatred in the Hallways report: www.hrw.org/reports/2001/uslgbt

 Scouting for All : www.scoutingforall.org



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