Thursday, March 17, 2011

Talking with today's young gay teens

Since my daughter will be attending high school this coming Fall, I took her to a welcoming event on the campus for prospective ninth grade students. Outdoor booths were set up featuring the swim and dive team, the ASB Club, cross country and track, varsity baseball--basically clubs and sports teams trying to recruit the incoming freshmen. As we were walking around I spotted the booth for the Gay-Straight Alliance Club and told my daughter to go on ahead. I wanted to stop and talk with these guys.

I figured the best way to scope out the bullying situation at a high school is to talk to the gay kids. They would be the most obvious target of bullying, and what they had to say would be a good litmus test whether a school is serious about the "no tolerance" policy they are supposed to enforce. We are in the Los Angeles Unified School District, famous for its inefficiency, bureaucracy and misuse of funds. But this was a charter high school and came highly recommended to us. I was curious to know what the Gay-Straight Alliance Club had to say about their school.

I had never talked face-to-face with gay kids so young, just teenagers. There were five girls manning the booth, which didn't surprise me. I've come to expect that such a club would either be male-dominated or female-dominated. I've noticed that even gay groups that intend to be co-ed get quickly lopsided either in the male or female direction.

The first girl who responded to my question about bullying had short cropped hair with green highlights. She said that the kids on campus were friendly and generally cool, and if there were any negative incidents they involved isolated individuals. She said one time in class a fellow student asked her point blank if she was gay. Everyone stopped and turned in their direction, and when she answered "yes" the onlookers said, "ooooooh." A giddy sort of response but that was about it.

An African-American girl wearing a rainbow headband then spoke up and told me just that day she had been harassed by another student for having two dads, to the point where she was reduced to tears. The hostile student was quickly dealt with by the school administration. Everyone in the booth agreed that having the administration's support was key to their sense of well being on campus. They felt that the administration had their backs and took seriously any bullying incidents that involved targeting kids because of sexual orientation issues. When they participated last year in the Day of Silence, they told me, even some of the teachers voluntarily talked to their classes about what the day meant and explained about the problem of bullying LGBT students. These teachers were able to give a voice to the participants who, because of their vow of silence, could not do any explaining.

I ventured to inquire specifically about their encounters with the religious clubs on campus. Did they feel any hostility from them? One girl spoke up, whose more confident demeanor made me think she was a senior. She said she was a part of the Jewish Club on campus and never experienced any problems from them. "But what about the Christian Club?" I pressed. "See, we're Christians and my daughter is interested in joining the Christian Club. But I won't let her if they're giving you a hard time." "Oh, the Christian Club is really laid back," the senior girl said. "I actually know some of them and they're really nice. They've never given us a hard time." I expressed my surprise. Really? "Yeah," she said. "But even if they wanted to give us a hard time, they wouldn't be able to. We're protected from harassment by law, and the school administration is good about enforcing it."

I came away from that conversation with the feeling that perhaps times are a-changing. Gay kids saying that the Christian Club kids are "nice" and "laid back." (If there was a Christian Club booth around--and there wasn't--I might've gone over and high-fived them on the spot.) A school administration in a conservative Hispanic/white/Asian suburb of L.A. taking a hard-line stance against sexual orientation discrimination. Young lesbian teens and children of gay parents who were out to their teachers and classmates, who still had to deal with the occasional obnoxious kid but understood their legal rights ("It's called AB 537 in the California Education Code," they informed me. "You can find it on the GSA Network website.") I was impressed. Yeah, I'll let my daughter go to this school. I felt sure of it, even though I didn't stop by any more booths that day. I'd already found out all that I needed to know.

Thursday, March 03, 2011