When I was in high school in 1970, the issue of homosexuality never came up except as a joke. Thursday’s in those days was queer day, when anyone wearing white or green socks was called a homo. Kids would laugh when detecting the suspect colors but nobody really believed that there were homosexuals in the school even if everybody pretended otherwise.
American high schools today are another picture altogether. Students are coming out as young as fourteen and fifteen, and more often than not they are unprepared for the homophobia they encounter. Gay and lesbian students routinely experience physical and verbal harassment and even violence from fellow students once they make their sexuality public.
In San Francisco, a 12 year old out’ boy was verbally and physically harassed. A gay Arkansas student was jumped by fellow students; his attackers used a broomstick and forced him up against the lockers as two teachers stood by and did nothing. According to one National Gay and Lesbian Task Force study, 45% of gay males and 20% of lesbians said that they received some form of harassment and/or violence in high school because of their sexual orientation.
In addition, the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) reports that gay and lesbian youth are three times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual teens, and that 53% of students regularly hear homophobic remarks from the school staff.
Teachers who witness the harassment of gay students but who say nothing about the attacks seem to be giving their approval to what’s happening. Students involved in the harassment then feel as they are above reproach.
For a victim, a Guidance Counselor may offer solace, but this means little if the majority of teachers continue to feign indifference whenever they see gay students punched or being called names like faggot’ in class.
It’s often impossible for a gay student to seek a parent’s advice because to do so would be to risk being thrown out of the house, attempt suicide, or live a life on the streets where prostitution becomes necessary for survival.
My sense of emotional isolation as a closeted gay teen led me to the world of books, but others are not so lucky. If my high school had had a gay-straight student support group, much like the Gay-Straight Alliance that presently exists in over 700 of the nation’s high schools, I’d have felt less lonely despite the fact that being out’ would no doubt have caused a more hostile reaction than the laughter we heard on White Sock Thursday.
The Gay-Straight Alliance is the best thing to have emerged out of the public school system in decades. Dedicated to the idea that all students, whether gay, straight or bisexual, should be afforded equal respect and should not have to deal with harassment from peers, the Alliance is flourishing throughout the nation, attracting more straight students than gay. At the same time, opposition is volatile, with critics saying that high schoolers are not ready to deal with such topics. Critics react emotionally and see any safe haven for sexual minority students as a component of the gay propaganda mill, as if adult gays were responsible for going into the schools and engineering the organization themselves with the hope of winning converts.
What galls critics of the Gay-Straight Alliance isn’t only the fact that every generation spawns its own crop of gays and lesbians, it’s the idea that kids are keeping the clubs alive. The kids are doing it with amazing tenacity, conscious of the fact that the social isolation that plagued previous generations of gays should not be tolerated.
Critics care nothing about the emotional isolation of gay or lesbian students and see them not as people’ but as an objectification of their own issues surrounding homosexuality.
Other Gay-Straight Alliance detractors refuse to accept the fact that a boy of 14 can know for a fact that he is gay. More upsetting to them still is the fact that this boy’s gayness has nothing to do with his being a victim of child molestation or what some like to call sexual confusion. These guardians of (false) public morality resist the notion that homosexuality can and does occur naturally, regardless of whether a kid was brought up in a monastery or a teeming metropolis.