A Tale of Two High Schools
Cambridge, Massachusetts and Brookfield, Connecticut are two New England towns located about 150 miles from each other. But the way in which these two communities reacted to gay student issues at their respective high schools puts them worlds apart.
Cambridge Ridge and Latin School sits only a few blocks from Harvard University. It serves as the only public high school for the city of Cambridge, an ethnically and socially diverse community. It's gay/straight alliance, Project 10 East, was started in 1987 by teacher Al Ferreira and took it's name from a pioneering program, Project 10, in Los Angeles. After Ferreira came out at school he was asked by some students to form a gay and lesbian group. The group remained small for a while until they changed their focus to become a gay/straight alliance. By doing so, the group became open to questioning students, unsure about their sexuality, who could come and discuss things without fear of being labeled. It also allowed students who were straight but interested in the issues to attend. This gave the gay, lesbian and bisexual students at the school some powerful allies among their peers.
The group's symbol on their homepage says two things: "education, visibility, advocacy" and "creating safe space for glbt youth". It is one of the goals of the group to educate the entire CRLS community; they put up displays at the school and speak to ninth-grade health classes about gay and lesbian issues. The group has also taken on a state-wide presence, advocating for a state law protecting the rights of gay and lesbian students.
If you leave Cambridge and take about a two and a half hour drive along the interstates of Massachusetts and Connecticut, you will end up in Brookfield, CT. Students at Brookfield High School also tried to create safe space through the establishment of "safe zones". The zones, established by a peer counseling group four years ago, were identified by a pink triangle on the door of any teacher willing to discuss gay and lesbian issues in a non-judgmental way.
However, controversy erupted this past school year when the parents of one student complained about the safe zones and attacked one teacher (the mother of a gay son) in particular. They claimed that she was using a "homosexual agenda" to "recruit" students into a gay lifestyle. These parents obtained support and funding for their fight from a number of right-wing groups, including the American Center of Law and Justice, associated with Pat Robertson. Those concerned about the continued existence of the safe zones asked the Board of Education to support the safe zones. Although a similar vote the previous year had affirmed the zones, this time around the vote came up 3-3 with one member abstaining. The Board's rules stated that a tie vote would defeat any motion and the future of the safe zones was in doubt.
The news was not all bad, however. The week following the school board's decision students passed out black ribbons as a symbol of the "death" of the safe zones and to show their support for keeping them. Also, a group of concerned citizens formed the Committee for the Defense of Classroom Tolerance to provide moral and financial support to the teacher, who had filed suit against the parents that had publicly attacked her.
The Board of Education did an abrupt about-face at its July 15, 1997 meeting. At that meeting, it voted to ban anti-gay discrimination in the Brookfield schools. The reason was SB1121, a bill signed on July 1 by Gov. John Rowland which adds "sexual orientation" to an existing state law prohibiting discrimination in education based on gender, religion, race and other criteria. While the Board still has not voted to support the safe zones, gay advocates see the law as a vehicle for guaranteeing not only safe zones but safe schools for all students.
Starting a Gay/Straight Alliance at Your School
I was going to use this space to give you some of my suggestions about starting a gay/straight alliance at your school. Every group needs some help getting started and some rules once it does. You need to establish guidelines about confidentiality and other issues. As I thought about what to write about on this topic, I found two online resources that would make anything I could say pale in comparison. For some great information read How to Start a Gay-Straight Alliance, an article from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. Another great source is Gay/Straight Alliances: A Student Guide, put out by the Massachusetts Department of Education.
I've recently used some excellent online sites to teach myself HTML and have started my own web page. One of the things I've tried to do there is create a state-by-state directory of support groups for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered youth. As of this writing, I have about 60 groups listed that I've found through Internet searches. I'd like to continue to add more, so if you know of one please go to my page and fill out the form that's there. Thanks!
As usual, if you have any comments or suggestions email me at BCEagleGuy@aol.com.