By Patricia Nell Warren
For the past seven years, while LGBT students in many school districts across the nation were struggling for the tiniest toe-hold of acceptance, those in Los Angeles Unified School District actually enjoyed significant acceptance and support from their Board of Education. The Gay and Lesbian Education Commission -- a unique body in American K-12 education -- was created in 1991 by the L.A. Board to ensure that these young people could be safe at school and enjoy equal access to education.
GLEC became not only a pioneering example but a source of how-to information, as gay people and concerned heterosexuals tried to enlarge their niche in their own districts. Increasing numbers of GLEC's Project 10 and elementary-school packets were being requested from elsewhere.
Now, LGBT youth in L.A. are not so sure of their Board's acceptance and support. In a sweeping move that may jeopardize seven years of pioneering, the Board is terminating all eight of its education commissions, including GLEC.
As per a resolution now before the Board, the commissions will be "discontinued" on June 30, at school year's end. According to openly gay Board member Jeff Horton, who spoke at a March 3 emergency GLEC meeting at district headquarters, the Board will likely pass it.
It's not clear what the whole reason is for terminating GLEC. According to Horton, the Board heard its legal counsel's warning about Prop. 209, in which conservative Californians voted to end affirmative action in California. A subsequent court decision had declared Prop. 209 constitutional. Legal counsel had advised the Board that several of its right education commissions -- Gender Equity, African-American, Mexican-American, Asian-Pacific, American Indian, Armenian-American -- might possibly be in violation of Prop. 209, because they each serve a single group exclusively. GLEC and the Special Education Commission are not affected by Prop. 209 because they serve both genders and all ethnicities. According to Horton, the Board was hoping to avoid 209 lawsuits and demonstrate political fairness. Dropping the gender and race-based commissions, while keeping GLEC and the special-ed commission, would not have "flown politically," Horton told the assembled members of GLEC.
However, at the Board's March 23 meeting, as the "discontinuance" resolution was formally introduced, legal counsel told the Board that, Prop. 209 or no, they have the right to ax the commissions if they so choose.
Beleaguered by building-contract scandals and political attempts to break up the huge district, as well as controversy over bilingual education and decaying schools, the Board has not yet responded to protests. On 3/25 GLEC chairman Bart Verry sent a strongly worded letter to Board president Julie Korenstein, asking that other legal opinions on Prop. 209's applicability be gotten by the Board. Angry buzz about Prop. 209 still courses through California, and the new law's constitutionality may be further challenged in the courts. The Board has also not yet responded to letters by individual GLEC members including myself.
In place of the eight education commissions, the Board plans to appoint a new Human Relations Commission. As yet, it is not clear how this new commission will work, or if its members -- who may or may not be expert and sensitive in all eight of the demographics previously concerning the Board -- can effectively merge all eight umbrellas into one big umbrella.
Verry's letter addressed this concern. He said:
"The needs of GLBT youth are not addressed legally nor constitutionally, as are the needs of persons from different ethnicities, genders and physical challenges. We demand to have a voice in how the needs of our population will be addressed. We demand that we will be actively involved in all decision- making processes regarding the Human Relations Commission, so that [GLEC] will have the space, resources and opportunity to exist as we do today. If this is not accomplished, you need to recognize that there will be considerable risk of litigation so that we can continue to address the needs of the GLBT community."
Already news of the commissions' fate has jarred many people throughout L.A.'s ethnic communities, though the major media have yet to give the news any major headlines. On 3/23 Frontiers Magazine published an editorial of mine. In the city's gay community, the Board's quixotic move is pondered by students, teachers, district employees, educators, as well as GLSEN and PFLAG groups.
"What's going to happen to us now?" one lesbian student asked me. "Who can we trust? Why is the Board doing this to us?"
For better or worse, LAUSD is a bellwether among U.S. school districts. What happens here, often happens elsewhere later. With a vast smoggy geography stretching from South-Central slums and "East Los" barrios to all-white San Fernando rural districts -- it is the nation's 2nd largest. Of its 650,000 students, an estimated 65,000 might be gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered. Add perhaps 15,000 runaways, who come to L.A. from other cities -- many of these are LGBT kids who are homeless because of family hostility and try to get back in school after arriving in L.A.
In 1991 the Board did the bellwether thing by creating GLEC to meet the needs of this small army of LGBT students. Every year, hundreds of students, both out and closeted, quietly find support in Virginia Uribe's pioneering Project 10, now a counseling fixture in most LAUSD high schools. They could find information on health, safer sex, suicide, substance abuse, family hostility, transgender issues, getting out of gang life -- or be directed to community-based youth services for such needs as employment, shelters, etc. They could enroll in one of the four continuation programs for LGBT dropouts, and get their high-school diploma. They could attend the Gay Prom, or the district-sponsored Models of Pride Youth Conference. GLEC's growing scholarship fund gets a number of needy young people into college.
GLEC also held the line on safety at school. Young people who were openly harassed can go to GLEC for legal networking. Because of the landmark Jamie Nabozny case -- ending in a punitive million-dollar judgment against a Wisconsin high school last year for having tolerated gay-bashing against one student -- LAUSD's more reactionary schools are essentially on notice that, in a similar case, a California jury might hold them massively liable for a student's injury or death from on-campus bashing.
While the eight commission directors' salaries were paid by the district, GLEC funded its own programs -- almost $150,000 in seven years, which we raised by everything from A-list fundraising parties to yard sales.
Are these programs effective? Because of them, numbers of students whose histories are known to me are presently happier and more productive in their high schools -- like Armond Anderson-Bell, 19, promising writer who is now anchorman of the TV news station at John Marshall High School. There are LGBT students in college or the workplace today -- indeed, who are alive today, even reconciled with formerly hostile parents -- because of LAUSD support and sensitivity at key moments. At some schools, the programs helped create a buffer zone of gay-supportive straight students and teachers who feel strongly about human rights. They produced some outstanding teen leaders and activists, including GLEC youth commissioners Louis Harvey and Joel Feldman. At her home school, Fairfax, Luna Andrade founded the first gay-straight alliance club in the district. Dan Harris, a 1996 EAGLES graduate, went home to his conservative high-desert community and forced his former high school to clamp down on gay-bashing. Another EAGLES graduate, Christine Soto, has begun a promising career in social work. Yet another, K. C. Barrow, went home to Utah to help start the gay-rights movement in that state. These are just a handful of kids that I know. Other commissioners can tell similar stories.
With the June termination date a grim certainty, GLEC commissioners are bracing themselves for being "decommissioned", and for trying to interface with the as-yet mysterious Human Relations Commission.
For the moment, some programs -- Project 10, the EAGLES continuation programs -- will continue to operate because they were approved directly by the Board. Friends of Project 10 will still offer its growing array of scholarships. To better serve dropout youth, the special-ed EAGLES has just merged with the Long Beach EAGLES to form a new program called Oasis. No matter what happens, Bart Verry says he plans to hold the next Models of Pride at its usual venue, Occidental College, in October. But it isn't clear what the future holds.
Will the new Human Relations Commission successfully meet the urgent needs of L.A.'s ethnic communities? In the city where the 1992 riots and the Watts riots happened, this is a major question.
Will the Human Relations Commission care enough about the needs of gay youth to shoulder the full burden of GLEC's hard-fought programs? Or will some members of the new Commission be people who willingly answer to right- wing lobbyists? To keep our programs going, and launch new ones, will we be fighting anti-gay attitude every time we need a majority vote? That's another major question.
Far-righters like Lou Sheldon and Pat Robertson have already targeted LAUSD for major attention. The Christian Coalition has already actively tried to keep Jeff Horton from being re-elected to the Board. Lou Sheldon attempted to target our GLEC programs during a 1996 Congressional investigation, hoping to stigmatize GLEC as an example of the "pernicious" influence of homosexuals in education. Most local right-wingers don't give a hoot for the safety of gay kids -- they have lobbied the L.A. Board about eliminating the district's hate-crimes policy. Their reasons: the policy "protects homosexuals" and deprives Christian students of free-speech rights to criticize homosexuality on their campuses. So the "discontinuation" of GLEC might be interpreted by anti-gay elements as a softening of the Board's position on anti-gay violence.
A recent study showed that Los Angeles has the third highest statistics on anti-gay violence in the nation, with 350 murders, assaults, rapes and intimidations reported last year. Many more go unreported. Nationally, violence against LGBT young people is on the rise. These figures are augmented by growing violence even against students who are gay-friendly, or who might merely be perceived as gay -- or who are the butt of cruel student pranks (it's the "in" thing at some schools to start a rumor that so- and-so is gay or lesbian).
Yesterday's shooting spree at an Arkansas high school, in which two young teens clad in camouflage killed 5 people and wounded 11 in a pique over a girlfriend problem, points up a stark reality. The media is doing the usual handwringing about how TV violence and the firearms industry are to blame -- yet we must look to others who are responsible for violence at school. That certainly includes school boards everywhere, who -- for better or worse -- set the tone for their districts. If a hail of gunfire can be perpetrated by one angry heterosexual boy because he broke up with his girlfriend, a similar hail of gunfire is possible over gay issues at a school where there is any level of permissiveness on anti-gay violence.
In gun-happy L.A., home of the drive-by shooting, the Board of Education's future performance on safety and welfare of its gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students needs to be closely watched.
The L.A. Board of Education needs to know that the nationwide gay community, and concerned students and straight people everywhere, are watching.
So far, only a few letters of support have been received by GLEC. It is vital for concerned Americans to pressure for GLEC's continuance, and a positive performance by the new Human Relations Commission. Contact GLEC's executive director Kathy Gill at 213/625-6392 (phone) or 213/626/5279 (fax).
The Board itself may be contacted by writing or phoning: Los Angeles Board of Education, Room A-201, 450 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012, 213/625-6386 (phone) or 213/626-2815 (fax)
For more information on GLEC programs, its web page can be still found at http://www.lausd.k12.ca.us/lausd/offices/glec/
Patricia Nell Warren is a widely read commentator, as well as author of bestselling fiction like THE FRONT RUNNER, HARLAN'S RACE and BILLY'S BOY. She is a member of the Gay and Lesbian Education Commission in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where she helps raise funds for the scholarship program. Her publisher is Wildcat Press, whose web page is located at www.wildcatcom.com.