Q: Okay. Let's start out just by talking about the alliance. First off, I just want you to give me just a basic description of what the purpose of the alliance is and what its goals and mission are.
A: Okay. I think the purpose of the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) and the mission is pretty clearcut. Initially, the students who formed the alliance formed it to end the misery and isolation of being gay teenagers. So I think it was all about a social support group in the beginning. And I think it's still pretty much the same.
Kids need support. They need a safe place where they can go, they need to know they're not alone. And that's what the alliance has done. The students now that are involved are starting to look beyond all of that and they believe that education is a big part of the mission statement, and also that the alliance is here to educate faculty and students about gay and lesbian issues.
Q: When you say to know they're not alone and describe that, can you tell me a little more in-depth about why they need to know they're not alone? I mean, kids -- I'm just trying to get more of a definition or an idea of how important -- why you think this is so important why the kids would need a special club.
A: Okay. The isolation that gay and lesbian kids face in American high schools is just unbearable at times for a lot of these students. And they come to school every day and they see all these heterosexual images and role models from school dances to teachers talking about being married or what they did for the weekend. And so they're just completely bombarded by heterosexual culture.
And they sit in a classroom and feel like they're probably the only gay or lesbian person in the entire school. And a lot of times this isolation leads to really intense loneliness and misery and decreased self-esteem.Unfortunately, there's a lot of kids out there who end up killing themselves. And Salt Lake City is -- East High School is no exception to that statistic. You know, we've been through that with a student.
Q: Okay. For you, how did you decide and why did you decide to become involved in the Alliance?
A: Well, it was certainly not my plan to become involved in the Alliance. I had just started the previous year teaching at East High School. At the junior high school I had been at prior to East, I had been very closeted (supposedly). But I was receiving a lot of harassment there. I was harassed in the hallways by students. I had parents who were requesting that their students be transferred out of my classes. So when I got to East High School, I was so happy to be in a new environment, I just really wanted to stay away from that issue.
And so, the first year, I went to work every day and went to my classroom and didn't establish any relationships with students or other colleagues or administrators. And shortly into the second year at East, in October, three students approached me down at the gay and lesbian community center here in town. I was there listening to a speaker. Afterwards, they came up to me and said, "Don't you teach at East High School?" And I said, "I do." I didn't know who these kids were. I had never met them. They said, "Well we really want to start a support group for gay and lesbian kids, but we have to have a faculty advisor for that. And we were wondering if you would do that."
And I literally felt like fainting right then and there. And I was terrified and excited at the same time. I knew these kids had to have some help. And I invited them to come and have lunch with me the next day. Five gay kids showed up in my classroom. My greatest concern for them was their safety, that the harassment would really increase if they became more visible. After they told me some of their stories about what they were already experiencing, we decided it couldn't get much worse.
I'm not sure what motivated me to become involved. Maybe it was from my own experience of being isolated as a gay kid or from what I believe about being a teacher, but I just knew that I had to help these kids. When a student comes to a teacher and says, "Help," I don't know of any teacher who says no. So, for me, it was really scary and very exciting all at the same time. Because I saw it as an opportunity for me to start to become more out. I had started getting involved a little bit with the gay and lesbian community and different organizations and knew that I would not be able to stay in teaching for much longer without being able to be out. But I never saw it as a possibility. I just didn't think it would ever be able to happen.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about that? About the challenge it is for teachers who are gay or lesbian in this community?
A: I think one of the biggest challenges for gay and lesbian teachers is that they have to be the very best teachers around. And they strive to be the very, very best, better than anybody else, because they're so fearful of losing their job for being gay or lesbian. And you often see those teachers being very involved in school activities, for sometimes 16 hours a day in the school system. They can't have anything else in their closet to be fired for. In the classroom, it's -- you can't be honest about who you are. You can't share any part of yourself with your students for fear of being outed. You can't talk about -- honestly about things that heterosexual teachers would talk about: their children, their family vacations, what they did for the weekend. All of those types of things you just don't talk about. And so it's hard for students to have relationships based on something that's not honest.
Q: Okay. You talked about the harassment that was going on at the time --
Q: -- at the Alliance. Let's talk a little bit about that, because that was the foundation or one of the reasons.
Q: Tell me a little bit about what these kids faced as the types of harassment. And can you not just talk about then, but now too?
A: Most of the harassment that I see at East High School right now is verbal or done behind students' backs. I think the students of East have had enough education that they're starting to learn that it's inappropriate, and it's not quite as blatant as it used to be. In the beginning, one of the students who originally formed the Alliance had been horribly beat up in the locker room by five other female students with hockey sticks. I haven't seen that type of thing happen in the last couple of years. It's mostly verbal and some vandalism. We've had one student who has had his car vandalized several times. It's been spit on. It's had things thrown on it. His "Gay Pride" stickers have had razor blade slashes through them. You don't realize what that really feels like until you go up and look at it, which I did one day. And I then thought about the stickers on the back of my car. And that becomes really personal when the razor blades are slashed through those and torn off.
Kids will get their backpacks knocked off and are called "faggot" or "dyke" as they're walking down the hall. That's some of what's going on right now. The gay and lesbian kids will walk in the bathroom stalls and see horrible things written about gay and lesbian people. Or students will make comments in classrooms where it's not stopped. I think that's improved at East. But, certainly, in a lot of other high schools in this valley, that happens every day. Most students in high schools hear 25 or more anti-gay remarks made every single day. And so when a kid hears that over and over and over and over it finally gets to him.
Q: What about you as a teacher and harassment?
A: Since I've been out, I have had one or two harassment incidences. Before, when I wasn't out, it happened constantly. And so, for me, the more out I have become and the more open and honest about who I am, the more I have been able to set expectations of how people are going to treat me, and that's usually what I get back in return. And I've had a couple of incidences of students running by my classroom door and yelling comments from the hallway. But other than that, I feel very safe. I feel more secure in my job than I ever have before. So that part of it's been really great.
Q: That's good. Why has having this alliance club continued to be so controversial? And I'm not talking necessarily about the lawsuit. I realize that it's part of it, but I'd like you to speak more to the feelings, the issues, such as fears and myths and all that surrounding the club, and also homosexuality in general.
A: Well, that's a big question. You know, I think part of the reason that the club has continued to be so controversia is because it's continued to meet. If we no longer were meeting then it's -- as long as we stay silent, then people remain happy. It's kind of like the gays in the military policy of don't ask, don't tell. You know, let's not talk about it. Let's not have the club there. But since we have continued to meet and remained active and doing a lot of things in the school and educational-type things, it's kept people talking about it. And obviously, I think the culture that we live in in this state certainly has something to do with that. And that's not the case for all folks, but it certainly is for some of them. So I think that's part of it.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the culture, what you mean by the culture?
A: Do I have to?
Q: Can you think of a way to...
A: So do you just want me to talk specifically about the Mormon Church?
Q: Well, if you want to say Mormon, you can. Do you want to talk about religion?
A: Okay. I think that when you are taught certain religious beliefs and attitudes from the time that you're very, very young that it's hard to change those, and especially when important people in your life have been telling you this, and the people that you look up to and the leaders tell you this, that it's hard to change those beliefs.
And that's why I think people like Family Fellowship are so amazing because they've learned how to love and support their gay and lesbian kids and still honor and live their religion. I think they have found a way to balance both of those things and to be comfortable with both of those things. But I think it comes down to a moral issue for a lot of people. Many of our school officials don't want to say that it's a moral issue, but I really think it comes down to that. Because it's the word "homosexuality," it becomes an issue about sex, which is never the case. There's so much more to being gay or lesbian. And that's what the kids experience. Many people think these kids must be having sexual experiences at these club meetings, but a lot of these kids are like other high school kids, and they're choosing to wait. These kids are waiting until they're older and sexual experimentation that is not their experience at all.
Q: So describe for me --
A: It's hard to describe the group as a whole, because there is so much diversity among the group. But I think the -- they're very united as a group. They take very good care of each other. One of our administrators said these kids in this group take better care of each other than any other group of kids in this entire school. And I think, if you walked into the room, you would find a bunch of kids who are just being kids. They are talking and laughing and throwing popcorn at each other and they play games. They have a hard time being serious at times and focusing on things because they're just there to have a good time after school.
And then there are times that they get real serious and focus on issues, especially when a student comes in and said, "This happened to me today." You know, and then they've got a group of -- of other students who will support them. A lot of these kids are not really friends on a day-to-day basis. It's not that all 30 or however many of these kids here are really close friends and hang out on the weekends. But when they come into this group, they all have a common bond. We've got kids of color. We have kids of many different religions. Some of the kids have no religion at all. Some of them -- we have a young man who's an alterboy. So it's very diverse in that aspect. We have kids that come from all different kinds of families. We have straight kids in the group that come from gay and lesbian families, and that's why they're there.
We have kids that are very diverse academically. We have two Sterling Scholars in our group this year. We also have kids who come to the meetings but have dropped out of school. We have students who are academically not doing well. We have kids that live in a huge family with ten children and we have other students in the group whose parents have thrown them out and they live on their own. So it's very, very diverse. But when they come in, they have a common bond, and that's really taking care of each other and having fun.
And we try to provide activities where they get to do the same thing that their high school friends get to do. And unless a group like this is there to provide that, it doesn't often happen for these kids. Most of them don't attend their high school proms, and that's a big deal for a lot of high school students. So we've created an alternative prom that we had last January where the students could go and have their pictures taken and it was almost just like a regular high school dance, with a bunch of adults hanging around. It was a very appropriate activity for these students. And so without providing these activities, then these kids are just out there doing whatever and not having an appropriate place to be. I think that's really what it's about is creating a place that they can be, socializing with other youth. That's appropriate.
Q: That's great. What do you say to the people that say, "How can these kids really know for sure about their sexual orientation?" I mean, I'm hearing that over and over again. "These kids are too young. Adolescence is such a difficult time. You don't know who you are anyway, you don't know your identity." And that is their criticism.
A: I know.
Q: These kids are too impressionable and that they will have a label put on them before they're ready --
A: Personally when somebody says kids are too young to know their sexuality , I speak from my own experience I certainly knew at a very young age that I was a lesbian. I may not have acted on it that young. My other response is, How do kids know that they're heterosexual at a very young age? I think it's just something that becomes a part of who that person is at a very young age. Most kids know whether or not they want to attend a high school dance with somebody of the opposite sex or the same sex. And a lot of kids go against what they feel and what they really want so that they can be a part of the norm and be able to go.
Q: So let me ask that again. They say that kids are too impressionable and they shouldn't know. What's your response to that?
A: Well, my response to the question about kids are too young to know their sexuality, I just have to speak from my own personal experience. And I knew at a very young age. I knew very clearly at about age 12. And I knew before then that, for some reason, I was different than my friends. But at about age 12, I was able to start putting a label on that. So I speak from my own experience first and -- now I can't remember what I said after that.
Q: Okay. Well, that's good.
A: I guess the other thing I would like to add about that is that some people don't know until later in life. I think you've got a whole spectrum. Not everybody's going to fit into one space. And some people don't know until they're 30 or 40 years old. But I think the important thing is that, for the kids that do discover this at a young age, is that they've got some help and they've got some support so that they don't have to go through 10 or 15 years of being miserable. You know, that they can get on with their lives. And that's what I see happening with the kids in the GSA is all the issues that I had to go through throughout my twenties and early thirties, these kids already have put behind them at age And they're going to be able to move on and do other things with their life other than try to struggle with their sexuality. Because that's something they've been able to resolve at a young age.
Q: What about the people that say -- and you've kind of addressed this before-- "You know, any club with any kind of a sexual connotation just does not belong in school or with kids that are below the age of consent. It just doesn't belong there"?
A: When people say that a club that has any kind of sexual connotation doesn't belong in high school, I stand right up and agree with them. I don't think it belongs either. You know, that's not what high school is all about. And that's not what this club is all about. Like I said before, there's so much more to being gay and lesbian other than the sexual experience part of it. And a lot of these kids are not having those experiences. Let's see, what else was I going to say?
Q: I thought that was good, though, actually. You just said they're not having that kind of experience.
A: You know, some of them are, of course. I know I was going to say something else about that. But now I --
Q: Well, we can come back to it.
A: Oh. We like to say that we don't want anything dealing with sexuality in our high schools. But in a way that's what American high school is all about. We are teaching kids appropriate ways to date, appropriate ways to find a mate. We have dances. We have Sadie Hawkins. We have all of those things that are very, very much about promoting heterosexuality.
Q: That's true. We do. Okay. What about the administration and that, because what you've experienced in the beginning, problems with teachers, and not necessarily the administration, but I'd just like to get a feel for that. Because you did tell me that there was a lot of fear at first on --
A: Among teachers?
Q: Yes. Among teachers.
A: So you're asking more about teachers than administrators?
Q: Yes. I guess that's my main concern, because I've heard it not just from you but from others that, very often, teachers don't know what to do.
Q: They don't know how to handle it. They don't want to get in the middle of it. Whereas, maybe if it were kids of color, say a kid of color that was being harassed --
A: It's stopped immediately.
Q: -- they would stop -- step in and stop it.
Q: But they let it go when it's other kids. You know, when it's --
Q: -- homosexual kids, they'll let it go.
Q: Okay. So would you address that about teachers and administrators?
A: I think there is a tremendous amount of fear on teachers' part about this issue. And in Utah, I think one of those fears is the state textbook policy that says we cannot teach acceptance of homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle. And I think a lot of teachers hide behind that policy. What we can teach is honesty and respect and kindness and diversity. And a lot of teachers have not known how to react to the harassment or to comments made because there's never been any training. Teachers have training on 10,000 issues, it seems like, all the time. But there's not any training provided on how to deal with gay and lesbian issues in the classroom. And so because they don't know how to deal with them, they ignore them.
And I think that's changed at East High School, because the teachers there have gone through a lot of education about these issues. And my principal last year probably brought this up at every single faculty meeting. It was focused around harassment and it was focused around all kids having a right to a safe place to be in school. And so teachers have gone from speaking up and saying, "I don't do anything when somebody says 'That's so gay.' I don't think there's anything wrong with it," to now not allowing that at all in their classrooms. And so it's just been an education process for teachers. And I think the other huge impact on teachers is when they know gay and lesbian students. Many teachers will say, "Well, I don't have any gay and lesbian kids in my classroom." Which they always do, they just don't know that.
The kids in the Gay-Straight Alliance talked with the East High faculty a few months ago. And once the faculty sat down and had a conversation with these kids and saw that they were just kids like everybody else andsaw -- saw who some of the kids are (cheerleaders and Sterling Scholars and athletes) and that they're just typical kids who are going through a struggle because of who they are.
Q: That's great. I guess we talked a little bit about harassment, but do you want to say anything more about kids fearing for their safety? Or do you think you've said --
A: Well, I don't know if I talked much about what's happened over the last few years at East. But I can tell you that we've probably had an average of about four or five students each year drop out of high school who are in the Gay-Straight Alliance because they have such a hard time being there. Some kids come to school and they're yelled at from the parking lot to school. They walk down the halls and they're harassed. They get into a classroom, that's pretty safe at East now because teachers have come a long way. But in between classes, going from every single class to class, every single day, they're harassed about who they are. And it just gets to be too much. We've got a couple of kids at East who are on home study right now, because even East High School, which is supposedly the safest place in the state for gay and lesbian kids, does not feel safe for them.
Kids are afraid to walk from the front doors up to the student parking lot because they have groups of students waiting to harass them on the way. And so there's an awful lot of fear. Kids will come in my classroom and say, "I can't walk down this hall until it's empty, till everybody's gone." And kids take the long way around to go from class to class so that they don't have to go through the halls where they know it's not going to be safe for them.
Q: So what needs to be done? I mean, that's just appalling to me that that's so blatant. You're saying that the principal is doing some things, but what --
A: Well unfortunately, even though East has made greater strides in dealing with these issues, more than any other high school in the state, we still have a long ways to go. But I think what it's all about is education, and that education has got to become faculty-wide and student-wide. And we haven't had a lot of blanket student education. The few kids who are doing the harassing usually don't get caught -- and that's the problem: We don't know who it is in a school that large.
But the few kids who do get caught usually get a pretty good education from the administrators about why this is inappropriate. And I think we're at the point in my school right now where teachers say, "Don't say that. You cannot say that in my classroom." But now we've got to go a step beyond that and say why you can't say that and why this hurts people and start to open up the dialogue. It's still something that people are afraid to talk about? And until the education's there and until we talk about it openly it's not going to change.
Q: So what do you see or what do you want for the future?
A: What I would like for the future is for the gay and lesbian kids to be able to have the same high school experience that all other kids get, for them to be able to feel a part of their school, to be able to attend the school events and be who they are, to be able to speak openly in classes. To say, "I've had that experience," or, "This is a part of who I am." Or for kids who have gay and lesbian parents to be able to talk about their parents in the same way that the kids who have heterosexual parents talk about them. And not to be ashamed of who they are.
Q: Are you getting there? Do you think you're getting there?
A: I think we are getting there very slowly. And a lot of times, progress is really hard to see. But if I look back to three years ago, we've made a lot of progress.
Q: That's great. I want to backtrack just a little bit.
Q: Because -- and I forgot to ask this right at the end of this, and this may be difficult and I'm not saying name names or anythingt -- but who are the kids that are doing this harassment? How could you describe them? Is there a way to describe them?
A: Well, like I said, a lot of the kids who are doing the harassing don't get caught because it's usually done in groups. There's not very many kids who will just do this by theirself on their own. So it's usually a group of students and at -- at a school that has 2,000 students in it, a lot of the times the kids who are being harassed don't know who the other students are. But from the ones who have been caught just in the last few months, it's been kids who are good students, they've got a good reputation at the school, they're leaders, either through athletics or other school clubs or religious organizations or student body officers. They're usually kids who are well respected at East. And I think that's why the education is so important, because I think if those kids just got a little bit of education that they may think about what they're doing.
Q: Any comment as to why those are the types of kids?
A: Well, I don't know that I want to say that.
A: Yeah, we know exactly why those are the types of kids. You know, that's what they're hearing at home. You know, it comes directly from parents and most of these kids who have been caught in the last couple of months are good LDS kids.
Q: Isn't that ironic? Or not ironic.
A: So I don't know if you want me to say that or not, but that's -- that's what's happened.
Q: There's a problem, and you obviously feel like your kids are being denied that involvement with school, yet when I try to talk to people about it, the people who are supposably --
A: The school officials.
Q: -- denying, yeah, or the silent majority, whatever you want to call them. Nobody wants to talk about it on camera.
A: Well, right now, I think it's quite obvious why school officials don't want to talk about it due to the lawsuit going on that the students filed against Salt Lake City School Board in order to try to get all clubs back. Nobody wants to speak until that lawsuit's settled. But I wonder how many of them are going to be rushing to the cameras to speak about it even after it is settled. Once again, I think it becomes a moral issue and schools are supposed to be places that model the morals of society. I think that officials don't want to create a controversy. They want to just have things run as smoothly as possible and if we don't talk about this, then it won't be an issue. And so I --
If they don't talk about it, then a controversy won't occur. And the last thing Salt Lake School District wants to do is to create more controversy. They've already had enough about this issue. But it doesn't seem to be going away. Three years later it's still in the media as much, it's still being talked about around the country as much. You know, other states, for example Arizona, just had this issue come up, and they chose not to follow Utah's path. They chose to go ahead and allow the kids to meet in Arizona. So I think the officials here just want to keep things as quiet as possible, but it's not going to stay quiet. Until these kids are treated the same way other kids are, until they get their needs met and get the same services that other kids do, it's going to keep coming up over and over and over again. If people start to speak positively about it, they're going to have to start providing some help for these kids.
Q: And on that note, reiterate for me what the positives are that you've seen.
A: I've seen kids' lives completely be turned around by their involvement in this alliance. Even though they're in a marginalized group that does not receive full school status and they're still second-class citizens, what they've gained in this group has just changed their lives. I've seen kids come into the group who have no self-esteem, who feel horrible about themselves. And four years later, one of these young women has become a leader. She goes and she speaks to the student body officers to try to educate them about the purpose of the club. She's become an activist. She made comments about how she now has friends. So kids are starting to establish relationships that they may not have had before.
It seems like so much of the justification around the country for having gay-straight alliances has been on the negatives that gay and lesbian kids are at a higher risk of drug and alcohol abuse and homelessness and dropping out of high school, and suicide. And, yeah, that's true. And we've had kids fall into every one of those categories. We've lost kids to those things every single year. But we also have had kids who have done much, much better in school, and they start coming to school. We have kids that have made comments about, "I have a reason to come to school now." I've seen kids that used to sit down in the corner of the school in a small group to eat lunch down in the dark where nobody can see them. And now they sit out on the front steps with everybody else. So they've become more a part of the school. Many of these kids have improved their relationships with their parents, because a lot of these kids are going through the process of coming out.
And it gives the parents a place to connect with other parents. And it also gives the students a place to come and talk about this "How did you do this with your parents?" And so a lot of their family relationships have improved. Their relationships with their teachers and the administrators have increased tremendously. Teachers will say, "You know, I used to have this student who sat in the back of the room with their head down all the time and now they're sitting in the front and they raise their hand and they come up and show me pictures." And I think they're just able to be more a part of things. And I also think that, in the long run, the harassment has gone down. And I really think, over time, that that will continue. And we have times when it goes up a bit. But there's been more dialogue, and once there's more dialogue, then more education can take place.
Q: That's great. Okay. A comment about Ben? Anything about Ben? Describe him or --
A: You know, Ben is just a remarkable young man. He's one of those kids that everybody loves. You can't spend time with Ben and not walk away just withour your heart warmed. He's one of those kids that always has a smile. He wouldn't hurt a fly. He goes out of his way to be kind to people. He is probably one of the most giving kids that I have ever met and he's very dedicated and committed to making the GSA work better. And what I really admire about Ben is that he's friends with everybody. He has one friend who's a bit overweight, and unfortunately, kids who are overweight have a real hard time in high school. It's the same thing. Ben doesn't care. You know, he's her friend. He just looks beyond all of that.
Q: Why do you think that he's harassed the way he is?
A: I think probably one of the reasons that Ben has been harassed so much is because Ben is out. And he's not just out, but he is proud of who he is. I don't think he carries much shame around about being gay. He has his pride stickers on his backpack. He wears a GLSEN T-shirt. He has stickers on his car. So he becomes a target. And it's not Ben's fault. Ben should not be told to be silent or to stay in the closet.
Q: Anything else?
A: A lot of times these kids are told, "If you're out, you need to expect this. This is what's going to happen to you." And that's the wrong attitude to take. You know, we need to find why this is happening and who's doing it. And those are the kids that need to have the education.