Friends and Neighbors: A Community Divided Script
Put Text Here: " DEAR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS"
STEFFENSEN, K.: We are writing this letter to you because you are important people in our lives. Long term friends, family members, church leaders, etc. We realize that there is a significant part of our lives, which we have not shared with you. Because our son Eric is gay, we are very involved with issues relating to homosexuality."
STEFFENSEN, R.: ...This is a subject, which is difficult to ignore. Most of us have an opinion about it. We would like you to know ours..."
MUSIC UP FULL/TITLE: "FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS: A Community Divided.
NARRATION: In a letter written, to family friends and neighbors, the parents of a gay son express their frustration at the contention and misunderstanding surrounding the issue of homosexuality in their Utah communty. Here, as in many places throughout the nation, debate over the acceptance and inclusion of openly Gay and Lesbian people has divded communities and families.
While the headlines and public debate bombard us, it is within the intimacy of their homes, neighborhoods, schools, and churches that many Utahns must contend with the frustration, pain and outright anger this issue often reveals.
STEFFENSEN, K: I mean there's such pain you can not believe the pain that people are suffering. Families are being torn apart...
NARRATION: Those living in the midst of the controversy share their perspectives. Parents locked in a standoff over homosexuality at school;
THORUP:...they saw it as a continuation of what they had seen the Gay Straight Alliance do before, and this is wear their homosexuality on their sleeve, have a chip on their shoulder and be in your face all the time..
CONSUELO: Why is the harassment continuing to happen. Why aren't students being educated, that this is against school policy...?
NARRATION: contention over the rejection of homosexual relationships by the LDS church;
WATTS, G: Social Justice demands that our gay and lesbian people be treated more fairly. And the church ought to be the leader in this area and not the last ones brought to the alter, so to speak.
PRUDEN: Some things are commandments and to violate those commandments is sin. And those processes do not change.
NARRATION: the question ‘is homosexuality a choice?';
COX: I've worked with more than two hundred individuals um, and I think I have found over the years that choice is possible.
MALMSTROM: You can do any number of things around your sexuality. But to change your orientation,m we're selling snake oil.
NARRATION: and anguish and heartbreak at home.
STEFFENSEN, K.: ... I just don't think people understand, that even though they don't like homosexuality. It's here and it always will be. Ah, because heterosexual people have homosexual children.
NARRATION: It was following the October 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepherd in Wyoming, that Rob and Kathryn Steffensen decided to write their friends and neighbors a letter telling them their youngest son Eric is gay.
STEFFENSEN, K.: We couldn't believe it could happen to our child. You know, he was so bright and so good why would he choose, to be one of them. And ah, he had a girlfriend in college who, with whom he talked and she said, ‘Eric, this is just Satan tempting you. And if, you can overcome this.' And he was so relieved , he thought I can handle that, I am disciplined. I can overcome this. So, there was this intense year or so, of what I would call really pious behavior.
STEFFENSEN, R.: Very pious. Bible studies on the weekend. Fasting, praying, all this kinds of things. In a hope to overcome, the tendencies.
STEFFENSEN, K.: And…it, it didn't work.
NARRATION: The Steffenson are devout members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The revelation that their son Eric is gay led them and their son to question the conservative Utah culture they live in and, more painfully, the teachings of the church they love. President Gordon B. Hinckley, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
LDS PRESIDENT GORDON B. HINCKLEY: "People inquire about our position on those who consider themselves so-called gays and lesbians. My response is that we love them as sons and daughters of God. They may have certain inclinations which are powerful and which may be difficult to control. Most people have inclinations of one kind or another at various times. If they do not act upon these inclinations, then they can go forward as do all other members of the Church. If they violate the law of chastity and the moral standards of the Church, then they are subject to the discipline of the Church, just as others are."
NARRATION: LDS officials declined to be interviewed saying that the church stand on homosexuality is well documented. While other religious denominations, such as Roman Catholic, take a similar stand, in Utah where membership in the LDS church is over 70% some members struggling with issues of homosexuality find themselves and their families at odds with the teachings of their faith. Lynette Malmstrom is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Salt Lake City.
MALMSTROM: ... it's filed under the heading of sin. What else is there is to know. What that does within a family when you have a gay or lesbian child come forward and tell you about their sexual orientation with confusion or concern. How can we respond if we truly believe that this is immoral? That it will cost your eternal salvation. That it will separate you from your family and your God. How can we possibly have an open dialogue about this?
STEFFENSEN, R.: Eric was different in several ways from the other children. And since we had two other sons, what we could draw some comparison, we noticed things about him and he's behavior that was, were different.
STEFFENSEN, K.: He was always dressing up in my high heels. And finding my purses and my jewelry and putting scarves on.. And we thought it was kind of cute.... Then it began to disturb me as it kept going on. And I didn't want to s, ever make him feel there was anything wrong with it. So, I didn't ever say anything to him, but I would hide my shoes and you know, quietly take the beads off of him and this sort of thing. But, that was the first clue. When we look back on his life, we can see things that we choose to ignore.
STEFFENSEN, R: We could see how he was struggling. And how painful, ah school was in many ways. And how painful going to church was because he was made to feel uncomfortable by many of the kids. Though he was not overtly ah, ridiculed or harassed or ah, persecuted physically. But we could see that he wasn't happy
STEFFENSEN, R.: But,it wasn't until he was twenty-two years old, we were in California and he said, ‘There's something I want to talk with you about.'... ... he said, ‘I need to tell you that I am attracted to men.' And that's the way he told it to us. And it was not a shock because we already kind of knew. But, making it official made it kind of shocking Because now we have to deal with it on his terms. He had, he's the one who defines it, tells it to us and then we have to deal with it. On his terms and the result of that kind of made us go in the closet. He came out and we went in. Because we thought that we were the only parents who had a gay son.
MALMSTROM: I don't underestimate at all the turmoil that this can bring to a parent's life. To discover that their child is gay or lesbian and that the hope and the dreams that they had for that child have been forever altered. Um, ironically it's almost a parallel experience to the gay person themselves. When they come into the awareness and have to reconcile what I thought my life would be, with what are my choices now?
STEFFENSEN, K.: And we went into a period of grief. Really, loss of expectations. We never, ever ah, withdrew our love from Eric. When he told us, this evening in this restaurant, he said, ‘I don't believe I'm an evil person.' And tears, came down his cheeks. And we knew he wasn't evil, he wasn't the kind of person that society had described to us as a gay person. He was the same wonderful son, we had always known and loved. But, we really didn't know how to help him or even help ourselves.
WATTS, L.: I definitely was consumed by Mormon culture growing up here. Um, all of my friends were Mormons, in this very neighborhood there were about nine girls my age, who we all grew up together, went to church together, went to school together...
NARRATION: Lori Watts is the youngest daughter of Millie and Gary Watts of Provo, Utah. From a strong Mormon background, the Watts have six children. Two are gay.
WATTS, M.: I just think we had a wonderful family life. We enjoyed our children. We loved our children. I think our family was very close. And Craig being one of the oldest was one that the children particularly looked up to. He was, he was a good student, you know, honor student, student body president, just your all around good kid. And of course, all the kids are that way. And then Lori is has just always been a sweetheart, just a good friend to her friends and a good student, honor student again. Just kind, wonderful people.
WATTS, G.: And as parents, when you discover you have a Gay child, you've been taught all your life that homosexual behavior is immoral and doesn't square with church doctrine. And so, suddenly, you have this incongruity between your own personal experience and what you've been taught by the church. And when I talk about an incongruity, that was certainly our case, because we certainly didn't, in any way, think of our children as being perverted or unusual or sinners or immoral people. In fact, our gay children, we consider to be highly moral.
NARRATION: Although Craig is now living in Asia, in 1995 he spoke with KTVX reporter, Paul Murphy, about the dilemma of being a member of the LDS Church and discovering he is gay.
CRAIG: I knew I couldn't be gay ‘cause I couldn't be what I'd seen on television, I couldn't be a part of this group of ah, bad peole. You know, who ah, I didn't know anyone who was gay, I'd never had any interaction with gay people in my experience. So what was I supposed to do? I thought I just needed to work harder, I just needed to ah, be better.
NARRATION: In 1989, two years after serving an LDS mission, Craig told his parents he is gay.
WATTS, G.: ... And I couldn't have been more surprised. In fact, I was incredulous. I had never even thought for a moment about that as a possibility. And I said to him, I said, "How gay are you? You know? I guess I knew enough about homosexuality to recognize that there's a spectrum of homosexual feelings and I think I immediately recognized that this would have some significant impact on , on our lives and on his life and wondered what that meant for sure. But I didn't ever have any , any real negative feelings about Craig as a person.
CRAIG : I had girlfriends in highschool, sort of. I wasn't interested in them physically. But we had this close relationship and ah, while I was on my mission we would write. And it, from the outside it looked like they were waiting for me and I would come back and it would be just like with Dad. And you know the way it works out where um you come home and marry the one who waited for you. But ah I got home and there were no feeling and I knew that I was in love with men.
WATTS, G.: And I think every gay person must go through that, you know? They've ---here they've got this perfect camouflage, if you will, people not -- maybe don't know they're gay and it's very tempting for gay people to maybe pursue a relationship and marry and do the thing that's expected of them.
MALMSTROM: When clinicians or church leaders are promising gay and lesbians people that they can change their orientation if they are faithful enough or prayerful enough if they work hard enough. I think that they are doing incalculable damage to those individuals. They're promising something that, that they can't deliver. If on the other hand we are talking about choice of behaviors. There's a full range of possibility there. There is for heterosexuals as well as homosexuals. You can choose celibacy, you can choose promiscuity, you can choose monogamy, you can choose to stay single and date for the rest of your life. You can do any number of things around your sexuality. But to change your orientation, we're selling snake oil.
CRAIG : I started seeing a psychiatrist for awhile, getting more information, talking to my parents, talking to another friend and then another friend and gradually starting to see that I'm not a horrible person. That it has no connection to my worthiness or ah, um, ah moral character. This is just, that that this happens to people.
WATTS, M: ...after Craig came out to us, we started meeting a lot of gay people and and having gay people in our homes. And I think Gary and I suspected that Lori was probably a lesbian before she really came to terms with it, just because we -- we could kind of see certain characteristics and things. And so when -- when Lori told us that she was gay, it , it was not so much of a shock. With Craig it was a total shock,. With Lori, it was kind of like "you've found yourself", you know?
WATTS, G.: ...People might say, "Well, you shouldn't encourage your daughter to be pursuing that kind of an interest", but I have this strong belief that -- that homosexuality is largely biologic, that it's --that people come that way. I certainly don't see it as something people choose to do. It seems nonsensical to me that people would suggest that people in our society would choose to be gay. It, it makes no sense.
NARRATION: Whether homosexuality is a choice or biological, LDS Church doctrine teaches, as do many other religions, that the only acceptable sexual relationships are those within a traditional, legally sanctioned marriage between a man and a woman. While studying in Japan, and after confiding to his ecclesiastical leaders that he is gay, Craig Watts was called before a church court and excommunicated. Craig wrote in his journal at the time:
WATTS, C. JOURNAL: "It's early Sunday morning. I can't sleep. I'm in tears again for the third or fourth time since yesterday afternoon. Some of the most painful, confused tears iI've ever cried, and I'm alone. I feel so alone. I thought of suicide again for the first time in a long time. ... I need to talk to someone from home, but talking on the telephone will be difficult. I'll cry. I'll say I can't believe they've done this to me. I'll ask when the torment coming from all sides ends. I'll say my ancestors crossed the plains and they can't tell me I'm not a Mormon... .... It's early Monday morning now. I've talked and cried long distance with the whole family now.... ...Each person I talked to gave me something I needed to overcome the shock, the humiliation, the bitterness, the discouragement, the loneliness. There is, there is still a hard road ahead of me. I'll have to make some decisions. However, unlike so many of my gay friends, I don't have to worry about excommunication from my family. They love me and despite the manuals, I think there is a place for me in the church, that there will be a coming home."
WATTS, M.: I think, for me his excommunication was harder than finding out he was gay. I, I felt like he had gone to the church for help and that was the help he got. .... It was like, at the time we needed the church the most and I felt like the church would be there for us, they were not there...
STEFFENSEN, K.: There's a conspiracy of silence, nobody wants to talk about this. And ah, we didn't want to talk about it, we didn't know anybody who wanted to hear about it. And ah, it was difficult. It took a toll. I had a heart attack... And I realized then, that I had been wanting to die. I had really, pretty much given up, you know I just thought this is too hard. And um, and then I realized I didn't want to die and that I was to, I was going to find out about this and I was going to use whatever time I had left to help people like me. Because nobody else would help us, we were going to help each other.
STEFFENSEN, R.: ...But, I realized that there was so many ah, LDS parents who had gay children that there needed to be a place and a way of LDS parents coming together, sharing their experiences, giving support to one and other and so on. And so this eventually evolved into what is known as Family Fellowship.
NARRATION: Today Family Fellowship thrives as a volunteer organization dedicated to strengthening Mormon families with homosexual members, offering educational resources and support group meetings.
WATTS, G.: When people come to me as a father and say "what do you want for your gay children" my standard answer has become, "I want exactly the same thing for my gay children as for my straight children." And I don't think it's appropriate for gay people to be encouraged to be in heterosexual relationships. They're inherently destructive. And I don't think they ought to be encouraged to not be in relationships. And so I say: Why not do the very same thing for gay and lesbian peole as we do for straight people; encourage them to be involved in committed, monogamous same-sex relationships?
WATTS, L.: And I feel like the church sometimes even says, It's okay to be gay as long as you don't have sex. As long as you don't talk about it. As long as you wish you weren't. A7 P5
WATTS, L.: And certainly it all comes down to you know, the fact that homosexuality is seen as so anti-family. It's seen that way by more than just Mormons. And it's a huge problem I think, that, it's a misperception and I think there are, you know there are so many gay and lesbian people who in committed relationships who, are responsible about their choices and about how they lead their lives.
STEFFENSEN, K.: Our children have been made to feel unwelcome and sometimes we as parents wonder if there's a place for us in the church. Ah, and this is difficult because we're fourth generation Mormon. It's almost in our DNA. You know, it really is. I only think Mormon understand that
STEFFENSEN, R: We believe it with all our hearts. That the reason you stay, is because of your own personal belief. Your own personal convictions. And our conviction is such that we just can't give that up, it's just too powerful in our lives. But, at the same time we feel that there is a real mission to be accomplished in reaching out and helping people who are not, who are not appreciated or looked upon in favor.
STEFFENSEN, K: Eric recognizes one the reasons that he is the person he is, ah is because of the influence of his religion. Which teaches people to be generous and unselfish. And reach out and help people and be compassionate... And he defends the church. Even though the, he doesn't feel there's a place in it for him anymore...
NARRATION: Rob and Kathryn Steffensen are still active in Family Fellowship and attend their Salt Lake City ward. Eric lives in California and no longer attends L.D.S. Church services.Lori Watts requested that her name be taken off the memberships rolls of the L.D.S. church. She now lives in California. Gary and Millie Watts are a driving force in the continuation of Family Fellowship. They are no longer active in their Provo L.D.S. ward. Craig is still living in Asia. And, although his church membership has not been reinstated, he occassionally attends his home ward when visiting Utah.
DIP TO BLACK/MUSIC UP/UNDER
WILEY: Two years ago in May I finally came to a um, a decision that I needed to look in the mirror and see who really was there. Was it ah, the person that I felt I should be? And knew I was not. Or was it a person that truly had an issue and could admit that maybe I was gay? I hesitate using that word because I hate it. It's like as bile in my mouth. Um, and I realized that I had to make a choice. I had to know who I was, what I wanted in life, and where I needed to go for that.
NARRATION: Mormons struggling with same-sex attraction often turn to the church for assistance. Sandy Wiley is a convert to the church and has served a mission.
WILEY: And as I considered embracing the gay lifestyle every ounce of fiber in me rejected that. I almost got physically ill. I knew that I could not live that life. On the other hand, I was looking at what I was living and I was attracted to women. I did desire sexual relationships with them. And where I was then and where I wanted to be which was healthy, have a good aspect of me and who I am. married, children, family, they were worlds apart. So I knew that I needed to do something to get there.
PRUDEN: We believe that people have the right and the ability to be able to choose to live a life that's consistent with their values...
NARRATION: David Pruden is an LDS Bishop and the Executive Director of Evergreen, a non profit organization founded in 1989 as an resource and support group for Mormons struggling with same sex attraction. Evergreen adheres to the doctrine and standards of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but exists as an independent organization, although two emeritus church authorities sit on the board of trustees.
PRUDEN:...we don't proselyte, we're not out to recruit individuals. We simply try to make clear the message to Latter Day Saints that the doctrines and standards of the Church can be adhered to. That there is nothing that the Lord has asked us to do that we can not accomplish if we so desire. And our job is to help individuals live a life that they choose that is congruent with the values that they have selected.
NARRATION: Evergreen does not provide counseling. Members are referred to therapists within the L.D.S. Social services system and to those they deem qualitified outside of the system. Evergreen teaches, as does the church, that it is behavior, not feelings that are wrong.
PRUDEN: Sometimes I feel angry, feelings are just my feelings. But if I pick up a stick and knock my neighbor in the head then I behaved in a way that's unacceptable. But behavior was the sin, the feelings were not. They were just my feelings. Feeling erotically attracted to a person of my own gender is not a sin, acting out of those feelings that is inappropriate and that's what becomes the nature of sin in the minds and eyes of the church.
NARRATION: In a 1995 Ensign magazine article published by the church titled "Same-Gender Attraction" Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles writes, "...regardless of our different susceptibilities or vulnerabilities....we remain responsible for the exercise of our agency in the thoughts we entertain and the behavior we choose...." In 1977 then Church President Spencer W. Kimball wrote, "If all the people in the world were to accept homosexuality, ... The practice would still be a deep, dark sin." Dr. Shirley Cox is Associate Director of the School of Social Work and a clinical therapist at Brigham Young University.
COX: ... I really don't know anyone who has made a choice to become gay or lesbian or to have gay or lesbian feelings. But, what they want to do about those feelings is similar to someone who would deal with the problem of diabetes or problem of alcohol. Ah, there are tendencies that people are born with, ah they are preset or pr.. predisposed to have attractions, to react in certain ways, but whether or not they choose to react in those ways I feel is an individual choice.
WILEY: ...listening to the people who feel they are born that way and that other people saying you can't change, you know this is it. This is all there is. I came to understand for me if I had been told at that point sitting in that chair pouring out my heart, um and my desires and my goals, if I had been told sorry can't help you. I would have been in the obituaries the next day. It was that important to me to not have to be consigned to living that lifestyle...
NARRATION: For years, "Bill", who served a mission and is a graduate of church ownd Brigham Young University, struggled with same-sex attraction. He had relationships with men, and several times, was in danger of excommunication from the church. . He agreed to be interviewed anonymously to protect his family. "BILL" is not his real name.
BILL: ...I never really considered living a homosexual life as a viable option long term. Because I had been taught in church that you know, that was an incorrect choice. Ah, but the feelings were still there regardless.
NARRATION: Determined to live a life he felt was consistent with his religious beliefs "Bill" moved from therapist to therapist and at one point submitted to aversion or shock therapy.
BILL: But that's how desperate I was to find an answer. That's what you do, so I guess I'll do that. I'll get hooked up to the electrodes.
NARRATION: He says it wasn't until he found a therapist who believed people can change, combined with support from Evergreen and his faith in God that he was able to leave his homosexual tendencies behind.
BILL: "divine intervention, call it what you will. But the help of God. Because ah, because he can step in and do things and change things that we can not and therapists can not and that books and studies and all kinds of things can't do...
COX: I've worked with probably more than two hundred individuals um, and I think I have found over the years that choice is possible. They do however need to understand that it's not easy. The abuse they ha, may have suffered, the family situation they came from, the culture background they have, the problems they've struggled with in their life may have predisposed them to the point where it's very difficult to change a lifestyle.
NARRATION: While "BILL" believes one may be born with a propensity towards homosexuality, Wiley believes her same sex attraction comes from what she terms "gender identity" problems.
WILEY: I was sexually, emotionally, and physically abused as a child. I first became aware that my family was not safe at three years old. Um, I recognized weaknesses and pain coming from my mother and my gosh, who would want to be like that?
WILEY: I realize I was nine years old when I first had those attractions. Feelings for the girls my age. Um, I related better to to girls, to my girlfriends, ah I wanted to be with them more.
BILL: There are perhaps is no other feeling or emotion that I've had that feels ah, more compelling than that sexual orientation felt for so many years. And so so to propose that it's innate or part of someone is perfectly understandable. It feels like a part of you. ... but at the same time I tend to believe that many things like that like homosexuality and those strong feelings are not necessarily static. That they can be impacted and um, that our lives, and my life could be adjusted such that ah, that I could deal with things in a way that was harmonious with my moral beliefs, my religious beliefs, and those were ultimately the things that I was successful in working on.
NARRATION: Dr. Shirley Cox served as a board member of the National Association of Professional Social Workers for seven years and is a member of the Utah chapter. Both organizations voted to exclude homosexualty as a mental disorder and discourage the assumption that a patient should change his or her sexual orientation. It remains a highly controversial practice.
COX: I think our association and the American Psychological Association have taken the position that it's not a disorder or a disease. However, we have not said that it's normal behavior. Now, you get into norms and what that means. I think most of the social practitioners would agree that it's very difficult to stay in the gay and lesbian lifestyle because of the high levels of discrimination and that for clients who can choose to change the lifestyle that might be beneficial. So, for many reasons it might be helpful if people can leave that behind.
BILL: ... I think it's important for people to hear there's another side of the story. There are people out there who make changes, who make different decisions. And I have to make that distinction as well which is that people will point out I didn't choose to be homosexual. And you know they're right. No one chooses to be homosexual they'd have to be a lunatic. But, what we choose to do with those feelings is a choice and it's a choice that I have made and that everybody has to make at some point.
NARRATION: How do church members struggling with same sex attraction resolve their internal conflict and find acceptance in their faith?
BILL: I felt very fortunate with the church leaders that I had. Because you know, to be to be very frank, most of the leaders in the church don't know anything about homosexuality. It just, being realistic they don't know anything about it. And so when somebody wanders into their office, and says you know what I've just had sex with somebody or I've got these problems and I don't know what to do about them. They don't know what to do about them either. And so, they need to rely on the spirit and on any other resources they can gather to help them figure out what this individual might do for this particular problem.
WILEY: It would have been very difficult, very difficult to have entered the therapy and the healing phrase without knowing that there is a father, a Heavenly Father there that I know loves me unconditionally. And that I have a savior who has been here and has experienced pain and sorrow.
NARRATION: But Wiley also had adverse reaction from members in another ward.
WILEY: People often react to their own fears and to their own lack of understanding.
BILL: I think we still need work on, even in the church, our ability to separate the person from the behavior. And love the person even though we may not approve of the behavior. And by the way disapproval of the behavior is perfectly appropriate. There are things that the church teaches that are wrong and it's okay to believe that they are wrong. But, loving the person who may be engage in that behavior is perhaps one of the most challenging things that we face.
NARRATION: While Sandy Wiley remains in therapy, "BILL" has been married for six years and has a young daughter.
BILL: Well, in terms of my family life now it's just, it's like night and day. Um, because before when I was struggling so much with homosexuality and engaging in that lifestyle I wasn't happy. Ah, I would return to those behaviors like a robot sometime but never really seeing that as a goal and never really being happy that way. Now with my wife and my daughter, I have a two and a half-year-old daughter. They are just the light of my life. Um, and I can't imagine frankly going back to that life, before versus the life that I have now. Ah, because and once again this is somewhat religious but I believe this is the way things are suppose to be.
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NARRATION: While the religious beliefs about the immorality of homosexuality cause turmoil within the membership of the LDS church, nowhere has the divisiveness over the acceptance of homosexuality been more publicly visible than at Salt Lake City's East High School. In 1996, rather than allow a controversial Gay Straight Alliance club to meet at the school, the Salt Lake City Board of Education banned all non-curricular clubs and the State Legislature followed, by outlawing any school club that promotes "illegal or sexual activity". In response students and parents, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and several national gay and civil rights groups filed a federal lawsuit challenging the ban. And students protested.
The club is able to meet by renting space in the building, outside of school time, under the federal Civic Center Act.
NARRATION: Emotions flared again recently when the principal allowed the club to make a presentation at the school multicultual assembly.Most parents refuse to talk or allow their children to talk, on the record, about the issue. Ben Vigil is a member of the club
BEN: ...And the multi-cultural assembly is supposedly the biggest assembly that East puts on. And there's parents that go, there's you know, lots of kids go. Um, it's one of the favorites. You know, it's the place where kids kind of get to ah, do their thing, you know be a part of their culture. And we wanted to be included in that because we see uh, uh this type of diversity is a culture in itself....
KSL NEWS REPORT ON THE ASSEMBLY: "A multicultural assembly presented at East High on Friday has outraged some parents. Today they voiced their concern over a presentation made by the Gay Straight Alliance. Last Friday all East High students were shown a six minute slide show at a mandatory cultural assembly. It includes information on history and definition of terms including Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and common homosexual slurs."
NARRATION: One parent who is an East High Community Council member believes that it was the confluence of a new rule making it mandatory that students attend assemblies coinciding with the inclusion of the Gay Straight Alliance presentation that resulted in what he calls the "powder keg that blew". Two of Robert Thorup's children attend East, his oldest child is a recent graduate.
THORUP:...high school is not the place for an institutional discussion or presentation of homosexuality. And I think that a lot of the parents that talked to me particularly those who were parents of freshmen who were just fourteen years old, were very upset that their students without the parents understanding without the parents permission were exposed to this explicit discussion of homosexuality. And they were just furious about it and many prominent members of my particular area of the city, we anxiously involved in wanting the principal to resign over this and to see heads roll as a result of this presentation to their children.
NARRATION: Thorup believes the presentation was a violation of the District's shared governance policy, the policy on sex education as well as a violation of state law on the same. Other parents want to speak out, but say to protect their children they do not want their identities revealed.
ANONYMOUS PARENT: I think the problem with this presentation in the assembly is I think they went past education... ... I just think it's easy to stop when you hear think about it and to think, we'll goll, ya know maybe this isn't right, and and maybe I need to look at this differently..
MALMSTROM ...They were offering facts about the gay experience. The names of famous people that we all know who are gay and lesbian role models. What the movement has been about. Some of the hateful slurs and how that effects people. Is that bad information? A lot of parents were up in arms that that it was, it was a form for recruiting or for making homosexuality an acceptable life form. Homosexuality simply is. The more we understand it, the less fear we're going to wrap around it. But, again there's that code of silence we will only tolerate you as long as you're not seen or heard. And if you come to fore, we're going to do battle. And we're going to silence you with all the ammunition that we have.
BEN: Well, I know that there are people out there who aren't too happy with this club. Um, sometimes they go into the bathroom stalls and on the, on the stalls there's written like things, "ANYONE WHO BELONGS TO GAY STRAIGHT ALLIANCE, NEEDS TO GO SEE A THERAPIST." Or you know "WE HATE, you know, ALL FAGS." And stuff like that... a person will pass me by and they'll say "QUEER" or "FAG" you know or something like that. And just keep walking by, you know, keep walking and I don't know what to say. You know, I, I don't, you know I am not one who gets into a fight or, or you know shouts things back or anything you know.
BEN: And my friends would just you know, tell me just ignore it, just ignore it. You know and BUT it still hurts. You know. It, it's not comfortable. It, it makes you feel icky. It , you know, like you.. there's something majorly wrong with you. You know, I didn't feel like part of you know, the student body. I, you know, I felt like every one was you know, was like just isolating me, pushing me, you know, into a corner. And I felt like I was all alone,,,
NARRATION: Ben's mother Consuelo Alires.
CONSUELO:... Ben would come home and he'd um, say "Goll, my car got vandalized, you know. My stickers are getting ripped off. Um, I have to take a windex bottle with um, paper towels because people are spitting on my car, you know in the parking lot. And uh, you know they're yelling at me in the hallways. And at first I thought how can this be happening. I mean, you know what, what is going on…I mean he's in school, you know how could this be going on? And then, it started getting more severe. I mean to the point where he couldn't sleep at night. .. ...And then an incident happened that was really serious around um, Valentine's Day. And uh, two boys at East High had written a valentine card and forged Ben's name on there. And they were planning to send it to this kid, who's a big tough kid and supposedly a bully or something. And uh, that just really frightened me because had that been received by that young man, I mean Ben's life could have been in, in danger.
NARRATION: The delivery of the valentine was intercepted. According to school administrators two students were reprimanded. Their parents were not informed of the incident however, until Ben's mother insisted.
CONSUELO: I mean he could have been killed. I mean it could have been the whole Mathew Shepard thing again. And I also told them, I don't think those two kids, that those two youngmen that um, ended up killing Mathew Shepard you know were planning all along, you know we want to end up in prison. I think it was that they did not have the education to understand or to accept differences. To see diversity as a good thing instead of a threat.
NARRATION: As a result of this incident and others, and in the aftermath of the assembly presentation, the East High Community Council has made "zero tolerance" for harrassment of any kind a policy. In addition, assembly content will be screened and posted prior to presentation and an alternative to mandatory attendance will be offered.
THORUP: What I think the Gay Straight Alliance supporters misunderstand is that in the disagreements we have over the presentation of the issues at the cultural assembly, they have very strong ally on this community council, even in those who don't approve of what was done in the cultural assembly, with respect to harassment.
NARRATOR: Camille Lee is the advisor of the Gay Straight Alliance club and is a biology teacher at East High.
LEE: Most of the harassment that I see at East High School right now is verbal or done behind student's 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.
LEE: ...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, you know religious organizations or you know 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 my think about what they're saying.
ANONYMOUS PARENT: We teach that it's wrong, a that doing those things are wrong, that they're not acceptable. A, that a we're to treat everyone with kindness and we don't have to accept their lifestyle but we can live amongst them and make them really friends, our friends.
MALMSTROM: I think it's the love the sinner hate the sin mentality. Ah, what are we saying to people when we're telling them that. You're a sinner, you're less then. We don't like who you are and we're not just talking about behavior here. When we're talking orientation, we're talking about a person's identity. Somebody can be a homosexual and never have a sexual encounter and they will still be homosexually oriented. I don't know how you can teach tolerance in that kind of a package. To say that we tol….We don't like who you are, we don't like your behavior, we don't want our children to catch this, BUT we certainly don't want to be intolerant. Those are pretty mixed messages and I don't know how a child adapts to that kind of a, education. I certainly don't believe that hate is a family value. And sometimes in, when we're trying to teach children to be safe and make good decision and stay within the perimeters of their religious beliefs we are teaching some hate. We're certainly teaching prejudice.
COX: I think it's inappropriate to vilify or condemn parents who really don't want their children exposed to this in the school. It's difficult for them as parents because they're trying to do the very best they can to carry on their culture and their values. And they should be able to make these decisions, of what a child will be exposed to, much like we make decisions about hours or use of the car or other, dress or other kinds of um, behavior or outward kinds of expressions in adolescence.
THORUP: The effort to get whatever has been sought at East High School whether the original ah, club or the inclusion these materials in the cultural assembly was all done with an organized coaching support of adults and an organization that's committed to gaining public support and gaining public acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle. And frankly I find that just absolutely amazing that what is obviously an aberrant sexual behavior in a natural sense but nevertheless a sexual behavior can somehow capture the national attention in the same way that important issues of race and gender and political issues can be captured. And that it's somehow elleviated ah, it's as if you would see a parade down Salt Lake City by pedophiles. Ah, seeking to have acceptance of their particular sexual preference well that's absurd and we wouldn't expect that. Well, I don't think we would expect a parade down main street ah, advocating ah heterosexual ah behaviors, why do we have homosexual behavior elevated to a level of public debate. I just don't understand it.
LEE: But I think it's a moral issue, you know, like a lot of our school officials don't want to say that it's a moral issue, but I really think it comes down to that. And you know, because it's the word "homosexuality" it becomes an issue about sex, which is never the case, you know?..... Everybody thinks these kids must be having sexual experiences at these club meetings. And a lot of these kids are like other high school kids, and they're choosing to wait...
LEE: ..And I think if you walked into the room, you would find a bunch of kids who are just being kids.
LEE: I've seen kids' lives completely be turned around by their involvement in this Alliance. You know, even though they're in a marginalized group that does not receive full school statue and they're still second-class citizens, what they've gained in this group has just changed their lives....
NARRATION: There is no escaping however, that in this -- as in other communities -- homosexuality remains a religious issue that defies deeply rooted beliefs. It is an issue where common ground seems an illusion.
THORUP: It is, homosexuality is a religious and moral question ah, to me. Ah as a educated human being, I probably am inclined to think that homosexuality is a genetically ah, inclined behavior. I'm also probably inclined to think that a lot of the things we do are genetically inclined. Ah, as a religious person, I believe that one of our, if not our prime responsibility is to bridal our genetic inclinations to within appropriate bounds.
COX: ... My problem with this is that as adolescents I think many of us are real impressionable. We haven't fully developed our sense of who we are or um, what it is that, that we really want. And we go through many changes. Once we get involved with a gay or lesbian club out of frustration or sense of needing additional social contacts. We may get a label of being gay, lesbian or bisexual.
MALMSTROM: ...If we're afraid that gay kids are going to be labeled in schools as a result of the club we're missing the point that gay kids are already labeled and have not the resource of a club. It's, it's not going to prevent the hostility. It's not going to prevent the ostracism to deprave them of a support source.
COX: ... they may feel gay or lesbian today. Next week they may not or next year they may not. Um, they may think I can only fall in love with someone of the same sex. Then they may find that that's not true. And it's very difficult to get outside that label or that particular box that you've gotten yourself into.
MALMSTROM: Gay kids are in schools and they are one of the highest at risk populations in the school system. If we know that, how shall we address it? That's the question. We know that the suicide rate is high among gay teens. We know that a quarter of all homeless teens are lesbian and gay. ... what more do we need to define this population at risk? I think the way we have approached it has been to view it, that which child should we save? Should we save straight children from information about gay children and therefore prevent the risk of them catching this disease at the the expense of the gay kids?
COX: Some of the reasons for teen suicide is the whole individuation process of where a teen is trying to decided who they are, what's important to them, uh what's worth living and dying for. And I think sometimes a teen club such as the gay and lesbian clubs can actually make that worse. Because the teens are growing up in these family that have certain sets of values and then, they get a conflicting value scale.
MALMSTROM:...Homosexuality is not contagious. Adolescence is a time of experimentation, of trying on new behaviors. Of kind of losing your grounding now and then about what you believe and what you want and who you'll become. We've come to expect that and we've set perimeters to hopefully guide children safely through that phrase. To deny them of information, to say if we bury our head in the sand you'll be safer, is a myth, and a dangerous position for an educational system to assume. Where will kids get the information?
ANONYMOUS PARENT: If they want to educate, educate generally of tolerance for differences. But don't educate about the gay-lesbian lifestyle, we don't want our children to be educated about that.
NARRATION: In response to a "statement of grievances" brought by parents, district officials formally apologized for the assembly but found the Alliance presentation did not violate state policy. They cautioned that school administrators should have exercised more control over the content. The principal, who is now retired, would not respond to inquiries. Litigation over the right to have the Gay Straight Alliance club included at East High School continues. District officials still decline comment on the matter. And Ben Vigil has graduated.
BEN: I'm hoping that this interview will be able to broaden people's minds. ... Kids you know get harassed, kids get you know put down for being different. Um, I'm just hoping that ah, this will be able to make people you know view it differently. You know, to see that being different is not wrong. You know, being you know diverse is actually a good thing.
THORUP:.. I wish that we could go back at East High School and the district would let us go back at East High School to our original program of parental permission for a student to participate in any club. And let the Gay Straight Alliance have a club, let parents choose to let their students participate or not. And let it just go off into the corner where it can be comfortable and we move on.
LEE: 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, you know, 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.
ANONYMOUS PARENT: I do not think as a community the gay-straight alliance will ever be able to get our community to say we embrace you. We accept what you are doing, I think I I don't think that will happen.
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