Tuesday, October 11, 2005

At Seventeen

Today, October 11, is "National Coming Out Day," which commemorates the first national march on Washington for gay rights, an event that occurred in October 1979. The purpose of National Coming Out Day is to encourage gay men and lesbians to "come out" of their hidden closets of sexuality and admit, to themselves and their friends and relations, who they really are. The benefits of coming out are explained in this week's Chicago Free Press by Paul Varnell:

There is a kind of moral obligation to come out, because coming out helps advance gay equality. It educates more people about the fact that they know and associate on an ordinary basis with a gay person and that gays are pretty normal people, not exotic creatures who lead some bizarre “lifestyle.” This information is always new for some people, and the more gays they learn that they know, the more successfully that message is reinforced.

It is useful to keep in mind too that coming out benefits the other person. It helps disabuse him or her of misimpressions and false beliefs. Knowing the truth is always better than believing lies, distortions, or mistaken views of any sort, so countering those is a virtuous act. If you think of coming out as doing the other person a favor, it may seem more plausible.

The other kind of reason to come out is psychological. There is definitely a liberating effect to coming out—initially, and with each subsequent person. You no longer have to lie or evade important facts about your social or romantic life. You no longer have to remember who knows and who does not know. And most of all, you are no longer hiding. You begin engaging the world as a fully integrated person, not just parts of a person.

Coming out to someone can, to many people’s surprise, actually enhance the quality of friendships and casual social relationships. You sometimes find that people you feared might have a negative reaction volunteer that they have a gay relative. Or they say they thought maybe you were gay, but they didn’t know how to bring it up, because you didn’t seem to want to talk about it. Or they may say they feel they know you better now and are glad that you told them.
(This article, like many others by Paul Varnell, is quite likely to end up in the archives of the Independent Gay Forum.)

Perhaps not coincidentally, Time magazine's October 10 cover story focuses on gay teenagers, noting the surprising rate at which these young people are coming out:
Kids are disclosing their homosexuality with unprecedented regularity--and they are doing so much younger. The average gay person now comes out just before or after graduating high school, according to The New Gay Teenager, a book Harvard University Press published this summer. The book quotes a Penn State study of 350 young people from 59 gay groups that found that the mean age at which lesbians first have sexual contact with other girls is 16; it's just 14 for gay boys. In 1997 there were approximately 100 gay-straight alliances (GSAs)--clubs for gay and gay-friendly kids--on U.S. high school campuses. Today there are at least 3,000 GSAs--nearly 1 in 10 high schools has one--according to the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN, say "glisten"), which registers and advises GSAs. In the 2004-05 academic year, GSAs were established at U.S. schools at the rate of three per day.
The article talks about two different ways for addressing the problems and challenges faced by gay and lesbian teenagers.

One approach is that of the Point Foundation, which provides scholarships to prospective gay college students who have faced unusual hardship or adversity while growing up:
Launched in 2001, Point gives lavish (often full-ride) scholarships to gay students. It is one of the few national groups conceived explicitly to help gay kids, and it is a leading example of how the gay movement is responding to the emergence this decade of hundreds of thousands of openly gay youths.
The other approach is favored by some members of the so-called religious right and is an outgrowth of the discredited ex-gay movement.
On talk radio, on the Internet and in churches, social conservatives' canniest strategy for combatting the emergence of gay youth is to highlight the existence of people who battle--and, some claim, overcome-- their homosexual attractions. Because kids often see their sexuality as riverine and murky--multiple studies have found most teens with same-sex attractions have had sex with both boys and girls--conservatives hope their "ex-gay" message will keep some of those kids from embracing a gay identity. And they aren't aiming the message just at teens. On one of its websites, the Christian group Focus on the Family has warned that boys as young as 5 may show signs of "gender confusion" and require "professional help."

It's important to note that nearly all mental-health professionals agree that trying to reject one's homosexual impulses will usually be fruitless and depressing--and can lead to suicide, according to Dr. Jack Drescher of the American Psychiatric Association, who has studied programs that attempt to alter sexuality. Last month Tennessee officials charged that one of the longest-running evangelical ministries for gays, Love in Action of Memphis, Tenn., was operating unlicensed mental-health facilities. The state said Love in Action must close two residential homes--which include beds for teenagers--or apply for a license. (The ministry's attorney, Nate Kellum, said in an e-mail that the licensure requirement "is intended for facilities that treat mental illness" and not for a "faith-based institution like Love in Action.")

Few young gays actually want to change: six surveys in The New Gay Teenager found that an average of just 13% of young people with same-sex attractions would prefer to be straight. Nonetheless, gay kids trying to change can find unprecedented resources. As recently as the late '90s, Exodus International, the premier organization for Christians battling same-sex attractions, had no youth program. Today, according to president Alan Chambers, the group spends a quarter of its $1 million budget on Exodus Youth; about 80 of Exodus' 125 North American ministries offer help to adolescents. More than 1,000 youths have visited an Exodus-affiliated website called live hope.org to post messages and read articles like "Homosexual Myths" (No. 2: People are born gay). The website, which started as a modest Texas chat board in the late '90s, now gets referrals from scores of churches in 45 countries. "Twenty years ago, most churches wouldn't even let Exodus in the door," says Scott Davis, director of Exodus Youth. "Now there are open doors all across the country."
The level of success these groups can expect to find is suggested by an off-hand comment made by Time's John Cloud, who reported on a conference for teenagers Exodus is seeking to change:
I met very few at the conference who claimed to be completely straight. (At least two of the young men--one 21, the other 18--hooked up that week and still keep in touch.)
Intriguingly, the fresh-faced teenager featured on Time's cover, is comfortable being gay yet attended the Exodus conference out of a desire to learn more about his peers who are not so comfortable about themselves -- or their gay acquaintances:
For their part, several of the young Exodus Christians seemed more stereotypically gay--"I love that Prada bag!" a 16-year-old boy at the Youth Day squealed several times--than some of the Point scholars who had been out for years. Others had gone to Exodus with no intention of going straight. Corey Clark, 18, belongs to his GSA at Governor Mifflin Senior High in Shillington, Pa., and says he sees nothing wrong with being gay. He attended Youth Day because he wanted to better understand his evangelical church and friends who say gays should change. "Actually," he says, "I've heard so many good things about gay pride"--in the media and at school--"but I hadn't heard directly about the downside."
Another Corey, this one in Virginia, may have stepped into a minefield in his quest to establish a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at a rural Virginia high school. So far he has nimbly avoided the hazards laid in his neighborhood.

By way of background, earlier this year, a Virginia state legislator, Delegate Glenn Weatherholtz, introduced a bill intended to ban GSAs from schools in the commonwealth. Weatherholtz's bill, which failed and which would have conflicted with the federal Equal Access Act (passed, ironically, to protect student-initiated religious clubs, such as Bible-study groups, in government schools), was stimulated by a controversy over the creation of a GSA at Harrisonburg High School.

According to an email sent by Equality Virginia, a statewide lobbying group, to the Metro Weekly, a Washington-based news magazine:
On Thursday, February 17, the Senate Education and Health Committee is expected to vote on HB 2868, introduced by Del. Glenn Weatherholtz (R-Harrisonburg), that will allow discrimination against Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs) based on fear and misinformation about the nature of these organizations. You are receiving this alert since your Senator sits on this Committee. Please write your Senator today and urge him or her to oppose this mean-spirited, discrminatory measure. . . .

The bill, which was filed after a GSA formed at Harrisonburg High school, was modified on the House side from a outright ban on any group justifying or supporting a lifestyle having to do with sexual behavior. As amended, it now would allow individual school boards to discriminate against GSAs by stating, "local school boards in their discretion may prohibit school facilities from being used by any student club or other student group that encourages or promotes sexual activity by unmarried minor students." While GSAs technically would not be affected by this law -- since no GSA "encourages or promotes sexual activity,"-- if passed, it would allow discrimination through misinformation and prejudice about these groups to block a GSA from forming, forcing the school board to face expensive and protracted litigation as the groups sue to form under the federal Equal Access Act.
The Harrisonburg school board responded to the threat of a GSA in its community by passing a rule that required all students who wanted to belong to student clubs to also get a permission slip from their parents. This proposal was met with some opposition, naturally. Chay Lee of WHSV-TV reported:
A rule that would require parents to sign off on their kids joining clubs at a local school has some people up in arms.

The gay and lesbian advocate group, Equality Virginia, has sent a letter to the Harrisonburg School Board expressing its concerns. The rule was proposed by Doctor Cathy Dlusher, and she believes it will help bring parents closer to their children.

The group feels this rule will discourage kids from joining.

"I think a parental consent policy would severely inhibit people who would need to attend a gay and straight alliance meeting; parents are the last usually to know about their children's sexual orientation; in fact, children are most afraid of the reaction of their parents," says Dr. Christine Robinson.
Despite opposition, the school board approved the policy at its meeting on December 7, 2004.

Delegate Weatherholtz, who represents the Harrisonburg area in the General Assembly, felt that this measure was not sufficient. According to the Augusta Free Press, the proposed bill would add:
a subsection D to the already existing Section 22.1-79.3 of the state code relating to policies regarding access to public schools.

"In the exercise of their authority to protect the well-being of students as recognized by federal law pursuant to 20 U.S.C. Section 4071 (f), local school boards providing equal access and fair opportunity to use school facilities or to distribute literature shall not allow such access or opportunity to use such school facilities or to distribute literature to any club or other group that is focused on supporting, assisting or justifying any lifestyle involving sexual behavior," the proposed code addition reads.

The measure was put into the legislative hopper on Friday morning with 34 copatrons having signed on - including 33 members of the Virginia House of Delegates and one senator, Harrisonburg Republican Mark Obenshain.
The bill subsequently passed the House Committee on Education by a vote of 22 to 0 and the House Courts of Justice Committee by a vote of 19 to 0, before being passed by the full House of Delegates by a vote of 95 to 0. (Where was Adam Ebbin that day?)

When Weatherholtz's proposal reached the state Senate, however, it found itself in a cul-de-sac known as the Senate Committee on Education and Health, which killed it on a 9 to 6 vote. (The vote was technically to "pass by" the bill "indefinitely," a form of tabling, so there were 9 "ayes" and 6 "nays.")

Fast forward a few months for a look at what's happening in Rockingham County, close by to Harrisonburg but apparently a world away.

At Turner Ashby High School in Bridgewater, 17-year-old senior Corey L. Loucks, Jr., is the president of a new Gay-Straight Alliance. According to Corey -- whose prom date was one of the subjects of my May 7 article, "Prom Season" -- there was very little opposition from faculty, parents, students, or administrators.

Corey aspires to become a psychiatrist; his top choices for college are the University of Virginia and George Mason University. He is an active student who belies the image of the withdrawn, bullied gay teenager. He probably does not need the support and fraternity that a GSA provides as much as some of his peers might; perhaps that is why he is assertive enough to lay the groundwork for the group himself.

Corey sings bass in the TA Singers, is co-president of the French Club, serves on the Student Advisory Committee (which advises the school administration on things Turner Ashby needs, such as drinking fountains that should be repaired), competes on the Scholastic Bowl team, and participates in a group called "Youth and Government." (According to the TAHS web site, "The Youth and Government Club is open to any student who wishes to be of service to their school and community. Members are expected to develop leadership qualities and to participate in all club activities. The Youth and Government Club makes available opportunities for students to participate in the Model Judiciary, Model Executive, and Model General Assembly programs.")

In short, Corey Loucks is exactly the kind of student the Point Foundation looks for in allocating its scholarship awards. As John Cloud explains in his Time cover story:
By the late '90s, [Bruce] Lindstrom was talking about the idea of a scholarship program with his boyfriend Carl Strickland (who is 29 years younger) and with his old friend John Pence, a San Francisco gallery owner and former social aide to Lyndon Johnson. One night in 2001 at Lindstrom and Strickland's home--which they call the Point because it sits on a promontory on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe--the three christened the Point Foundation. Since then, some 5,000 young gays have applied, and 47 Point scholars have been named.

Lindstrom sees the United Negro College Fund and the Rhodes scholarships as his models, and in order to win, Point candidates must prove both academic success and commitment to gay causes. Not surprisingly, many also have biographies resembling Lindstrom's--they come from conservative families that haven't immediately accepted them. Candidates must write an essay on "how you feel you have been marginalized because of your sexual orientation." When scholars were called upon to introduce themselves at the retreat, many offered heartbreaking stories of family repudiation. It was routine to hear sniffling during these presentations, especially from adults.

Back in Rockingham County, Corey says the Turner Ashby GSA will have its first meeting during the third week of October. Asked what kind of activities the GSA will have, he told me: "We plan to have and AIDS benefit with bands where the money goes to AIDS research, we want to adopt a road, and we hope to have other fundraisers for local charities."

That doesn't sound like the sort of "sex club" or "dating service" feared by Virginia legislators or Harrisonburg school board members. No wonder Corey and his friends had no problem getting approval from the Turner Ashby administration or the Rockingham County school board.

The path was not completely obstacle free. Corey told me that "last year we had an anti-GSA petition going around against us and kids calling me names and saying I'm going to hell." One faculty member, Mike Stover, who teaches world history, also objected. According to Corey, "he said that it was wrong and it shouldn't be a club but he can't stop it because of the laws."

The group's faculty advisor, Rebecca Bonds, also sponsors the school's chapter of Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA), or what was formerly known as Future Homemakers of America. Corey describes Bonds, who teaches "family and consumer sciences" (earlier generations called this "Home Economics," or HomeEc), as "awesome." No doubt.

Until the GSA actually meets a few times, we can't know how many members will attend regularly. Corey estimates that "15 to 40 kids" have expressed interest.

lists just over 60 Gay-Straight Alliances in Virginia (including the new one at Turner Ashby High School). Some are at private schools, others at government schools. Most seem to be in suburban Northern Virginia -- Arlington and Fairfax counties, in particular -- but the list includes Christiansburg and Western Albemarle High Schools, which are each pretty far from "inside the Beltway."

Students like Corey Loucks deserve kudos for ignoring the objections of uninformed and busybody legislators and moving forward to create the kind of environment in which all students, regardless of sexual orientation, can grow and thrive -- and, frankly, enjoy a normal high school career without fear of being bullied and beat up.

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Anonymous said...

Dude, did you have to post that teacher's home page? I mean, his e-mail address is on there and everything. I wouldn't want to get that guy's mail.

Dymphna said...

A well-thought out article. The problem I have with such groups in schools, though, is that it becomes one more dividing line, a subtle but distinctive us-against-them exclusivity.

Given the fact that we all need social support, group formation seems natural. But in high school particularly -- surely the same hell it has been since time was invented -- groups founded on what makes us different probably add to the tension. I would not want my kid in a political group on high school property, or a religious one, or one based on his/her gender or sexual orientation.

Do you see what I mean about the difference between, say, a debating club which wants to set up a discussion of a gay/straight alliance and one which simply focuses on the alliance itself? Or a political club that tried to be inclusive and contained the whole spectrum of deeply held political philosophies in our country Imagine the dogfights in that there particular club??
It's also the reason I don't like African American only clubs, or Chrisitan Youth groups.

Which is not to say there couldn't and should be groups off-campus, under the aegis of other institutions...or merely formed out of their own enthusiams.

School groups, on the other hand, ought to be confined to school matters -- mostly academic, or some grounded in future plans, e.g., the rural schools who have Future Farmers or whatever.

The rest belong elsewhere, including the Scouts (when I was a kid, the Scouts met on school property after hours. Maybe not so bad then, but certainly not advisable now).

Your post is thoughtful; it's given me much to ponder. I like the work being done with, say, the Point Foundation.

One last consideration: I noticed during my last child's high school years in CH'ville, that the GSA in his school had a sort of in-your-face quality that deflected from its goals. I often wondered if some of the kids weren't there just to p.o. their parents. I certainly know some parents who would've gone into orbit.

Anyway, thanks for the chance to read your post. I'm going to send it on to my son, currently in college.