Project 10 Gives Gay Students Help When They Need It Most

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mary Yarber teaches English and journalism at Santa Monica High School. Her education column appears weekly

Adolescence is rarely easy for anyone, but to a gay teen-ager, the trials and traumas of establishing an identity and trying to fit in with peers are especially difficult.

Mental health professionals say that the stress and stigma experienced by gay high school students make them more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to drop out of school, abuse alcohol or drugs, and commit suicide.

It was in recognition of the special problems facing gay teen-agers that Virginia Uribe organized a program called Project 10. Uribe, a teacher and counselor at Fairfax High School, started the program in 1984 because, she said, schools were not doing enough to stop the harassment of homosexual students or to keep them in school despite it.


“There were no programs to provide support, and in most cases the kids were either treated as though they didn’t exist or as objects of hate and bigotry,” she said.

Since then, Uribe has led training workshops for about 500 teachers, counselors and other school staff throughout the Los Angeles area.

In the three-hour workshops, participants begin by freely voicing their own perceptions of what homosexuals think and do.

Then Uribe shares information that, she says, most people don’t know about homosexuality. Among other things, she teaches that “nobody knows the cause, that the American Psychiatric Assn. doesn’t consider homosexuality to be an illness, (and) that homosexuals are not homosexuals by choice.”

Participants then discuss ways of stopping the form of harassment that is the most common and harmful: name-calling.

Uribe asserts that derogatory names and jokes about gays are just as harmful as those aimed at other minority groups. “We hope that (teachers) will not participate in it,” said Uribe, “not to say ‘faggot’ and ‘dyke,’ not to tell AIDS jokes and ‘queer’ jokes.”


Once they have completed the workshop, participants are encouraged to get the word out at their respective schools that they have done so--and that they are ready to help with counseling and referrals. Every Los Angeles Unified high school now has Project 10-trained counselors, and other school districts--including Santa Monica-Malibu and San Francisco--are sending counselors to Uribe’s workshops.

Along the way, Project 10 has encountered criticism from, among others, Catholic Archbishop Roger Mahony and several politicians, particularly in 1988 when the Los Angeles school board went district-wide with what had been a pilot program at Fairfax High. The program has continued to receive strong support from the school board, however, and the criticism has been more muted of late.

Trying to help gay high school students can be tricky, because only a tiny minority at that age are open about their sexual preference. Fear of exposure deters many students from seeking help.

Thus, the counselors who have received Project 10 training try to convey the essential message to gay students--mostly via flyers around campus--that they can drop in for counseling and be confident that their secret will not be divulged.

At a few schools where Project 10 has been around for a while, including Uribe’s own Fairfax High, support groups have been organized in which gay students meet to discuss concerns, ask questions or find out about other community programs.

Other Project 10 services include outreach to parents of gay teen-agers and referrals to substance-abuse or suicide-prevention programs.


And because of the AIDS epidemic, Project 10 encourages responsible sex. “What we hope for all the kids is that they’ll delay having sex for a while and that, when they do (have sex), they will protect themselves and their partners,” Uribe said.

Several hundred students in the Los Angeles school district use Project 10’s services every year, and many say it has made a difference in their lives.

Belinda, 19, “came out” as a lesbian in the 10th grade at Fairfax High School. “It helped me to know that Project 10 was there to listen to me,” she said, and added that the self-esteem she and others gained from the program was probably what kept them “in school and away from drugs and alcohol.”

Such peer support may be the most helpful element of Project 10, because isolation is a big part of teen-age gays’ despair. “A teen gay who could (join a support group) would not feel alone,” explained Jo Ellen Lupidas, a marriage, family and child counselor in Brentwood. “They would have a socially sanctioned place to meet other teens who were having those feelings, have access to literature, to information about where to go in the community. It’s an incredible opportunity.”

Some adult gays I know believe that their unhappy high school years might have been different if they had had similar campus counseling services. “It’s a very painful process, growing up (gay) when you don’t have anybody to talk to,” said Carol, 27, who remembers being ridiculed and threatened in high school.

“There’s got to be somewhere that (gay teens) can go to get over the fear that they’re wrong or bad because they’re gay,” said Frank, 34, who denied his homosexuality throughout high school.


Added Uribe: “We’re a public school system and must serve all of our children. Some of our children are lesbian and gay, and we should serve them, too.”