Gay teenager’s civil rights suit nearing end

Times Staff Writer

Two high schoolers are caught kissing on campus.

Ordinarily, such an incident would garner little attention. But for Charlene Nguon, a smattering of kisses and hugs stolen after school and in between classes led to detention, suspensions, a transfer and a lawsuit.

The reason? That’s what a federal judge in Santa Ana will soon decide.

Nguon says it’s because she was kissing a girl. Ben Wolf, who was then principal of Garden Grove’s Santiago High School, says that’s not the case at all. He insists the problem was that, regardless of whether it was a girl or boy, Nguon continued the kissing despite repeated warnings to knock it off.


For two weeks, a stream of recent high school grads and administrators have filed into U.S. District Judge James V. Selna’s courtroom. Students told of couples making out around the clock, but their elders said “the children” minded their manners and their superiors. At times, the testimony seemed straight out of sixth period: a football player and cheerleader spied kissing in the quad; Nguon’s salacious blog entry denouncing a classmate for an “annoying” voice and crybaby ways; a messy breakup, documented in an expletive-laden instant message chat.

The teenage dramas were unfurled as hard evidence.

In her civil rights suit, Nguon is seeking $300,000 to $1.3 million in damages from Wolf and several Garden Grove Unified School District officials. She alleges that their actions caused her nearly straight-A grades to plummet and drove her into a depression so deep she began cutting herself and contemplated suicide.

The suit also seeks district policy changes that would prohibit administrators from revealing a student’s sexual orientation or selectively enforcing discipline on that basis. Nguon also wants all disciplinary measures expunged from her academic record.


Both sides wrapped up their closing arguments Tuesday. Attorneys have a week to file any motions, and Selna will make his ruling sometime after that.

Dan Stormer, one of Nguon’s attorneys, said in an interview that discrimination against gay students in schools was “rampant” nationwide. He said few cases had gone to court because it’s difficult to prove.

Both sides in the case agree that the problems began one day after school in December 2004, during Nguon’s junior year, when Wolf called her into his office after someone spotted her kissing her then-girlfriend, Trang Nguyen. A parent had previously seen the couple kissing and complained, Wolf testified. Throughout the following months, the principal and others repeatedly disciplined the girls for public displays of affection.

Wolf and other school officials testified that when heterosexual couples were warned to cool it, they always did.


Nguon, now a psychology major at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, testified that the principal outed her by telling her mother she had been caught kissing a girl. Christine Sun, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who is also representing Nguon, called it an invasion of privacy.

Wolf testified that he “may have” told Nguon’s mother she’d been kissing a girl, but that if he did, it would not qualify as disclosing her sexual orientation. Other school officials testified to that effect.

During his closing argument, Wolf’s attorney, Dennis J. Walsh, said girls locking lips is a fad, pointing to the televised kiss between Britney Spears and Madonna.

Stormer, Nguon’s other attorney, trotted out the infractions the couple allegedly committed: lying on a bench while French kissing, putting their hands up each other’s shirts and biting each other’s lips in the library, all of which the two denied.


“Did it ever cross your mind that they might be gay?” Stormer asked. No, Wolf testified.

Walsh argued that regardless of what the principal said, Nguon was “openly gay,” and if Nguon wanted it kept private, why didn’t she tell Wolf?

The judge interrupted. “Should a 16-year-old have to tell her principal what her constitutional rights are?”

Hours of the trial were devoted to defining “making out.” Were tongues involved? How many seconds did it last? Eyes opened or closed? Were hands under the blouse placed on the hips or farther north?


Questions often triggered laughter in the courtroom, such as when Walsh asked William Vo, Nguon’s classmate and friend, about a short MTV item on the case in which he appeared.

“Did you think it was cool to be on MTV, Mr. Vo?” he asked.

Turning the tables on the lawyer, Vo leaned forward: “What’s your definition of cool?”

During closing arguments, the defense attorney argued that Nguon wasn’t traumatized by the events of her junior year but reveled in the attention, considering her appearances on MTV and “Anderson Cooper 360,” and a spread in Teen People.


On the plaintiff’s side, one focus of Stormer’s closing argument was school policy. He said that when Wolf told Nguon’s mother her daughter had been kissing a girl, he was revealing her sexual orientation. Would it not be sufficient to say she was caught making out? He said school officials testified that they would never use a student’s race or ethnicity as an identifier.

Walsh warned that siding with the plaintiff on that point would force “a lot of school districts throughout this state to change the way they communicate.”

To which the judge replied, “What’s wrong with that?”