Gay Teens Are Using the System

Times Staff Writer

Gay high school students across California are increasingly using the courts and political activism to fight individual cases of discrimination and to promote tolerance.

The moves, educators and legal observers say, come at a time of exponential growth in the number of gay student clubs and an acceptance of homosexuality on high school campuses that would have been unheard of a decade ago.

“It’s a reflection of the students’ desire to not just not be beat up, but to actually have full equality,” said Carolyn Laub, executive director of the Gay Straight Alliance Network in San Francisco. “They want to be treated just the same” as their straight classmates.


Recent examples abound: A lesbian teen sued Garden Grove educators to defend her right to kiss her girlfriend on campus. Bakersfield students sued their district after a principal barred the school newspaper from printing articles about homosexuality that identified gay students by name -- even with their parents’ permission. Los Angeles Unified settled a harassment suit brought by students by pledging to provide antibias training to students and staff at Washington Prep High School.

For the last two years, gay students in Los Altos in the Silicon Valley have sparked an off-campus controversy by urging city leaders to create a Gay Pride Day. And hundreds of gay, lesbian and transgender youths converged Monday on Sacramento to champion proposed legislation that would allow the state to withhold funds from districts that fail to abide by a California law that protects gay students from discrimination.

Some contend the students are being used as pawns by adult gay activists and argue that school is no place for such volatile issues.

“They are being manipulated by the adults to push the gay agenda,” said Richard Ackerman, president of the Pro-Family Law Center in Temecula. “My kids should be going [to school] to learn math, reading, writing. It shouldn’t be an opportunity for someone else to

But while the American Civil Liberties Union, the Gay Straight Alliance Network and other organizations are involved in lawsuits and political activism, officials with these groups say they are providing legal and organizational help to students who are picking their own battles.

“More and more students are realizing, ‘Wow, when the principal censors my speech just because it has something to do with sex orientation, that’s something that violates the law,’ ” said Christine Sun, an ACLU attorney representing students in the Garden Grove and Bakersfield cases.

California schools are seen as more tolerant of students’ sexual orientation than those in many other states. In 1999, the state was among the first to outlaw discrimination against gay students. Debates over whether to allow same-sex prom dates or after-school gay-straight alliance clubs are rare in California; by comparison, Utah legislators, to give one example, recently debated a bill that would allow educators to ban such clubs.

Wayne Joseph, a Chino Valley Unified School District administrator and former high school principal, said school campuses have become more tolerant on sexual issues in recent years. “Kids are willing to express who they are much more openly, and they’re not as repressed,” said Joseph, an educator for more than 30 years.

The activism is fueled by gay students who are being increasingly visible on high school campuses, according to Ritch Savin-Williams, a Cornell University professor and author of “The New Gay Teenager” who has studied gay youth for more than two decades.

California has more than 500 school-based gay-straight alliance clubs, up from about 40 eight years ago. Several academic studies have found that gay teenagers are coming out, on average, by age 15 or 16 -- earlier than ever. And their straight peers tend to be more tolerant of gay rights issues than their parents’ generation, according to a recent poll released by Hamilton College in New York showing that 74% of American high school seniors support some form of civil union or gay marriage.

“Before, it was more that ‘I have an identity and I don’t want to be harassed because of it,’ ” Savin-Williams said. “Now it’s, ‘This is who I am, these are my attractions, desires, arousals and love affairs, and I have a right to them.’ That subtle shift is a very important one because it reflects a sense of empowerment.”

Garden Grove senior Charlene Nguon, 17, is suing the school district for discrimination, arguing that she was punished for being affectionate with her girlfriend on campus while straight classmates exhibiting the same behavior went unchallenged.

Nguon is also accusing officials of outing her to her mother and forcing her to transfer to another school to separate her from her girlfriend. In addition to seeking damages and expunging Nguon’s disciplinary record, the lawsuit seeks policy changes that would prohibit administrators from selectively enforcing discipline or censoring students because of their sexual orientation.

“I don’t want things happening to other students that have happened to me,” she said. “I just want equality, a safe learning environment for everyone, so [gay] students don’t have to go to school and get suspended for kissing their partner.”

In Northern California, the gay-straight alliance club at Los Altos High School has become increasingly active in its seven years on campus. What began as a forum for students to meet and talk has grown into an effort to leave a larger mark on the community, including hanging “safe zone” posters in classrooms and sponsoring an annual campus film festival of PG-rated gay-themed movies.

Two years ago, the teens started lobbying City Hall to proclaim a Gay Pride Day. The effort was initially snubbed, but the council relented after the issue drew attention from adult gay-rights activists and the wider community. The students won a proclamation that year but have since been rebuffed.

Alyssa Paris Smyth, 18, who graduated last June, was born a male but is in the process of becoming an anatomical female. A member of the Los Altos club while in high school, she said she was crushed when the group’s request was denied.

“I’ve lived in Los Altos all my life, and my parents have lived here a very long time. It’s my hometown,” said Smyth, who began wearing makeup at 14, started taking hormones at 16 and is preparing to get breast implants this year. “My own City Council rejecting the proclamation felt like they were rejecting me.”

Students plan to keep trying to change council members’ minds and hope to hold a parade as well, according to Ruth Gibbs, the student club advisor and administrative secretary. “At first, they were crushed. Now they are getting angry,” she said.

Gay teenagers are also mobilizing in a type of activism more common to college students.

About 500 gay, lesbian and transgender youths and their straight allies gathered Monday in Sacramento to lobby for legislation that would force compliance with a 1999 law that offered protection to students who are gay or perceived to be gay.

In addition to requiring that sexual orientation and gender identity be included in a school’s discrimination policy, the proposal would ensure that teachers and staff are trained to deal with harassment and require documentation of any complaints.

Stevie Marino, a senior at Lakewood High School and a lesbian, said she felt it was her duty to attend the rally.

“For change to occur, it’s more important that young adults go and represent ourselves [instead of] having adults go and speak for us,” she said.