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Santee community rallies in support of a gender-neutral bathroom after fight

Students rally outside Santee Education Complex in South Los Angeles on Wednesday in support of the school's gender-neutral bathroom and the students who advocated for it. Some students had fought with protesters outside the school Tuesday.

Students rally outside Santee Education Complex in South Los Angeles on Wednesday in support of the school’s gender-neutral bathroom and the students who advocated for it. Some students had fought with protesters outside the school Tuesday.

(Nick Ut / Associated Press)

Hundreds of students and community members rallied outside Santee Education Complex on Wednesday to defend a bathroom and the Gay Straight Alliance students who advocated for its creation.

The bathroom is gender-neutral, meaning it can be used by both boys and girls, and last week it was the first one to open in L.A. Unified. The rally came one day after a fight broke out between students and protesters outside the school over the bathroom.

While school police blocked the intersection of Maple Avenue and Washington Boulevard, students waved rainbow flags and signs saying, “it’s just a toilet.”

“Show me what queer power looks like,” GSA secretary and junior Monique Garcia, 17, shouted into a megaphone around 3 p.m.

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“This is what queer power looks like,” about 100 people chanted back.

Vanesa Palomino, 23, lives nearby and graduated from Santee in 2011. She said she was at the rally to support the current students. A member of the LGBT community, she said the outpouring of support felt different from her time at the school, when there was no gay-straight alliance. “I’m amazed,” Palomino said.

A small group of adults called the Official Street Preachers, which is not connected to the school, gathered Tuesday around 2:45 p.m. on Maple Avenue across the street from Santee. They had a sign that said “homo sex is sin” and used a loudspeaker to tell students as they left school at 2:55 that they were sinning and going to hell, Principal Martin Gomez said.

“We expected protesters,” Gomez said, but not verbal attacks.

Some students confronted the protesters, and others threw objects at them. “I saw an apple and one water bottle,” Gomez said.

Some tried to pull down one of the signs from behind, and a fight broke out. The fight was caught on video, and it was circulated online Tuesday afternoon.

“I stood on the sidelines and cried,” said Kween Robinson, an alliance spokeswoman and one of the bathroom’s advocates.

She and other GSA students said that although some stood in front of the protesters, they didn’t engage in the fighting.

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One student was detained by school police during the fight but was released and was not charged or cited, school officials said.

Ron Gochez, who used to teach at Santee and lives near the school, saw online that the protesters threatened to return Wednesday, so he organized a counter-rally through Union del Barrio, a San Diego-based political group that has a presence in South L.A., and spread the word on Facebook.

“We’re a phone call away and we will be here,” Gochez said at the rally Wednesday.

Jose Lara, GSA’s faculty advisor, spoke on behalf of staff.

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“We’re one family here,” he told the students. “We are not going to give in to hate.”

The school had extra police present Wednesday, and teachers talked to students to discourage them from violence, Gomez said. The school is developing a plan in case there are future protests, he said.

The gender-neutral bathroom, Gomez said, will remain open.

On Wednesday, as the rally wound down, Robinson reflected on the events.

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“Santee is poppin’. I love this,” she said. “That’s all you need in life — people to help you fight against your oppressors.”

sonali.kohli@latimes.com

Twitter: @Sonali_Kohli

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