City Lights: Intolerance still in the background

I didn't meet an openly gay person — at least, one of my generation — until my freshman year at UC Irvine. The resident advisor for my dorm announced casually to her group during welcome week that she was a member of the campus group Irvine Queers, and that pretty much ended the topic, as I never heard anyone bring up her sexuality for the rest of the year.

She was a terrific resident advisor, which may have been why people left her alone. But having lived through a decade of public school, where "That's so gay" was the most popular insult, and even effeminate boys insisted that they were straight, I found myself amazed at how unassumingly she fit into the group. No slurs tacked on her door, no obtrusive questions, no girls (or boys) tensing up when she walked into the room. Perhaps, with a woman living under the roof who didn't flaunt her sexuality but wasn't ashamed of it, gay jokes seemed like a waste of energy.

The last few weeks have brought a series of news stories about gay teenagers and one college student who committed suicide after persistent bullying. The struggle to legalize same-sex marriage and repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has been called the last great American civil rights struggle, but changing laws can only accomplish so much — it can't stop an eighth-grader from hurling an epithet or a wet wad of toilet paper.

I have personally known dozens of gay and lesbian people, including friends, professors, coworkers and interview subjects, and I sometimes get lulled into thinking sexuality isn't much of an issue in modern-day society. But the headlines regularly demonstrate that that isn't the case. So last week, I sat down with members of the Gay Straight Alliance at Huntington Beach High School to hear their views about tolerance on campus.

It was an off-the-record conversation — out of respect for the students' privacy, I agreed to withhold their names — and the group I spoke to comprised both gay and straight students. I had come seeking the answer to a simple question: Are the recent national headlines isolated cases, or is school really a place of terror for students who come out of the closet?

The truth, they said, is somewhere in the middle. But their answers were encouraging in a few ways.

It's helpful to remember, first of all, that gay-straight alliances are a modern concept. The first one began in Massachusetts in 1988, and the GSA Network, which encourages students to form alliances, launched a decade later. A recent survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network showed that students felt more comfortable in schools with alliances and strong anti-bullying policies.

Likewise, the students I spoke to said they felt more comfortable in their club than in anywhere else on campus. Elsewhere, they said, they heard derogatory names behind their backs and heard jokes made about them and their friends. The straight members of the club said they weren't spared the treatment — many people assumed they were gay and taunted them as well.

At the same time, they said, going to campus wasn't always the ordeal described on the news. Students who were openly gay but didn't refer to it constantly tended to be left alone. And the abuse directed at others tended to be verbal rather than physical, and even then, rarely face-to-face.

"It used to really drag me down," one student said, "but I've learned to brush it off."

Maybe that isn't much consolation. Maybe, given the insecure nature of many teenagers, high school will never be an entirely welcoming place. The title of a recent nationwide video project meant to encourage gay teens not to abandon hope — "It Gets Better" — indicates that teaching adolescent tolerance may only go so far.

But that title is correct: It does get better, or at least, it can. Of all the things I learned as a UCI freshman, that's one of the few I still remember.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at

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