Not Your Father's High School Club

As the school bell signals the end of another day at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, a sprawling concrete structure two blocks from the Harvard University campus, the kids of Project 10 East gather around a shiny black lab table to munch on chips and clementines and wait for their adviser. Project 10, so named because of the oft-cited statistic that one in 10 Americans is homosexual, has its own classroom, which is decorated with rainbow flags and colorful posters ("Generation Q: Young, Proud and Queer"; "In a Just Society, Family Values Are for Everybody") and operates as a drop-in center during the six-hour school day. Students stop by between classes, at lunch, and after school to work on projects or hang out; a weekly planning meeting is held in the bio lab next door.

This is not your mother and father's high school club. First established in a Los Angeles high school in 1984, gay-straight alliances (GSAs) like Project 10 are school-sponsored clubs for gay teens and their straight peers. While they are still a new concept--most GSAs have been founded within the past two years in response to the widely publicized 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming--there are approximately 750 such organizations nationwide. Suddenly, GSAs are on everyone's radar screen--the darling of the diversity crowd and the bête noire of the Christian right, which warns that GSAs will usher the "homosexual agenda" into schools.

Ironically, GSAs owe their existence in large part to the Christian right. While many school administrations remain unenthusiastic about if not downright hostile to the idea of a GSA in their district, they are prevented by the Equal Access Act--which was sponsored by the conservative Republican Senator Orrin Hatch in 1984 to provide official protection for Bible study groups--from discriminating against any club on the basis of its content. Schools receiving federal funds must either allow the formation of a GSA or prohibit extracurricular clubs altogether.

This hasn't stopped some parents' coalitions and conservative political groups from trying to force GSAs out of existence by arguing that the alliances subject impressionable teens to explicit sexual discussion or "teach" them how to be gay. The caricature of GSAs presented by some of the more overheated conservative rhetoric is designed to horrify even the most liberal-minded parents. In Massachusetts, for instance, the $1.5 million allocated to the Department of Education and the Department of Public Health for gay youth programming came under attack this year by a group called the Parents' Rights Coalition after a coalition member, Scott Whiteman, secretly taped the workshop "What They Didn't Tell You about Queer Sex and Sexuality in Health Class," at Tufts University's Teach Out 2000 conference. According to Whiteman's testimony before the Department of Education, the facilitators, one of whom happened to be a department employee, answered graphic questions about the how-tos of oral and anal sex in front of students as young as 14. Although the conference was not supported by state money, it was organized by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which at the time had the state contract for teacher training on gay themes and homophobia.

In response the Parents' Rights Coalition called for an elimination of the Massachusetts Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth. While the coalition's campaign didn't result in a total funding cut, it did cast a pall over the state's network of youth service providers. Chris Markowski, the executive director of Project 10 East, Inc., a nonprofit group that helps students set up GSAs around the state, asserts that the ripple effect from the taping "has affected a hundred thousand young people--not just the gay kids, but every kid in school." Local GSAs report that their annual state grants were late in 2000, and GLSEN lost its state contract altogether.

Mainstream attitudes toward homosexuality may have changed rapidly over the past few years, but many people still feel uncomfortable with the idea of a school culture that appears openly to accept homosexuality. (And certainly there is unanimous agreement among parents that they don't want 14-year-olds given state-subsidized instruction in anal-sex techniques.) At the same time, however, many parents also feel that tolerance and the celebration of difference are values worth instilling in their children. A more tolerant high school is probably a safer, happier environment for all kids. For liberals in particular--who have fought for years to protect minority groups against the attacks of the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and their ilk--establishing institutional support for gay high school students is a major advance. And for activists seeking to advance the cause of gay rights, there's no question that high schools are one key battleground.

To date, gay rights advocates have spent most of their energy on influencing classroom culture: combating homophobia in the curriculum, promoting sensible programs of sex education, and supporting openly gay teachers. But the high school experience is about more than what goes on within the classroom. Interactions in the hallways and cafeteria, on sports teams, and at school-sponsored activities can be just as important in developing kids' sense of identity, personal values, tolerance for others, and respect for themselves.

That being the case, it would seem that extracurricular clubs like GSAs have a role to play in contributing to safer, more tolerant high schools. Do gay-straight alliances foster tolerance and provide a useful forum for high school students to discuss important social issues such as family, sexuality, and the dangers of STDs? Or is there any truth to the right-wing charge that, as Scott Whiteman's testimony suggests, these groups are primarily venues for graphic sexual discussion?

The groups that I visited around Massachusetts (the state has over 150 GSAs--more than any other state) bore no resemblance to the prurient picture painted in Whiteman's accusations; they were more like a fun, hip class about difference and tolerance, with a bit of socializing on the side. The GSA at the public high school in Brookline, an affluent suburb of Boston, is a good example. At a meeting in a Spanish classroom after school, 15 kids, dressed in jeans and sneakers, discuss the club's projects as their adviser, Christian, takes notes on the board. What's on the agenda? An upcoming teacher training program on gay-themed issues, a group publication, and the spring dance. Nothing more racy than your average student council meeting.

Cambridge Rindge and Latin's Project 10 is more distinctive: This week's meeting begins when the group's adviser, Jay, hurries in from a counseling session that has run late. Jay, who legally changed his name to the letter "J" but doesn't mind going by J-a-y, is wiry and looks like a recent college graduate. In fact, he is 30 years old and teaches computer animation courses at Northeastern University. Today he has the words "grades" and "Kleenex" inked as reminders on his hand.

Project 10 goes through a lot of Kleenex. Laurie,* who was talking with Jay before the meeting, follows him into the room, her face smooth and puffy from crying. The students have been on edge lately. Karen, a senior with long, flyaway hair, tells me that "people come in and say, 'I'm having issues,' and then burst into tears."

But the group doesn't seem troubled as the members chat about their plans for the next few weeks. Even Laurie perks up as she makes a series of announcements. There's the holiday gift basket program to discuss, a joint effort with the Black Student Union and Ahorá, a Hispanic organization. World AIDS Day is coming up. Karen suggests turning the school into a "walking statistic": "If one in X number of people have AIDS, maybe we can give out bright red shirts to the right amount of kids so everyone will be able to see the percentage of people with AIDS." Jay nixes the idea: "Too high concept for high school." Another possibility is a day of silence. All the members of Project 10 would promise not to speak for one day to commemorate deaths from AIDS and symbolize the silence that still surrounds the disease. Ally, an excitable sophomore with spiked black hair and a row of ear piercings, shouts, "I think we should march around the school wearing rainbow colors and screaming, 'I'm gay!'" The others laugh and say, "They already know."

According to the media, high school students like Ally are feeling increasingly comfortable leading openly gay lives. Studies have shown that gay youths today are disclosing their sexuality, or "coming out," at a younger age: In the 1970s, gay men came out on average in their mid- to late-20s; now, the mean age is 18, and it is no longer unusual to find professedly gay students in high school. Writing last April in The Advocate, a national gay magazine, David Kirby reported that "across the nation, gay and lesbian students are coming out in their schools with a sense of confidence that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago." A Newsweek story attributes this supportive climate to gay-straight alliances, which "have been a major factor in helping teenagers create openly gay lives." Some people claim that it is only gay-straight alliances, and not the larger school culture, that is making the climate for gay kids more supportive. To the extent that schools are becoming safer for gay students, it is "in spite of, not because of, the system," says Kevin Jennings, the executive director of GLSEN.

Ritch Savin-Williams, a professor of developmental psychology at Cornell University, agrees with the positive assessments--to a point. "High schools are becoming safer, but at the same time they are also becoming more dangerous," he says. "The visibility"--in movies and television shows like Will & Grace that feature gay characters--"is great for gay teens, but it can also lead to more harassment. There is still that part of society that gives permission to gay-bash: the religious right, Dr. Laura."

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And yet, yielding to the threat of legal action, districts even in the heart of the Bible Belt, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Decatur, Georgia, have approved GSAs in their high schools. The few districts that decided to fight the law in court eventually backed down. The Salt Lake City school board, which had banned all clubs in 1996 rather than authorize a GSA, relented earlier this year. So did the Orange Unified School District in Orange, California, which allowed the formation of a GSA but stipulated that members could not talk about sex.

In truth, it seems what concerned parents primarily object to when they vilify gay-straight alliances is not sex talk per se, but same-sex sex talk. Yet as far as I could determine in my visits, the alliances seemed to have very little explicit sexual discussion of any kind. Project 10, for example, has a guiding principle that, as adviser Jay puts it, "Project 10 is sex positive, but it's also sex free." And besides the occasional sex jokes and, of course, dating within the group, he's right. When discussion at a recent meeting turned to getting a couch for the classroom, Jay laughed and said, "The couches will have rules. In fact, I'm spray-painting the rules onto the couch. A big arrow that says, 'Your butt belongs here.'"

It's hard to know just how many members of gay-straight alliances are on the straight side of the ledger, because students are never asked to specify their sexual or gender identity. Cornell's Savin-Williams says, "It is my impression that high school GSAs are filled with straight women and bisexual guys. But who knows how many kids are waiting in the wings, taking baby steps" before they come out in college or later in life. At the Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, the kids joke that the GSA should be renamed the "bisexual girls' group." I did meet one guy at Project 10, Zach, who was wearing a rumpled polo shirt and black slip-on shower shoes. He identified himself as straight, saying that he began stopping by Project 10 to find his friend Karen and soon realized that, gay or straight, it was a cool place to hang out between classes.

While there have yet to be any systematic studies of the effectiveness of gay-straight alliances in promoting tolerance or reducing gay-bashing (most are still too new to have been studied in that way), Zach's example suggests the power of the GSAs to bring gay and straight kids together, whatever their differences, as friends and political allies. In high school, where small differences can create huge social gulfs, that's a significant achievement. Anecdotal evidence suggests that providing a safe space for gay youths to voice concerns about family and identity, to engage in political activism, and just to be themselves is an important factor in preventing depression and suicide. (According to a survey of youths' risk behavior conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Education in 1999, 30 percent of gay teens attempted suicide in the previous year, compared with 7 percent of their straight peers.) Based on his experience, Savin-Williams says that "just having the knowledge that a safe space exists" can help gay youths who are afraid of facing violence or harassment at school. Markowski of Project 10 East, Inc., adds that GSAs benefit not just gay youths but all marginalized kids, giving them self-esteem and teaching them "leadership skills that they can go out and use in the real world."

Sadly, many gay kids find they cannot be open about their sexuality with their families and friends--and so GSAs provide a supportive venue for frank discussion that may not be available anywhere else. The importance of having a safe space for these kids (especially at school) became clearest to me when I visited BAGLY, the Boston Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Youth, the week before Thanksgiving. BAGLY is a gay youth group that holds regular meetings in a church basement near the statehouse; many of its members do not have official GSAs at their high school, so some drive as far as two hours to attend the BAGLY meetings in Boston. (The fact that some kids have to travel extraordinary distances underscores the need for local, school-based GSAs. Joseph Truong at the National Youth Advocacy Coalition points out that while there are 275 such community youth groups around the country, most are concentrated in cosmopolitan urban areas like New York City and San Francisco, isolating gay teens who live in more out-of-the-way places.) One of the topics for discussion at the BAGLY meeting this week was, How Out Are We to Our Families During the Holidays? The moderator, Noah, who wore a fuzzy gray hat pulled over his dyed black hair and was witty and self-possessed beyond his 17 years, opened the discussion with, "First it's Thanksgiving and it's 'oh my god,' and then it's Christmas and it's 'oh shit.'"

Everyone seemed to know what he meant. A boy in a hooded sweatshirt said, "Every time I see my extended family, it's always the same question: Any girls in your life? I want to say, 'No, only guys.'" One girl shared, "I'm not allowed to say anything to my family about my girlfriend. While they know, they definitely don't accept." She was happy, though, that a gay couple for whom she baby-sits invited her and her girlfriend for a second Thanksgiving. Noah reminded everyone that BAGLY was also hosting a gay-friendly dinner on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and he closed by saying, "Remember, the Thanksgiving table is not the place to come out. It doesn't work. Oh, I'm gay... . Pass the butter." ?

*Students' names have been changed.