Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender high school students in Boulder, Colorado have it pretty good compared to less liberal enclaves, but they still face discrimination. This article examines Boulder’s legislative attempts to protect LGBTQ students from bullying and the pushback they received from more conservative parents.
Local gay school kids can relate to Tinky Winky, the purple alien “Teletubby” outed last week by the Reverend Jerry Falwell. When you’re a teen in the closet, people tend to think you’re a little strange but harmless; come out and suddenly you’re a threat to the moral fabric of the nation.
In Boulder County, where the population is generally well-educated and socially aware, gay students probably have it better than their peers elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean being gay here is anything easy, especially for a teenager.
For gay students, even in liberal Boulder, harassment at school is routine. Last week the Boulder Valley School District moved to help protect gay students by expanding their anti-harassment policy to include sexual orientation. That action came in the face of opposition by Christian parents, at least one of whom told the school board that it was their duty to shield school children from “the homosexual agenda.”
The issue of gay rights continues to be one of the most passionately debated topics of the end of the century. National gay, lesbian and bisexual groups include OutProud, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Lesbian Avengers. On the other side, those dedicated to converting homosexuals to heterosexuality are Exodus, the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuals (NARTH) and Kerusso Ministries.
There’s National Coming Out Day and National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day. There’s Rev. Fred Phelp’s God Hates Fags group and the God Hates Fred Phelps group. There’s Parents and Friends of Lesbian and Gay people (PFLAG) and Parents, Family, and Friends of Ex-Gays (PFOX).
Denver’s East High School just established the state’s first gay-straight alliance. And as many are aware, in Boulder the battle is being fought before the school board and on local campuses. Gay students and their adult supporters say the current climate in the county’s public schools is anything but welcoming, while parents with more conservative values say the old guidelines were fine-without sexual orientation included in official policy.
As it is, Boulder’s gay teens enjoy certain advantages compared to other towns of the same size. Liberal-leaning baby-boomer parents here often accept their kid’s same-sex attraction, and there are a number of resources specifically for “queer” youth.
“Boulder is definitely ahead of the ball game,” says Krista Kriesel, director of Open and Affirming Sexual Orientation Support (OASOS), a support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered youth up to 21. “But we still have a lot of work to do,” she adds. “Homophobia is still alive.”
Kriesel receives five to seven calls a week on her emergency pager from gay young people in rural areas who don’t have a support system. Recently she was paged by a teenager who had been kicked out of his home after coming out to his parents. At other times kids call Kriesel to happily report that their parents have accepted them after coming out.
Sociologists say being a non-heterosexual teen can result in relentless harassment, isolation and depression, which puts gay teens at a 30 percent higher risk for suicide. “GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered) teens have to pretend daily to be something they’re not in order to attend school and not be hurt,” says Kriesel. “There’s been a need (for a group like OASOS) for decades.” Long-time OASOS attendee Abby Coleman wonders how gay teens got along without the group before it was established in the early 1990s; “I don’t know what some of the kids would do if OASOS shut down.”
Harassment on Campus
In Colorado, controversy has been brewing on a number of fronts regarding safety of gay students in public schools. The idea of officially protecting gays in the Boulder Valley School District did not sit well with a group of informally dubbed “concerned citizens.” The idea was supported by the Colorado Safe Schools Coalition (CSSC), a group of parents, teachers and advocates favoring the protection of gays.
Over the months, the school board has received testimony from teens who described harassment, intimidation and violence, enough to cause at least one lesbian student to drop out of Fairview High. Another Fairview student testified that his car windows were smashed in the school parking lot, and a note left threatening death and referring to him as a “fag.”
Among the vocal group of parents who heard the tales of harassment at one school board meeting last fall was Jenny Hatch, a mother of four in Louisville and member of Colorado for Family Values, a group of conservative Christian activists headquartered in Colorado Springs. While she says she sympathizes and supports safety of all students, Hatch told the board that the proposed changes were “a front to carry out the homosexual agenda.” Hatch added, “I will not tolerate my children being taught to value diversity … I feel for those heterophobes who feel threatened by someone like me who plans to teach my children that homosexuality is a sin.”
Former Boulder High School theater teacher and co-founder of CSSC Jean Hodges says the fear of a hidden agenda is “based on not knowing who we are or what we stand for.” As president of the Boulder chapter of PFLAG, it was only natural for Hodges to take a leading position in favor of the new policy. “We’re just parents too concerned about our kids, just as (concerned parents) are.”
Though Hodges’ theater department had a reputation among students for being open to diversity, her own gay son ironically stayed in the closet, isolated throughout his high school years. Hodges says he was an Eagle Scout and ‘Mr. Perfect Child,’ but throughout his high school years she says, “He was not as happy as I thought he should have been.” According to Hodges, it was realizing what her son went through in high school that moved her to fight for gay civil rights.
Jessi Quizar, a 19-year-old sociology major at Colorado College, was one of the students who found refuge from anti-gay sentiment within Hodges’ Boulder High theater department. Quizar describes the department as “queer positive” but says when not hanging with her thespian friends, going to classes was intimidating. For instance, during the high school’s “Week of Peace,” a social awareness campaign, Quizar and some other students addressed a classroom of students on the experience of being in high school and gay. Afterward, another student threw a rock at the group and yelled, “Fag!”
Things aren’t much different across town, according to Coleman, an OASOS attendee and former Fairview High School student who describes the environment at Fairview as “uptight and conservative.” However, she says as a lesbian she didn’t have it too bad — gay males were harassed the most. After an assault on a gay student at her school she realized that her same-sex attraction was something that could get her hurt. She remembers the “stereotypically gay guy” getting beaten in the school parking lot. As the blows rained down, he was screaming that he had a right to be at the school.
Coleman came across a few Fairview teachers who introduced gay content in classes, even though it was not part of the curriculum. She says other teachers routinely ignored homophobic sentiments from students. The atmosphere is more enlightened at CU, she says, though a friend of hers who attended the university before her had to occasionally climb through his dorm window to avoid bullies in the hallways. But Coleman regrets the day she’ll turn 21-she’ll be over the age limit to attend OASOS meetings.
Lana, a current Fairview junior, reports more harassment about her bisexual status than Coleman experienced. Lana is about as out as she can be — she carries a wacky lunch box covered with gay pride stickers, and at any given time she sports at least one set of rainbow colors symbolizing gay pride. She says her parents are open-minded, and she had childhood exposure to the gay lifestyle, so it was nothing for her at age 10 to tell her mom that she was attracted to girls. But as a 16-year-old, Lana hears derogatory comments at least a couple of times a week at Fairview. People routinely call her “dyke,” she complains. In response, Lana has filed dozens of harassment complaints in her three years at the school. She says this is the first year they’re being taken seriously-thanks to some changes in administration personnel; for one, a long-time vice-principal who was regarded by gay students as unsympathetic and unapproachable finally retired.
One of the current vice-principals, Don Haddad, says, “We emphasize respect and appreciation for all people. We want people to feel safe, comfortable and welcome here.”
To bolster a supportive atmosphere on campus, Lana started We the People, a Fairview group initially created to advocate gay issues. It has since evolved into a broader anti-harassment group. Consequently, Lana and her peers inaugurated a GLBT chapter at the school. Times and locations of the meetings are conveyed through secret signals, she says, because many of the students attending fear being outed to less tolerant peers.
Lana met her current girlfriend of one week, Sam, at OASOS. Sam, an eighth-grader at Angevine Middle School in Lafayette, has experienced a more typical reaction from her parents than Lana’s-denial. One parent doesn’t believe her, she says, and the other claims she’s confused.
Tony Limon, a 17-year-old attending Longmont’s Skyline High School, could be the poster child for the gay youth movement. While struggling with his sexuality his freshman year at Skyline, he had few friends and little involvement in student activities. Although he came out to his girlfriend and his parents when he was thirteen, he hesitated to let other students in on his sexual identity until his sophomore year, when he got involved with Break the Cycle, a Longmont theater troop that addresses teen issues including homosexuality. Tony then came face-to-face with his fear of coming out to his whole high school when he played the lead character, a gay teenager, in a Break the Cycle piece performed in front of his classmates. Whispers echoed around Limon in the school hallways after the performance, but he says no one asked him directly if he was gay. When the momentous topic finally came up, a school friend laughed and said incredulously, “Tony! Everybody knows!” Considering that, Limon offers, perhaps his 6 foot 3 inch, 200 pound frame helps him avoid harassment. Still, he doesn’t always volunteer the fact that he’s gay. “I don’t want to deal with the ramifications,” he says. “If I don’t throw it in their face, they won’t throw it back in mine.” Now a senior, Tony’s on the board of directors for the Boulder County AIDS Project, and has somehow achieved a 4.2 grade average by taking accelerated classes. He has applied to Stanford, Berkeley and other colleges.
Parsing words for Policy
At the school board’s February 11 meeting, where board members voted on expanding the district’s non-discrimination policy, discussion of the vote didn’t come up until 11:30 p.m., after most of the crowd, including new policy supporters, had left. After four consecutive parents spoke against listing specific categories of possible discrimination, the board came to a compromise on many of the touchy topics, though one attendant complained they just brought it down to the lowest common denominator of the warring factions. The earlier compromise of using the wording “value diversity” rather than “respect diversity” was voted in.
Board member Janusz Okolowicz spoke against the whole clause titled “Value Diversity and Promote Understanding,” because he said parents are the primary value providers. Don Shonkwiler echoed Okolowicz’s sentiments, and also argued against breaking down rights and protections for “all students” into categories at all, including sexual orientation. “It places value on something with which all do not agree because it is against the fundamental beliefs of some,” he said.
Also because the word “diverse” hit a sore spot with some parents, it was changed to “different” in one part of the document. Stan Garnett, treasurer, was the most outspoken supporter of including sexual orientation in all clauses. He argued that specification of groups that are vulnerable to discrimination was needed to truly protect students. The ratified document passed-five to two with the categories of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability and religion being included in one of two “beliefs” clauses.
Safe Schools Bill Killed
A piece of state legislation, the Safe Schools bill, SB166, sponsored by Boulder’s Dorothy Rupert, who also sponsored bills before the State legislature making female genital mutilation a child abuse crime and proposing a moratorium on new prisons, would have provided further legal protection to all gay students in Colorado had it passed, no matter the outcome of Boulder’s school district policy. It aimed to create a safer learning environment, and citing the 14th amendment, it would have required every local board of education to add a policy which included sexual orientation in its statement against discrimination.
Rupert once sat in on a PFLAG meeting in Hodges’ home and is known to stand in favor of the gay community. Hodges, in turn, testified before the legislators in support of the bill, as did lawyer Sue Woodcock from the Colorado Legal Initiatives Project (CLIP). CLIP’s position was that Colorado needs a bill of this sort to protect the district against being sued by a student claiming non-protection against sexually-oriented harassment or violence. It has happened elsewhere — former high school student Jamie Nabozny sued a school district in Ashland, Wisconsin for failure to protect him from harassment. He won nearly a million dollars.
One clause of bill 166 could have potentially caused greater alarm among Boulder’s “concerned parents” because it contained language the parents had previously objected to: “… a respectful learning environment in which the diversity of the school community is celebrated will promote good citizenship …” said one passage. The bill, which Hodges says was “doomed from the beginning,” was voted down along party-lines.
Out — and Out of Public School
Derek*, a 15-year-old from Weld county, hasn’t followed all the politics, but he can say that public school was particularly difficult for him. He was 11 when he realized he was gay. “It was really scary,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what was going on.” He told his parents he was gay when he was 13, with the counsel of a lesbian couple who lived next door. His parents “were great,” he says, but at his local high school anti-homosexual sentiment was strong. “You don’t even have to come out to know people are homophobic,” he says. Though he hadn’t come out at school he got singled out anyway. “My mannerisms are kind of swishy sometimes,” he offers.
After one too many threatening comments from other students on the school bus, Derek decided to do home schooling. If it wasn’t for OASOS, which Derek attends thanks to his parents who drive him back and forth, he says, “I wouldn’t have anyone to talk to.” The recent beating death of gay college student Matthew Shepard made Derek realize further that it could happen to him. Derek might try to go back for his senior year to experience at least one year of public high school. But he hesitates. “I think people need to realize most school systems aren’t a safe place for all students,” he says. “And they need to be.”
*not his real name
—Ande Wanderer /Cover story Boulder Weekly, 1999
Notes on this article: I had completely forgotten about writing this Boulder Weekly cover story until searching online for old work (I don’t have copies of most of it!) and finding this in some online archives.
At the time of publishing, televangelist, Jerry Falwell had recently been ridiculed after publishing an article in which he declared the cartoon character Tinky Winky subversive for promoting ‘a gay agenda.’
‘He is purple — the gay-pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle — the gay-pride symbol,” he wrote at the time.
It’s interesting to remember that back then the common acronym to refer to the gay community was ‘GLBT.’ Those were simpler times!