"He's gay." "You're so gay." "What are you, gay?" "That was such a gay thing to do."
Starting around middle-school age, kids -- particularly boys -- start picking at each other using the G-word. Any coach or teacher can tell you this. For adults who hate hearing this stuff, it presents a particular challenge.
A kid using the N-word gets shut down pretty quickly. But with the G-word we're on trickier ground. When kids use it, there's a question of whether they are referring to homosexual activity or just coming up with what they think is a really bad put-down. For some kids, saying something is "gay" means it's stupid. Others really mean "gay" as in homosexual, as in perverted or disgusting. The adult who presumes to wade in on behalf of tolerance may evoke an eye-rolling, what-are-you-talking-about reaction from the kids. Or may get an earful from parents whose beliefs say homosexual acts and homosexuals are sinful and disgusting.
Even the best-intentioned and courageous adults rarely offer something more than the anemic "We don't talk like that here." What happens far more often is that a coach or teacher just moves things along, pretending that he didn't hear what he heard.
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Pity the poor uncomfortable coach or teacher, right?
Magnify those feelings by about 100 percent and you'll come close to imagining what it feels like for the recipient of those taunts -- particularly the minority of those kids tagged with the G-word who happen actually to be gay. Want a picture of vulnerable and defenseless? Try cold and wet on a practice field with kids chanting "gay" at you and nobody intervening on your behalf.
Anyone who doesn't think this kind of behavior isn't pervasive isn't listening.
Enter the proposed Gay Straight Alliance at Klein High School. Marla Dukler and 16 other Klein students asked the school for its blessing. More than 200 kids signed a petition asking that the 3,600-student school allow a GSA to meet on campus to give gay kids and straight kids alike a chance to talk about homosexuality and discrimination in something other than mean-spirited jeers or shamed confidences. They wanted club standing at the school, just like the Chess Club, the Bass Club, the Youth For Christ and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
But Klein High School is in a conservative area and the school stalled on the request. Inaction translated into denial. This, despite the existence of the Equal Access Act of 1984, which says public schools cannot prohibit clubs based on their philosophies. In fact, it was this act, signed under President Ronald Reagan, that opened the door to religious groups to meet on campus.
Fed up and employing the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Dukler, a lesbian, filed suit against the Klein school district. Local church groups rising on cue, as if an angel chorus, came before the school board to denounce the very idea of such an idea. Family values. We may be on the brink of war, but the really important thing is to keep perverts out of our schools.
Marla Dukler -- what a threat to humanity, what a target for hatred. The 17-year-old junior is all of five feet four inches tall if she really stretches. She plays on the varsity tennis team and is a self-described nerd, a member of the Math Club and a participant on the competitive math team. She has a mom and dad and an older sister away at college who all love her and support her.
All she wants is a place to talk at her school. She doesn't want to discuss the tolerance needed inside her school from a place removed from the campus. She wants to talk about it from the inside.
With her shoulder-length hair, Marla Dukler doesn't quite fit the picture that comes to mind when she tells you that other kids yell "faggot" or "dyke" at her in the halls. She came out this year. "I didn't think I should have to hide it in my own school, where I'm supposed to go and feel safe and try to get an education."
Last year, when a friend of hers was encountering a lot of harassment at school, they began talking about doing something to fight back. They got some help from the Web site www.glsen.org (Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, pronounced "glisten"), which advocates tolerance and the formation of GSA clubs in high schools.
This year, they heard other students had gotten together to start a club. Drama teacher Travis Springfield agreed to be the sponsor.
The district had added a clause: "No club or organization shall be authorized which, by virtue of its purposes, goals or activities, promotes, encourages or condones, directly or indirectly, participation in any conduct by students that is classified as a criminal offense under Texas law, or that poses a risk to their health, safety or welfare (including but not limited to, sexual activity by minors)."
A bit targeted? "Yes, that's what we thought," Dukler says.
Accompanying that was a new provision that club members had to have permission forms signed by their parents.
And although the Gay Straight Alliance is designed for both gay and straight members, it's clear that by requiring permission slips the school was in effect making some kids out themselves to their parents. Pretty heavy-handed, indefensible tactics.
Of course, the district denied that there was anything heavy- or underhanded about its actions.
Asked if Klein ISD hadn't started the new policy "precisely" in response to the GSA request, Liz Johnson, assistant superintendent for community relations, said "not precisely."
"When the issue came up, the reality hit that we did not have a policy in place to handle clubs in general. There was not a district-wide policy that should be in place to deal with these issues," Johnson says, adding that KISD changes policies all the time.
As for the parental permission slip, Johnson says the district has required one for years for any academic courses.
In light of the new regulations, would-be club members regrouped. They reapplied and generated a constitution for the club. Just before the Christmas break, Principal Pat Huff told Dukler the matter had been passed along to the school board and it was likely to deny it.
"When I asked him why, he said that they were going to deny it based upon the new clause," Dukler says. "Even though the club has nothing to do with the clause. 'Cause we're not in there to have a big orgy. I do not want to know about other people's sex lives."
Whenever she went by Huff's office, the principal was always gone or busy, Dukler says. "After going by several times, I was able to talk to him. And the whole time I kept on talking he was trying to get me out of the room."
Johnson takes on an outraged tone when she talks about the lawsuit.
"The decision by the administration had not been made yet when a lawsuit was filed, and at that point it no longer became an issue for school administration but an issue for the courts."
As far as Dukler is concerned, they'd waited more than long enough. "I didn't file a lawsuit until January." She did that after meeting with attorney Dave George, president of the Houston branch of the ACLU. George explained to the petitioners that if they were just going to wait around for the application to be approved, it probably wouldn't be this year and they would have to start all over again next year, Dukler says. If they wanted it this year the only possible way to get to that was to sue.
Asked how long it usually takes for a club to be approved, Johnson says, "Well, that depends. We had just put a new policy into place, and this is a club that requires careful consideration. So there's no time limitation. Not when children are concerned."
Klein is not the only area high school to oppose a Gay Straight Alliance. The Cypress-Fairbanks district has blocked them at Jersey Village and Cypress Falls high schools. The issue has been batted about at schools across the country. In many cases, after public pressure was brought to bear -- and in some cases, lawsuits -- GSAs have opened up.
On the same day the ACLU filed the Klein lawsuit, it also sued in Ashland, Kentucky, where the school board suspended all clubs in all K-12 schools rather than allow a GSA to meet on campus. So it was all or nothing, but then, according to the ACLU, many traditional school clubs continued to meet after the supposed outright ban.
Locally, Bellaire High has a GSA. Its vice president, Ryan Schwartz, wrote a letter to Huff, asking him to allow a GSA at Klein, saying the presence of one at his school has really helped students. At Bellaire, their work "has focused on ending intolerance, prejudice and discrimination for all minorities, whether based on race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation," Schwartz says.
Schwartz cites the 1999 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which showed that 20 percent of gay, lesbian or bisexual students in that state skipped school out of fear for their safety, nearly one-third had attempted suicide within the last year and that "they were much more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs to escape the hatred they perceive."
Attorney George says the fallacy of the "illegal conduct" argument is that "this is not a dating club. This is not some kind of sex club. This is a safe place for kids to get together and talk about what they are going through."
Marla Dukler actually is a very lucky young woman. Her father Malcolm's name is on the suit with her because she's a minor. Her mother says that although she's concerned for her daughter's safety, she's very proud of her. "She has tons of guts and she's standing up for her rights and for what she believes in. We support her 100 percent."
That kind of support isn't there for many homosexual teens, George says. "Gay kids go through really incredible abuse from other kids. A lot of times they have no parental support, a lot of them are thrown out of the house when parents find out they're gay. They have the highest suicide rate of any group of kids."
In addition to the actions he took about the GSA, Principal Huff also barred the school newspaper from printing a story about the dispute. The school district's attorney overruled and a story ran, although Huff made sure it didn't appear on the front page.
He was quoted in a January 5 Houston Chronicle story as saying he did not approve the club because of its controversial nature and the district's conservative population. "Because of the community that we serve, we're a little different than some of the other high schools may be in the inner city that have allowed the club to go forward. I have to be thinking about the people, our constituency," he told the Chronicle.
Liz Johnson says that although this is Huff's first year as principal, he has been at the school before as a vice principal and that immediately prior to his new post, he was principal of Kleb Intermediate, which is almost directly behind Klein High. "So he knows the community very well," she says.
Which goes directly to one of Marla Dukler's main points: "I want my school district to forget the community and let us have our club to meet on campus.
"I don't see why other clubs could meet on campus but one that promotes tolerance cannot," Dukler says. This says to her that "we mean less to them than the other students at the school."
This week attorneys will take depositions, and by Friday they will go before federal Judge Sim Lake to schedule an injunction hearing. Other districts have avoided the enormous cost of litigation and have come around to following the law of the land. Klein, however, appears headed for a full-scale fight.
While some will see this as a noble defense of traditional values, the truth is that some kids are being picked on at Klein High School. This happens almost every day, and surely the school, its teachers and the district know about it. KISD isn't offering much in the way of protection, and now it won't even let the kids get together to figure out how to be something other than victims. The only way Principal Pat Huff can justify this is by pointing to his "constituency." Let's see, a constituency that lets bullies and louts rule the hallways, an intolerant, unthinking, holier-than-thou bunch with no apparent compassion but a whole lot of judgment to hand out. This is Huff's constituency? All of which -- in Klein, anyway -- is better than being gay. Right?
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