By Grant Pick
In the fall of 1995 Kevin Lemel was on the lawn outside Buffalo Grove High School waiting for a bus when he looked up and saw another boy aiming a rifle at him. "If you've got me locked in your sights, take the shot," Lemel told the boy, who'd been hassling him in auto shop. The boy brought the rifle down, and the terrified Lemel got on the bus. He never told school officials or the police. "The guy was a crazy son of a bitch. There wasn't much I could do."
That year Lemel was the only openly homosexual student at Buffalo Grove High. As a freshman he'd suspected he might be gay, but he kept it to himself. "I figured I'd go with the norm." He joined the wrestling team, and he and a group of close friends would gather in the school lunchroom to play cards each day. He dated a girl, and when they broke up she asked him if he was gay. "I don't know," he said.
He began consulting library books on homosexuality. "I'd been taught that being gay was bad, a sin," he says. His grades plunged, and by the time he was a sophomore he was depressed enough to seek help from a psychologist.
The next summer, the summer of 1994, he worked as a busboy at a bar and grill, where he became friends with a waiter who was comfortably out of the closet, Larry Zock. One night Lemel asked for a ride home. "Kevin said he wanted to talk," recalls Zock, "and on the way he said he felt he was gay." Lemel cried, and Zock reassured him that being gay wasn't a bad thing, that it was just part of life.
Lemel told his therapist and his brother, then his mother and stepfather. He started to frequent Pride Youth, an Evanston center for openly gay and lesbian teenagers and their straight supporters. "I would take two buses and a train to get there," he says. "It became an outlet for my stresses at school."
And now that he was out those stresses were mounting. Skinheads gave him Nazi salutes in the hallways. "The wrestling team had a fit," he says. "They all wanted to vomit at once. No one wanted to wrestle with me." Each spring the school had a volleyball tournament, and in 1995 a squad of juniors turned up wearing T-shirts bearing Lemel's initials with a red X through them. His friends drifted away, including those in the lunch group with whom he'd played cards. "There'd been eight of us, but now the table got smaller and the friendship bonds weakened," he says. "And this was at a time when I needed support. It sucked."
Lemel says the school staff weren't much help. He says a social worker he'd gone to for three years told him, "A man's sexuality doesn't develop until he's 21." He also says, "One teacher cited me for sexual harassment because I had something to tell him privately and got too close to him." Buffalo Grove principal Carter Burns claims Lemel was "rubbing the leg of a staff member, and that's inappropriate touching between a staff member and a student." Lemel responds, "This never happened. I would have had no reason to rub against this man's leg--I didn't find him sexually attractive." No charges were ever filed in the matter.
After the incident with the rifle, Lemel transferred for several months to the Learning House, a small, private therapeutic high school in Wheeling. He says one student tormented him there, but he also made some good friends. He returned to Buffalo Grove and graduated with his class in the spring of 1996. "I got some cheers, which was a big compliment for me--to be the gay kid and get through to graduate," he says. "When I got my diploma I couldn't hold back the tears. 'You didn't beat me,' I thought."
Lemel might not have had such a difficult time in high school if he'd had the kind of support Nina Schwartz had when she went to the prom last spring with another girl, a first at Niles West High School. "My going was a political statement," says Schwartz, then a senior. But she went surrounded by the members of a support group for gay and lesbian teenagers.
That support group is representative of a small but growing movement among Chicago's gay and lesbian teens. "You can get hassled on the street, and that's bad," says Schwartz. "But that's different from high school. Shit really happens in high school. When you're harassed there you can't leave, and that can push you over the edge, to depression or suicide. Consciousness needs to change there more than anyplace else."
As an adolescent, Schwartz too had struggled with her sexuality. She wanted to be attracted to boys, but in her freshman year she had a romantic fantasy about a gym teacher. "I was just infatuated with her," she says, "and the reality of that made me really, really depressed." She was hospitalized for two weeks for depression but wouldn't tell anyone why. "I was too ashamed by my feelings," she says. After she began experimenting sexually with other girls, she decided she was a lesbian. In December 1995 she told her parents. "Right off the bat they were supportive, because they realized that as I'd been dealing with my sexuality I'd screwed up the rest of my life. From the time I came out to them, I felt better and my grades went up. See, my parents are the ones who judge me the most, and since they were fine with it, I thought I should be fine with the rest of the world."
That spring Schwartz heard that the principal at nearby Niles North was trying to water down a student-run gay-rights symposium. She approached the assistant principal at Niles West and asked about forming a gay-rights group. "He thought there was something wrong with me," she says. But he referred her to another administrator, who told her, "Start something."
"I bumped around to all the queer faculty," says Schwartz, "and I kept meeting more and more people like me." Among them was school psychologist Kim Landini, who helped Schwartz put together the group that eventually became Bisexuals Gays Lesbians Against Discrimination. Once she was publicly out, says Schwartz, "I ate, slept, and dreamed being gay--it screamed from me."
BGLAD operates as a support group under the aegis of the Niles West social-services department. One day a week participating students are released from class--along with kids bound for similar groups on issues such as alcohol abuse and eating disorders--and make their way to a conference room in the social-services suite for 40 minutes of conversation. "We don't break confidences--everything stays in the room," says a BGLAD regular who didn't want her real name used.
Landini and a teacher lead discussions on how teens can tell parents and friends they're gay and on how they can deal with harassment. "As you walk down the hall other kids will scream 'faggot' or 'dyke,'" says the BGLAD regular, "and these kids may not even know you." Announcements are made about gay events outside school, and speakers frequently attend--the school librarian once described the books at Niles West that have gay themes, a representative of Pride Youth explained what the center offers gay and lesbian teens. The students often laugh, but they can also be grim. After Matthew Shepard was beaten to death in Wyoming, Landini says, the session was very somber.
By the end of her senior year, Schwartz, who'd played point guard on the freshman girls' basketball team "until I realized the other girls were talking about me," had developed many connections in the gay-teen world. She was a fixture at Pride Youth and at Operation Snowball, a Skokie-based outreach program, and she socialized with a group of young lesbians who called themselves the Klondykes. "We had parties and dinners, and we went bowling, where it was butch versus fem," she says. "I probably knew all the out teenagers from the city and suburbs."
Last spring, when she was trying to decide whether to take a girl to the prom, Schwartz looked to the members of BGLAD for advice. "Nina used the group as a sounding board," says Landini, "and she brainstormed the issue once she'd made a decision." Schwartz says, "Everybody was like, wow, you have guts." BGLAD asked the prom organizers not to identify couples buying tickets by gender, and the organizers agreed. Yet as the night approached, Schwartz says, "I started to wig out. It's not every day you see a girl walking around in a tuxedo, and so I was scared that I was going to get hurt physically."
The prom, titled "Wonderful Tonight" after the Eric Clapton song, was May 15. Schwartz, wearing a borrowed tux and the boutonniere her date, a straight friend, had bought her, arrived at Chicago's Regal Knickerbocker Hotel with two carloads of friends. Schwartz remembers chattering wildly as she and the friends at her table played telephone and passed around strawberries with their teeth. "I danced with my date, with another lesbian, and with male friends," says Schwartz. "Most everybody was very supportive." She did see people staring, and one boy approached and growled at her. When the DJ said, "Have a good night, ladies, gentlemen--and others," Schwartz got angry, but her friends told her to ignore him. "Overall I had a really good time," she says.
The school paper ran an article about her at the prom along with a photograph of her and her date. Schwartz says, "I was afraid to walk through the halls." Guys would stick their tongues out at her, and she overheard one boy say, "Wouldn't you like to fuck that girl from behind while she's going down on another woman?" One day she went out to the parking lot and found her car covered with spit. "But in the end I felt good about what I'd done," she says. "It was scary, but I broke the stigma that prom's just for straights. Now it's for everybody."
The first gay-and-lesbian teen club in Chicago, Pride, was established at Whitney Young Magnet High School in 1996. During her senior year Tiffani St. Cloud decided she and her fellow homosexual students needed a club, and she began organizing one at the near-west-side school. She wanted something like the French and math clubs, which had open, public meetings, unlike support groups. But when she and two friends went to see their principal, Joyce Kenner, in December 1995, they found her less than enthusiastic. "Mrs. Kenner was concerned about the group," St. Cloud remembers. "She was worried about how it would be perceived, and she thought kids could get injured."
Kenner, then in her first year as principal, admits she was apprehensive. "I'd never been faced with this. What would the community say? Would we be accused of promoting gayness? And what would be the response from the Board of Education? I'm a person who runs a ship, but I get my paycheck from somewhere else."
At first Kenner authorized only a support group, which began meeting in February 1996. But support groups are often seen as lesser entities by students and their advisers. "All they do in a support group is sit around and talk about their problems," says Toni Armstrong Jr., a special-education teacher who works as a volunteer with homosexual teens. "Now, there are gay students who need counseling, but most of them just need not to be threatened and not to be treated as freaks. Gay kids want field trips, but support groups can't sponsor them because they can't advertise their own existence."
St. Cloud and her friends wanted a bona fide club. They lined up three teachers as sponsors and crafted bylaws modeled on those of a gay and lesbian organization at the University of Illinois at Chicago. And St. Cloud composed an impassioned personal essay for the Beacon, the student newspaper. "I, Tiffani St. Cloud, of Div. 624, am indeed a lesbian," she wrote. She recalled how a girl in her sophomore geometry class had picked on her. "I am tired of sitting in my Black Studies class while the boy behind me tells someone sitting nearby that he thinks I'm gay, just loudly enough for me to hear....I'm tired of people looking at me like I'm some bizarre anomaly never seen before." She wrote that her senior year had become a "nightmare" as a result. "We have to realize that the civil rights movement wasn't totally about African-American people. It's time that we understand that the movement was about equality for all, not just those with whom we share ideals."
The essay ran in the May 21 issue, but Kenner pulled all the copies because the front-page story about the school's African-American club disparaged its sponsor. "I didn't want my teacher to be ridiculed," she says.
St. Cloud and her supporters, crying censorship, held a demonstration outside school. The ACLU, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the Illinois Federation for Human Rights also weighed in. The essay ran in a later issue, and Kenner, after consulting with Board of Education attorneys, finally OK'd a club. "I had wanted a club to exist within Whitney Young, but I also didn't want this to turn into media exploitation of a story," she says. "I had never before had to make a decision on gay and lesbian students. This was difficult. I took a leap into the unknown, not knowing I had anybody's support." Kenner had heard from gay alumni and gay advocacy groups as well as from fundamentalist parents, and she now thinks she should have supported a club from the beginning. "I made some right choices, but I made some mistakes," she says. "Everybody has their prejudices. I should have recognized that my kids needed my support."
Soon after, Miguel Ayala, who was openly gay, was elected student representative to the local school council; a few months later he would be elected student representative on the Board of Education. He hadn't been involved in the formation of Pride because he feared that Kenner would somehow undermine his candidacy. "I was being cautious," he says. In the fall of 1996 Ayala went to the homecoming dance with a friend who wore a blond wig, a short red dress, and six-inch heels. When Whitney Young security officers approached Kenner and asked what they should do, she told them, "Let them have a good time." Nevertheless, says Kenner, "Miguel was respected by the students, and I felt his behavior was sending the wrong message. He wanted to be noticed--and not for his gayness. The only way he could get attention was to attend homecoming in that fashion." She summoned Ayala and his mother, with whom he was barely on speaking terms, to her office. "You're not being a role model," Ayala remembers Kenner saying. "I'm being who I am," he responded. He turned up at the school's winter ball without a date but wearing a maroon velvet dress and a feather boa. Later he took a boyfriend to the prom. "I love Miguel dearly," says Kenner, "but he wanted to sensationalize everything."
The next year the president of Pride was senior Marieke Guillen-Treadway. Six months after she'd seen Ellen DeGeneres declare that she was a lesbian on television, Guillen-Treadway told her mother about her own feelings. "My mom started crying, but she was OK with it," she says. "She was afraid for me, because my life would be harder, but she said she loved me no matter what." Her mother says, "When Marieke came out, she started to blossom. She became more outgoing, and she lost weight. She lost some friends, but she made new ones too."
In May 1998 Guillen-Treadway was the main organizer of "Tolerance Day," which consisted of speeches and discussions about gay bashing and the need to get along. Among the speakers were Mary Morten, Mayor Daley's liaison on gay and lesbian issues; poet and actress C.C. Carter; and Tiffani St. Cloud, who was home from college. Kenner was pleased with the way Tolerance Day worked out, and Guillen-Treadway says, "I give Mrs. Kenner a lot of credit for letting us have Tolerance Day. She's helping Whitney Young set an example for the rest of the schools."
The first high school in the country to have a club that supported gay teens was Concord Academy, a prep school outside Boston. In 1990 history teacher Kevin Jennings was approached by the daughter of a lesbian couple who wanted to start a group that would work against homophobia. Jennings, who'd come out to the entire school during a speech, became the faculty adviser for the group, which includes gay and straight teens and sometimes other faculty.
In 1994 Jennings founded the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, a national organization made up mostly of educators that encourages school districts to develop antidiscrimination policies and more gay-friendly curricula as well as foster gay-straight alliances. The group, which now has 13,000 members, organizes a "back to school campaign" every year, during which gay and lesbian high school alumni write their alma maters saying that they were homosexual, though school officials might not have realized it. "We must create a visible presence to say that there are gay and gay-supportive people in schools," says Jennings. "Homophobia is present, make no mistake, and when schools are silent they are saying it's OK. It's never too early to bring this up. We've never thought it was too early to talk about heterosexuality, for God's sake. Why, we talk about Dick and Jane in kindergarten, and there are proms and Sadie Hawkins days in high school. Gay kids need to feel that they are not alone. Many, scared to death, get into destructive behavior."
Jennings points to statistics from a study of 58 public schools released this past August by the Massachusetts Department of Education, which shows that gay and lesbian teens use a lot more drugs than their straight peers, experience more school-related violence, and have four times their suicide rate. A small Illinois study found that half of homosexual teens had considered suicide and that one-third had made an attempt. Gay and lesbian teens are also more likely to leave school. According to a 1989 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study, 28 percent of gay and lesbian teens drop out of high school because they're not comfortable there, though a GLSEN spokesperson thinks that figure is high. The Illinois study reported that 11 percent of homosexual teens had dropped out at some point.
Having heard about GLSEN, Matt Stuczynski, a graduate education student at the University of Illinois at Chicago who was growing anxious about being an openly gay teacher, helped organize a Chicago chapter late in 1994. At first its focus was on gay teachers being out in their schools, but in 1996 the members split over whether the group should be advocates for teen clubs and support groups. "There was a minority that wanted us only to be a teacher-support group, to not work directly with the kids," says Stuczynski, now a Spanish teacher at New Trier High School. "We were fighting here the myth of the predator, that homosexual teachers are out to recruit kids for sexual abuse or to become gays and lesbians." (Many conservatives claim that gay teachers act as recruiters. Jennings responds, "A school can't make anyone gay or straight, but they can let someone be happy or miserable.") In the end two board members of GLSEN Chicago resigned, and a youth-leadership-development committee was organized to run conferences for high school clubs and other organizations.
In 1996 Tanya Libes, a Lane Tech student, heard about the club at Whitney Young and figured her school needed one too. Her English teacher, Byron Jones, had made it clear in class that he wouldn't tolerate sexist or antigay remarks, so Libes asked him to be a sponsor. Jones, who is straight, readily agreed, though he worried that principal David Schlichting wouldn't go along. But Schlichting says, "I'd been reading the federal law, and the law's clear," a reference to the 1984 Equal Access Act, which requires schools to let all noncurricular organizations hold meetings on school premises. "As long as it's not a hate club, I wouldn't object." Room for All started meeting the next fall.
In April 1996 Betty Lark Ross, a recently out art teacher at the Latin School who would become cochair of GLSEN Chicago, helped organize a tolerance assembly for Latin students. "When I was in high school in the late 60s, being gay or lesbian was the ultimate taboo, a degenerate thing," she says. "We [GLSEN] are intent that it be otherwise. We want students to develop a sense of self-pride, a greater awareness of gay-lesbian culture and history, and a feeling of not being alone."
Among the speakers at the assembly were Kevin Lemel, who described his experience at Buffalo Grove High School, and a girl from the southwest suburbs who told of getting death threats when she took another girl to the prom. Dottie Coppock, Latin's college counselor, also spoke, saying, "We are a better school because we are diverse. Through teaching and learning and getting to know one another, we gain respect for our differences and appreciation for our commonality." Ross read a letter from the mother of a Cleveland boy who'd killed himself rather than admit he was gay. The assembly helped inspire a lesbian junior to organize the Gay/ Straight Student/Faculty Alliance, which was launched last March with the backing of the administration.
Special-education teacher Toni Armstrong Jr., who heads GLSEN Chicago's youth-leadership-development committee, says that some school administrators have resisted requests for clubs, though she refuses to name them. "There is a tension between what is right for the kids and pressure from parents and the right wing," says Patricia Logue, managing attorney of the Chicago office of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, who's often asked to intervene when schools are reluctant to allow clubs to form. "Administrators may put conditions on the group, such as that it can only meet with adults present or that parental permission is required. Some tell kids they can't put 'gay' or 'lesbian' in the name or that the group can't meet on school property. We hear all variations on the theme, but we tell the schools the Equal Access law says they have to treat the gay club the same as the macrame club." Logue also points out that school administrators have a strong incentive to protect homosexual students, following a 1996 out-of-court settlement of nearly $1 million in damages awarded to a gay Wisconsin boy who alleged that he'd been ridiculed, urinated on, kicked, and mock-raped in school. "This decision has been a big weapon in teaching schools about their potential liability," she says. "It's also emboldened gay youth to stand up for their rights and their safety. They realize now it's not part of their destiny to be beat up, but rather to get support from their peers."
A dozen gay-straight alliances, gay and lesbian clubs, or support groups now exist at schools in Chicago and the suburbs, including Niles North, John Marshall Metro High School, Evanston Township High School, the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, and the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora. Mayoral liaison Mary Morten says, "These kids are saying--like it or lump it--that we are going to speak out, that you must give us respect. I'm proud of them. They are the new generation."
Most of these organizations have ten or fewer stalwarts who meet weekly at lunch or after school. Parents are seldom told that their children have joined, though Niles West sends a notice home saying that a son or daughter is engaged in an unspecified school support group. "If we don't hear from the parents we assume they've consulted their child and that it's OK," says school psychologist Kim Landini. But usually students can keep their parents in the dark if they choose.
The Latin group often includes faculty, which one member sees as a positive. "The teachers are going to be here longer than the students," she says, "so they can pass our message down." Most clubs are dominated by teens, and most of them are girls. "Teenage society is biased against boys being gay," says George, a member of Latin's alliance who doesn't want his real name used because his parents don't know he's in the group. "You go to dances, and it's OK for two girls to be dancing. But if you see two guys on the dance floor, someone will shout, 'Oh, look at those faggots over there.' Guys are also more physical--there's more fighting, and so there's more danger to you. And then there's the weird joking in the locker room. So most gay guys will avoid coming to our group."
The clubs are also primarily white. Few students attended Pride Club meetings at the all-black Marshall High--five kids tops would show up, and the club folded after its founder, an out cheerleader and student council member, graduated last June. "Gay black students are even less open than whites," says Jacquelyn Trainer-Grant, the club's faculty sponsor. "There's a greater fear of being ostracized."
Some club participants are forthright about their sexual orientation, but many aren't. "No one at Lab will say, 'I'm gay' or 'I'm lesbian,'" says Lark Baum, treasurer of Gayla, the gay-straight alliance at the school. "They say they're questioning or that they're bisexual. The outright admission is rare." She adds, "One boy comes to our meetings because he says he wants to show he's not bigoted." Tanya Libes says that at Lane Tech "the straight people are quick to say, 'I'm heterosexual--I'm just here to support you.'" Spectrum, the gay-straight alliance at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, may draw 30 people to a meeting, yet only a handful are openly homosexual.
The out members like the sanctuary the clubs provide. "It's nice to know you can walk in there and clear your mind," says George. "You don't have to feel oppressed, and you know no one's going to backstab you." Nina Schwartz says, "I had thought before BGLAD that I didn't like my school and that I was part of the problem by not changing things. [BGLAD] was a support to me, but it also gave me goals that I accomplished."
Emotions and traumas are sometimes shared. "Kids spill their guts at meetings, though it's totally understood that nothing leaves the room," says Kayla, a member of Whitney Young's Pride who doesn't want her real name used because her father doesn't know about the group. But mostly the students have broader discussions. The Lab School's alliance recently screened a documentary on gays and discussed what happened at a September GLSEN meeting. Libes says, "Someone will bring in the gay newspaper, or we may discuss religion and how we can't be hostile to people who are hostile toward us." At Whitney Young students read poetry with gay themes, and they're planning a second Tolerance Day in January. At Evanston High School the Gay-Straight Alliance ran a petition drive supporting a state antidiscrimination law; it also persuaded the school library to carry the Advocate, one of the nation's leading gay magazines.
Members of clubs at progressive schools say that they're rarely harassed. "At Lab we haven't had signs ripped down since the first spring," says Baum. "We know exactly who did it--and he graduated." But students at other schools do encounter hostility. At Lane Tech some kids were heard making derogatory remarks about Room for All. When Libes and her friends put up protolerance posters, they were torn down within two days. "We put up more posters, and still they came down," she says. "Now we don't spend as much time on the posters--we make them in black and white." Club members who are couples usually don't kiss or hold hands on school grounds.
Many outside observers applaud the clubs and alliances. "For gay kids when I was growing up, adolescence was traditionally an awful time," says Robert Galatzer-Levy, a Chicago psychoanalyst who treats teens. "They would have sexual impulses, but they'd have a feeling that there was no other person like them. Still today, for kids who recognize their sexual orientation during adolescence, there's considerable strain on them if they feel isolated and there's no community to turn to. A reasonable social institution, like a gay club, will be valuable to psychological health. It's much better for a kid to have a club to go to than a juice bar, which can lead to dangerous sexual activity."
Yet some experts worry about teens who aren't sure about their sexuality, a healthy minority in the teen clubs. "Say you're not great looking or haven't been successful with the opposite sex yet," says Mina Dulcan, a child-and-adolescent psychiatrist affiliated with Northwestern Memorial Hospital. "You might consider joining a club for identity reasons, but you'd be closing off other avenues. You should watch out for those kids who are being forced into behaviors that aren't the best fit." She approves of clubs for confirmed gays and lesbians, but thinks therapy is preferable for the sexually confused.
Whitney Young's Kayla considers herself bisexual; she says she's drawn mostly to females, though she had a boyfriend for a while last year. She says she was physically attracted to him but thinks that had a lot to do with the fact that they were both in the same competitive sport. It doesn't trouble her that she hasn't really sorted out her sexuality. "Obviously some people aren't going to know yet. Some people know when they're older. You take women on talk shows who've been married 30 years and suddenly decide they're lesbians. I guess you're never going to know, are you? I'm not a person who regrets much anyway."
Baum says, "I can just as easily look at any guy walking down the street and say uh huh as I can look at any girl. I've dated a lot of guys. My personal definition of being bisexual is if you'd have no problem dating either sex. As society becomes more open-minded, it's going to be OK whatever you want to do in this respect."
Galatzer-Levy concedes that some primarily heterosexual teens could be drawn to the clubs while they're experimenting. "I don't see that as a problem," he says. "It's typical of adolescents to try out a particular type of music for a while--or politics or sex--to see what they enjoy. That's neither good nor bad. The advantage of a club would be that they'd get a chance to process their behavior rather than just go ahead and act."
Conservatives aren't as sanguine. "Kids aren't getting the whole story," says Joe Clark, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, a right-leaning public-policy group based in Glen Ellyn. "These clubs see homosexuality as healthy, safe, and normal--and nothing could be further from the truth." He points to biblical passages that proscribe homosexuality and adds, "Anal sex is not compatible with our physiology--we weren't designed that way." He knows that the clubs are legal, but he considers homosexuality a choice and advises school boards and administrators to make sure that the other side is heard. "We encourage a dialogue with the faith community," he says. "If you look at the major faiths you will find that this behavior is not sanctioned." He would rather see young gays and lesbians change their orientation through "reparative therapy" or refrain from sex.
But club advocates don't believe another side has to be given. "When a group of kids comes to you for support, that's what you are promising them--support," says Latin's Betty Lark Ross, adding that it's GLSEN's position that teens can discuss alternatives if they want to. "Any kid has the right to say what they believe." Toni Armstrong of GLSEN is blunter: "If there's a Bible club in a high school, should the atheists be heard? I don't think so. I don't want people coming in to tell young Christians to rethink their Christianity. If there's a sport, do doctors come in to talk about injuries the kids can sustain? There is no club where the other side is supposed to be presented. Besides, so much [in high schools] is the conservative point of view now--that's why the suicide and dropout rates are so high."
GLSEN lists 400 homosexual-teen clubs and alliances in U.S. schools. The most club-friendly state is Massachusetts; the Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, authorized by Republican governor William Weld in 1992, lists 140 high school organizations in nearly a quarter of the state's secondary schools.
Yet only 16 percent of urban middle and high schools have such clubs, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and only 11 percent have faculty-led support groups. "It's upsetting that there aren't more," says Gwendolyn Cooke, the association's urban-services director, who conducted the study. "There's been backing for these clubs from adult groups around the country, including GLSEN, so there's an awareness. And the law says these clubs have the right to exist." (Some school districts have tried to skirt the Equal Access Act. In 1996 the school board in Salt Lake City banned all 46 noncurricular clubs at East High School in an effort to kill a gay-straight alliance. The alliance survived, and all the attention turned the group's founder, Kelli Peterson, into a martyr--and an inspiration to Chicago-area club leaders.)
Local clubs haven't grown as fast as GLSEN leaders anticipated. New Trier High School has a group of faculty members who are working to make the school safer and more inclusive, but they have yet to inspire a club for gay and lesbian teens. "I tried to get one going last year," says gym teacher Bonnie Beach, who posted notices in the school bulletin and met with four or five teens for a few months. "It looked promising," she says. "Two of the kids were involved in Pride Youth, and they saw the possibility of tapping into more kids. But there was the perception that if you met with the group you'd be outing yourself. That wasn't a very attractive proposition."
GLSEN has found that there are even fewer support groups, and they have only rarely blossomed into clubs. Nina Schwartz says that when she approached Niles West administrators about launching a gay-straight alliance after the support group had formed, "I went in without a real plan. I didn't think people would come to meetings. Not everybody is interested in coming out." And since she graduated in June, no one else has stepped forward to push for an alliance or a club.
Many school administrators applaud teens who come out, but their support often seems to lack conviction. In September GLSEN issued a report card on the 42 largest school districts in the country; half the districts received a C or better (Los Angeles and Philadelphia earned As), but the Chicago Public Schools flunked. According to Ross, that was in part because Chicago has no staff training on sexual orientation, has a weak policy on harassment in the student handbook, and has a curriculum that doesn't respect gay and lesbian "lives and contributions." She says, "When they teach the Holocaust they don't talk about homosexuals, and Stonewall isn't part of the unit on civil rights."
Mayoral liaison Mary Morten has set up meetings with Board of Education representatives, and so far they've agreed to have teachers see It's Elementary, a video on talking to grade-schoolers about gay issues (which will be paid for through a $10,000 grant from tennis star Billie Jean King, now a Chicago resident). Charlene Vega, the board's pupil-support-services officer, says, "We are concerned about making sure that students are treated with respect on issues of hatred and violence."
The number of support groups and clubs may be growing only slowly, but the students who were in the vanguard say their experience had a profound effect on them. Many of them have become committed activists. "I've encountered so many different types of people through all this," says Lark Baum. "I've been introverted, but now I talk to roomfuls of people and pass petitions." Marieke Guillen-Treadway, now a University of Chicago freshman, has been helping to organize Student Pride Chicago, a network of high school clubs. Tanya Libes, who wants to be a computer consultant, says, "Once I have serious money, I'll step up and try to change things more." Tiffani St. Cloud, now a junior at Smith College, helped plan a "queer studies, queer activism symposium" and wants to build an organization to help homosexuals, welfare recipients, and single parents she thinks are being targeted by the religious right.
Kevin Lemel, now part owner of a candle shop in the city, says his difficult high school years helped him. "The process made me stronger, and I think I enlightened the people of Buffalo Grove." Nina Schwartz, now a freshman at DePaul, says, "When I did all that stuff in high school I had this need to make people understand about me. Now they can figure it out. I don't want to be straight. There is so much out there for gay youth. We have sports teams, parades, museums, authors, and poets. I'll probably stay involved, because I know this is something easy to do." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Kathy Richland: Kevin Lemel; Nina Schwartz; Marieke Gullen-Treadway, Miguel Ayala; Joyce Kenner; Matt Stuczynksi, Betty Lark Ross; Toni Armstrong Jr.,.