– While an estimated 500,000 students across the nation
participated in the National Day of Silence, an annual observation
of gay student rights, only a handful of local students decided to
join the protest and many others say such a demonstration is a moot
point in local high schools.
Hollister – While an estimated 500,000 students across the nation participated in the National Day of Silence, an annual observation of gay student rights, only a handful of local students decided to join the protest and many others say such a demonstration is a moot point in local high schools.
“I don’t think they’re (gay or lesbian students) treated bad, but it depends on how gay they are,” said Isaac Lopez, San Benito High School senior. “If they go around and show it off, it’s different … it’s like, nobody wants to see that.”
Each year the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network asks high school and college students not to speak all day once a year, symbolizing the prejudice homosexuals and transgender people suffer in their own communities. Some wear T-shirts in support of gay rights and pass out strips of paper explaining that “People who are silent today believe that the laws and attitudes should be inclusive of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.”
Approximately five SBHS students participated in the Day of Silence yesterday to one degree or another, and most are affiliated with the high school’s Gay Straight Alliance, a club with a mission to promote tolerance and understanding between students regardless of sexual orientation.
“A lot of these kids walk through the halls and they feel judged just because of who they are,” English teacher Rebecca Conklin said, who serves as the GSA’s teacher advisor. “And I think they really need a place where they can be themselves and hang out with their boyfriends and girlfriends without having to worry about that.”
In order to avoid possible discipline issues regarding class participation, the event was not a club-sponsored activity.
“This is America, and everyone has rights,” SBHS Junior Deidra Sawyer wrote on paper, so as not to break her vow of silence. “I also think that if you don’t want a certain group of people to have those rights, you should either keep your trap shut or move to another country.”
Many educators feel that SBHS is a particularly safe school for students who are gay or bisexual. School policy “prohibits all forms of harassment including but not limited to, harassment on the basis of… sexual orientation,” and support services are available for students struggling with or being bullied because of their sexual preference.
Jim Caiffero, an SBHS counselor of 20 years, runs a confidential support group for gay and lesbian students and has for 10 years, which also includes students with gay relatives or those who are trying to figure out their sexuality. Every six weeks, 14 students meet and discuss, most typically, the difficulties of coming out and strategies for doing so, or how their sexual orientation impacts otherwise mundane problems.
“I think this school has an excellent attitude of tolerance, honestly,” said Caiffero. “And it’s improved a lot. It used to be a very conservative place, but we’ve been working at it and there’s been a real change in school culture.”
Among students, however, the picture is a little less clear as to just how tolerant the campus climate is.
“I know two guys who are gay, but are afraid of ridicule and are afraid it would affect the ways people think of them, or what teachers would think (if they came out),” wrote Sawyer.
Many students who did not participate said that they felt gay student rights were not an issue at SBHS.
“I think it all depends on the person,” said sophomore Brittany Dickerson. “There’s always going to be really religious people who have a problem with it, or homophobes, but that’s everywhere.”
Several students admitted to using the word “fag” or “gay” as an expression for something or someone that is lame or worthless, and reported that the terms were used frequently on campus.
“We say it casually all the time. I don’t think anyone even thinks about it anymore,” said senior Jesse Ruiz. “It doesn’t really mean ‘gay,’ and no one’s trying to be offensive. It’s lost its meaning.”
Student attitudes also differed as to what school activities are appropriate for gay or bisexual students to participate in. For example, no student had a problem with gay students participating in Associated Student Body functions, but many felt that it would be inappropriate for a gay male student to hold a position on the football team, or for a gay student to bring a same-sex date to prom, which is less than a month away.
“That’s just going against tradition, that’s wrong,” said junior David Cortez.
The mixed beliefs of local students are reflective of those reported in the GESN’s National School Climate Survey, which was also released yesterday. The survey asked 521 students from LGBT groups around the country to respond. Two-thirds of those students reported feeling unsafe at school because of their orientation, 64 percent said they wee verbally harassed because of it, and only 43 percent of students who reported being harassed said that school authorities took effective steps to stop the bullying.
The report also states that student who are frequently harassed because of their sexuality had a Grade Point Average half a grade lower than those who were not (2.6 versus 3.1) and that LBGT students are twice as likely to say that they did not plan on going to college than straight students, when compared to a national sample.
Today, students throughout the U.S. are expected to participate in a counter protest called Day of Truth. Students who participate in the Christian-based demonstration, sponsored by the Alliance Defense Fund, will pass out cards and wear T-shirts asserting their disapproval of homosexuality.
Though the National Day of Silence came and went in San Benito County without much fanfare, local GSA members have other plans. Recently students informed Conklin that they hope to write up a draft amending the school’s harassment policy that would expressly forbid the use of the words “gay” or “faggot,” as is the case at Gilroy High School.
“The kids see that it can be done and they’re excited about it,” said Conklin. “And I know that’s a tough road, but I’m really proud of them for being mature and articulating what they want, instead of getting angry and acting out.”
Danielle Smith covers education for the Free Lance. Reach her at 637-5566, ext. 336 or [email protected]