Sunday, August 12, 2001

More schools get gay-straight alliances


Support, safety for all students is goal

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Marie Hedrick says she heard it countless times: A student walking down a crowded school hallway screams at her: “DYKE.”

        At another school last year, Steven Shockley walked to his car to find a piece of paper on his windshield with the word “FAG” scrawled on it.

        The differences between the students are vast — Ms. Hedrick, a recent graduate of the coed public Princeton High School, is gay. Steven, an incoming senior at St. Xavier High School, an all-boys school in Finneytown, is straight.

[photo] Steven Shockley, an incoming senior at St. Xavier High School, leads the Gay-Straight Alliance at the school.
(Yuli Wu photo)
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        But on the eve of Cincinnati Public Schools' Board of Education's vote to amend its disciplinary code to suspend students who make derogatory comments based on sexual orientation, Ms. Hedrick and Steven represent a growing number of Tristate students who have started groups in their high schools to end anti-gay bias.

        “Princeton needed to be a safe environment,” Ms. Hedrick said. “It wasn't about converting anyone.”

        The goal of the groups, often made up of at least a dozen straight and gay students, is to make schools supportive and safe places for all students regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

        Walnut Hills and Finneytown were among the first local high schools to start a Gay-Straight Alliance. St. Xavier High School started its group two years ago while Oak Hills High School and Cincinnati Country Day started alliances a year ago.

        This fall at Princeton, a group called the Kaleidoscope Coalition will begin meeting.

        Members of some of the student-run groups talk among themselves about respecting diverse people. Other groups hang posters on school walls, outlining statistics about suicide rates of students who question their sexuality.

        A common problem the groups try to mitigate is when students and teachers use insensitive words, such as referring to an “uncool” backpack as “gay” said Cincinnati Country Day teacher Anne Delano Steinert, the group's adviser.

        Steven said he used to make similar comments — until the day a close friend driving with him on Interstate 71 pulled over on the shoulder and said he was gay.

        When he was asked to head a St. Xavier task force — the Gay-Straight Alliance — he gladly accepted. The group kicked off by writing letters to local groups negatively portraying gay people. They spoke out about diversity at student forums, brought gay alumni to the school to talk about their experiences and had several gay seniors talk to the group.

        The alliance — made up entirely of straight members — held a faculty forum last year and challenged faculty to pick out the gay students in the audience.

        “To get things changed, you have to tick off the right people,” he said. “But to get things changed, you also have to get the right people on your side.”

        Ms. Hedrick said she decided last year as a senior that teachers, administrators and students would benefit from education about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.

        Other students probably needed the same support she had craved in school, she said.

        Ms. Hedrick, who came out at age 12, said she didn't have a single friend at Princeton Junior High in Sharonville. Teachers, she said, sometimes either did not witness or turned a blind eye to kids calling her names or throwing food at her in the cafeteria.

        A counselor there once asked Ms. Hedrick why she didn't have friends.

        “I'm gay,” she answered.

        The slight, articulate 18-year-old said the counselor told her “no, she was not” and said Ms. Hedrick would have friends if she dressed nicer.

        Many of the alliances encounter opposition by people who disagree with their mission.

        “We couldn't even effectively advertise our meetings,” said Oak Hills high school teacher Matt Reed, a straight teacher who facilitates the alliance meetings in the school. “You put up fliers for a meeting and people tear them down.”

        At Cincinnati Country Day, an opposing group that seeks to discuss “rehabilitation” of gays put up fliers after the Gay-Straight Alliance formed there, said Katy Cordes, 17, who will head the group this fall. But that group has a right to free speech, too, she said.

       NUMBERS GROWING

        High school Gay-Straight Alliances date to 1989.

        Before the 1998 hate-crime beating death of Matthew Shepard, a gay, 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, about 200 groups were registered with the New York-based Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

        Today, groups meet in 800 schools in 46 states, including 59 registered in Ohio and 23 in Kentucky.

       



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