FEATURE

Break the Silence

Gay and straight students in Massachusetts team up to make a difference.
Illustration by Arthur E. Giron

Robert Rinquette, who heads the guidance department at Canton High School in Canton, Mass., is a former Navy man, the father of four, and one of those extraordinary adults that teenagers believe they can talk to about almost anything. His office provides an array of conversation starters: There's a "Best Dad" poster, a "We Support Canton Wrestling" plaque on a bulletin board, a pile of suicide-prevention booklets on the desk and a pink triangle on the door.

The pink triangle, a symbol that recalls gays and lesbians killed by Nazis during the Holocaust, has become in recent decades a symbol of gay pride and support for gay rights. But its very visible placement on Rinquette's door symbolizes something else, too: the increasing willingness of schools to acknowledge and support gay and lesbian students.

This isn't the triangle that students see in geometry classes, however; the gay and lesbian triangle is properly poised on its tip rather than its base. Rinquette, who is heterosexual, did not know this when he put the emblem on his door. So one of the first symbols of gay pride displayed in Canton High School remained upside down for almost a year, until a health teacher told him it went the other way.

This small irony demonstrates the fact that, like Rinquette, many people who are taking the lead in supporting gay and lesbian young people are not gay rights experts or even gay. In some communities, educators are putting themselves, and sometimes their ignorance, on the line to ensure an equal and safe education for all students.

Canton, a predominantly conservative, Irish Catholic suburb 40 miles south of Boston, seems at first glance an unlikely home for a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) -- a school-sanctioned student organization meant to give gay and straight kids a safe place to discuss sexual orientation issues. But in recent years, GSAs have become increasingly common not only in metropolitan areas but in suburbs like Canton and Andover, another largely Catholic community north of Boston.

Although GSAs have sprouted up in nearly every state, Massachusetts has proven to be a leader in several respects. First, it has passed a state law prohibiting public schools from discriminating against gay and lesbian students in admissions policies or educational services. Second, it has established a governor's commission to train educators and promote constructive policies on gay and lesbian issues in the schools. And, third, it has focused its efforts not on introducing gay and lesbian issues into the curriculum but on the safety of gay and lesbian students and on their right to equal opportunities in education.

In short, Massachusetts is addressing the real school experiences of gay and lesbian youth. "The lesson we have learned is when students have a voice in this, it cuts through the homophobia. It makes teachers realize that these kids are just kids -- like their own kids," says David LaFontaine, chairman of the Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth.

Four years ago, LaFontaine, a 1976 graduate of Canton High, and his mother, an activist with the national advocacy group Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (P-FLAG), met with Canton school administrators to recommend that the school form a GSA. The recommendation was respectfully but promptly rejected with the reply "We have no gay or lesbian students at Canton."

It was a typical reaction, according to LaFontaine, who says that administrators often assume there is no need for a GSA where they live. One reason for this is the stereotype that gays and lesbians live only in cities and "liberal" towns. Yet, as LaFontaine points out, most high school students -- gay or straight -- don't get to choose their place of residence. Another factor that obscures the issue is the effort by many gays and lesbians to closet, or hide, their sexual orientation because of the social stigma on homosexuality.

"Fitting in" is never more important than in high school. According to surveys suggesting that between 2 percent and 10 percent of the general population is homosexual, anywhere from 14 to 68 of Canton's 680 students might be gay or lesbian, not counting those who are bisexual. But no students who are gay or lesbian have been willing to reveal their orientation in school for fear of being harassed.

"Everybody's too afraid to come out," says Leland, a slight blue-eyed, blonde-haired sophomore. (Names of students have been changed.) "If I came out, obviously, I'd get beaten up -- not only by my brothers but by other kids. Teachers would look at me differently. And there'd be writing on the bathroom wall."

It's happened to others, after all. In recent years, one Canton student found himself in a choke-hold up against a locker because he was perceived as homosexual. Another student was beaten up for the same reason. Counselors suspect that the pressures related to being gay have been a factor in the suicides of a few Canton graduates.

These local examples mirror widespread experiences:

  • Nearly half of gay men and one in five lesbians are harassed or assaulted in secondary school, according to a 1984 survey conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force;
  • 97 percent of students surveyed in Massachusetts hear anti-gay comments and epithets, such as "faggot," in school on a routine basis, with rarely a response from a teacher, according to the Governor's Commission;
  • 28 percent of gay and lesbian youth drop out of school because of being made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe, according to the 1989 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Report of the Secretary's Task Force on Youth Suicide; and, most strikingly,
  • Gay and lesbian youth are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers, according to the same 1989 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Report.

These are the statistics that GSAs seek to change by making gay and lesbian students as visible -- and as accepted -- a part of the school community as the Honor Society, the debate club and the football team. How, though, does a school move from the "we have no gays" mentality to active support of a GSA?

At Canton, it took years of reflection and lobbying by Robert Rinquette, along with the emergence of student leaders. Week after week, Rinquette read about the gay/lesbian issue, piling up the books on his desk. Eventually, two students who noticed the books told Rinquette they wanted to start a GSA. He advised them to apply to the principal as they would for any other student organization and volunteered to be the group's advisor.

"If an appeal for a GSA doesn't include students," says David LaFontaine, "it's doomed to failure because it will be seen as self-serving. The thing that will make the administration act is to see the face of the students."

Ellen Parker, principal of Andover High School in Andover, Mass., recalls, "The first time a student came to me and said, 'Mrs. Parker, I'm here to tell you that I'm gay,' I wasn't sure what he wanted me to say, or if he wanted me to say anything. It was one of the most awkward moments I've had as an educator. When he left my office, I sat there for about five minutes, just reflecting. I thought, 'Wow, this was not something I had in Principalship 101. What am I supposed to do with this?'" But Parker's uneasiness subsided as she considered the fact that this student was the same person she had known before he came out to her.

As the name indicates, the goal of GSAs is to bring gay and straight students together in a safe environment for discussion and support. Some participate because they have gay or lesbian friends or family members. Some find it trendy, like dying one's hair green. Some are questioning their sexual orientation. And some are gay or lesbian.

No one is obliged to name their orientation, however. This policy gives students who participate greater freedom to explore and speak and learn about life as a gay or lesbian person. Andover science teacher and GSA sponsor Deborah Burch observes: "Just the fact that the GSA is there says something to kids who are questioning their orientation or know they're gay. They may never get the nerve to go, but the fact that it is there is affirming."

At Canton, the GSA meets once a week after classes in an office next to the gym. Some students make a point of walking the long way around, so they can avoid passing fellow students. But once inside, they relax in the shelter of acceptance.

Today's task is to create posters identifying famous people for Gay and Lesbian History Month, celebrated in October. Someone drops a stack of pink construction paper on the table and a bag full of markers. Then comes the question: Who are famous gay and lesbian people in history?

Two girls busy themselves with nail polish. A few boys take the caps off the markers and smell them.

Someone tentatively suggests: "Liberace?"

Rinquette passes out copies of a book that contains a list of famous gays, lesbians and bisexuals. Girls huddle over one, boys over another. And they read out the names in amazement: Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Walt Whitman, Melissa Etheridge, Greg Louganis, Martina Navratilova.

"Is this for real?" they ask: a testament to what they have to learn.

In addition to serving as a forum for educating its members, the GSA often serves as a base from which students organize efforts to educate the larger school community. Two years ago, for example, Canton's GSA decided to organize a Gay and Lesbian Awareness Day by placing a pink triangle on every locker in the 150-year-old school, along with posters to explain what the triangles meant. Students came in at 9 o'clock at night and 5 o'clock in the morning to complete the task. Then 7:30 a.m. rolled around, and all hell broke loose.

Shocked to find a gay symbol on their lockers, students tore the triangles off in droves. Misunderstandings abounded: "They put them on freaks' lockers. Kids they don't like. Pretty much me," said one sophomore. At least one teacher directed his class to go into the halls and take them down. Rinquette got called on the carpet.

"From my point of view," said Canton principal Barry Parker, "it was not done well. My feeling is if you communicate well and treat people as halfway intelligent, they'll do their best to understand. But if you surprise them and have unclear motives, you'll get anger. And that's what happened."

Parker wrote a new school procedure prohibiting anything from being placed on lockers, and the experience left a bad taste in the mouths of many, even though members of the GSA saw a bright side. "At least people who didn't know we existed before knew we did after that," said Miguel.

Other ideas proved more successful, however. One year, students set up a table in front of the cafeteria, hung a rainbow flag behind it, and invited students to write their feelings about the treatment of people perceived as gays and lesbians in the school. Notes went up, saying: "It hurt me when you said --- "; "I don't like it when you treat --- like you do"; and so on.

After this, the GSA organized a faculty workshop in which they talked about the organization, the nature of homophobia, and the laws meant to protect gay and lesbian students. The day concluded with the most challenging event: a brief play, entitled "Taking Off the Glove," about a high school student's coming-out experience.

"I was dreading it," said Dick Russo, the theater arts director. "I expected objections. I expected eight to ten teachers to walk out. But it didn't happen. I think it was eye-opening: 'Like, you mean we have gay students here? We have gay teachers here?'"

Science teacher Deborah Burch recalls a similar turning point at Andover High. Five years ago, an announcement came over the loudspeaker: "For anyone interested in starting up a Gay-Straight Alliance or who wants more information, there will be a meeting in the Career Center after school."

Burch heard the notice and attended, along with five students and five teachers. One by one, people introduced themselves, many saying, "Hi, I'm not gay, but ... " When they reached Burch, she said, "Well, I guess I'm the token gay person here."

Now the faculty advisor for the GSA, Burch remains the only openly homosexual teacher on a faculty of approximately 100. Still, she insists that being gay, or out, is not a prerequisite for helping gay and lesbian students.

"When we first started the GSA," Burch recalls, "I didn't know anything about my own history -- about gay history." She spent the next two years researching gay and lesbian issues in the schools and tested all of her ideas in the GSA, discovering through trial and error what works and what doesn't.

"What doesn't work," she cautions, "is saying to the kids, 'I need someone to research the following topic and present it.' They don't want it to be school."

Burch also surveyed her colleagues about their knowledge of gay and lesbian issues and discovered a wide range of misinformation and stereotypes, with one remark in particular standing out: In response to the question "Should homosexuals be able to work with children?" one teacher wrote: "I did have a problem recommending a boy who I knew was homosexual to be a Big Brother."

"That comment," says Burch, "made me realize that more than hurt feelings were involved here. Lack of knowledge about gay and lesbian issues was affecting these students' futures."

She responded by offering a 10-week voluntary in-service training on gay and lesbian issues to her colleagues. For the first session, 15 teachers gathered in a circle in Burch's lab. Some were fresh out of college; some had been teaching for 20 or 30 years.

Burch wrote a word on the blackboard: "Identity." Then she asked them to name the elements that made up their identity. Ideas flooded out: family, religion, occupation, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so on.

"Now," she continued, "think about which two of these are most important to you as a person. You don't have to share it with us. Just think about it."

A minute passed. "Now," she said, "imagine the principal and superintendent of schools come in and say, 'I'm sorry, you can't express that.' How do you feel?"

"I feel resentment," said one.

"I feel like the things that are important to me don't matter," said another.

Others responded: "I feel isolated," "Ostracized," "Withdrawn," "Invisible."

Bingo. Burch put down her chalk.

These feelings, she went on to explain, are what most gay and lesbian students feel at school every day. Understanding this is the first step for teachers who wish to help truly integrate them into the school environment. It is a step, many believe, that will help not only gay and lesbian students but the larger community as well.

At Andover, the change has been visible. Two years ago, to celebrate National Coming Out Day on October 11, the GSA had 350 pink triangles printed -- enough for roughly 25 percent of the student body. Their plan was to distribute the triangles to anyone willing to wear them, but only if they could say why they wanted to wear them. To the group's amazement, so many students answered "I want to support gay rights" that they ran out of triangles! The GSA happily pleaded with the Art Department to make more.

Both Canton's and Andover's GSAs have ambitious plans for the future. Each would like to hold an assembly to introduce all students and teachers to gay and lesbian issues and the "face" of the GSA. But, so far, administrators have rejected the proposals, saying they are concerned about whether teachers are prepared to handle the less-than-positive reactions in the school.

Now that gay and lesbian students have begun to come out in high school, Andover's Ellen Parker predicts more will follow. But, given the ongoing fact of prejudice against gays and lesbians, administrators like Parker hope to control the process to the extent that they can. They want to avoid a backlash and inspire an ongoing learning experience among students, teachers and parents alike.

"I'm sure some people in the GSA would like us to go faster," Parker acknowledges. "But in the big picture, for this community, I think the slow pace is OK."