"A SAFE PLACE": MEMBERS OF CDO'S GAY/STRAIGHT ALLIANCE TALK ABOUT FACING ADVERSITY IN TODAY'S HIGH SCHOOLS - The Explorer: Import

"A SAFE PLACE": MEMBERS OF CDO'S GAY/STRAIGHT ALLIANCE TALK ABOUT FACING ADVERSITY IN TODAY'S HIGH SCHOOLS

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Posted: Wednesday, April 10, 2002 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:47 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Stephanie Driggs, a 15-year-old student at Canyon del Oro High School, stands up and declares to her fellow students that she has an announcement to make.

"Today, I heard the word faggot five times, gay eight times, and dyke twice," she says while standing on top of a stool.

Her classmates, who are all meeting after school for the Gay/Straight Alliance Club at CDO, shake their heads in disappointment, but don't look the least bit surprised as others start giving their similar statistics for the day.

Despite the derogatory comments, the members of the group -- some of whom are gay and the rest straight -- are, with the exception of the usual high school mishaps, comfortable with who they are.

"These kids are really brave," says Katie Kelley, a science teacher and one of the advisors for the group.

The three-year-old club was started shortly after the death of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man from Wyoming who was beaten into a coma and left to die strapped to a barb wire fence along a deserted highway by two men who said Shepard came on to them in a bar.

The club had meager beginnings, with just four or five regular members, said Bill Maginnis, the other advisor for the club.

"We just wanted a kind of safe place for kids to get together," Maginnis said. Club members have the option of whether to make their sexual orientation known to other members of the club.

Now the membership fluctuates between 10 and 15 students who usually meet every Monday after school for about two hours.

Kelley became one of the advisors for the club because she said she knows how hard high school can be for some students, especially if they are gay, and she wanted to be supportive.

"Being different as far as sexual orientation is really hard. There's such pressure to conform in high school."

"Not me!" interrupts Nick Araya, a 16-year-old junior, with a big smile on his face.

"Nick is one of our special children," Kelley whispers, but loud enough for the other group members to hear, which provokes a collective laugh.

Nick, who came out just last summer, said he purposefully told his "blabbermouth" cousin about his sexual orientation because he knew the news would spread to the rest of his family.

When the news did reach his mother, Connie Freedman, she said it wasn't a big surprise.

"It was just because of the way he is," she said. "He used to play with girl stuff, and he never had any close guy friends."

Nick said while he was growing up, he always felt closer to girls when it came to friendship, but when they wanted more, he felt uncomfortable.

"Girls were cool to hang around with, but when it came to a personal relationship, I just kinda got grossed out," he said.

While Nick said his family has always been somewhat uninvolved in his life even before he came out, Nick has come to terms with it.

"That's how they've always been," he said.

The alliance, which he joined this year, has given him the kind of support he has needed.

"I got more involved in my life," he said. "I used to bottle up stuff inside. Now I do stuff that's a little out of the ordinary for me."

His mother said she knows Nick would be a lot different if he didn't have the club to be a part of.

"It's made a difference in his attitude toward life," she said. "He probably wouldn't be so open (if he didn't have the club) and he would be a lot more afraid of kids at school."

Still, life as an openly gay student is not easy for Nick or other gay members of the club.

"I know how tough it is being gay," he said.

Just last week, before one of his classes started and before the teacher had entered the room, Nick said several other boys in the class thought it would be funny to hold Nick down and try to spray silly string in his mouth and ears. When Nick told them to stop, one of the boys punched him in the stomach.

Nick, who used to take insulin shots in his stomach for his diabetes, said his stomach is very sensitive, making the impact of the punch hurt even more.

"I was literally in tears, crying," he said. "They said they were going to beat me up in front of the buses if I told anyone. I was pretty miserable for the rest of the day."

Nick said the boys never made any reference to Nick's sexuality during the incident, but he has no doubt that's why they decided to harass him.

"Whenever I'm not there, my friends say they talk about me behind my back," he said.

His mother said she has encouraged Nick to go see the principal this week, and in the meantime the two are coping with what happened.

"We'll get through it," she said.

Despite this and other incidents where he has been harassed, Nick said he knows he's not to blame and that it is other people who have to change.

"I've gotten things thrown at my back, but it doesn't change who I am. They're they ones who have to change their attitudes."

Stephanie said she used to let comments other students would make about her affect her, but now she just ignores them.

"So many people yelled things and threw things," she said. "I'm not bothered by that. You just can't let it get to you."

Stephanie said she came out when she was 14 after years of suspecting, and fighting the fact, that she might be gay.

"For the longest time, I was like, 'I can't be a lesbian. That's so wrong,'" she said.

But after she came out, she said she felt relieved.

"This club was the reason I came out," she said. "There was so much support. They made it O.K. for me to be gay."

Her parents said they noticed a huge change in Stephanie after she joined the club.

"She was real quiet and real depressed," said Christi Driggs, Stephanie's mother. "Now she's much happier. I think she'd feel much more isolated and lonely if she didn't have this club."

Driggs said she was also happy that Stephanie's twin sister Mariah Driggs was involved in the club to show support for her sister. Mariah has been the president of the club since the beginning of the school year.

"I think it's a wonderful group," Christi Driggs said. "It's made them more accepting, not just of gay people, but of all people."

Although Christi Driggs said Stephanie never actually told the family she was a lesbian, she said she and her husband had always suspected because she was always unhappy.

Stephanie said her parents found out for sure when the parents of her girlfriend found an e-mail discussing the girl's relationship with Stephanie. The parents then confronted Driggs and her husband.

"They kind of wigged out," Christi Driggs said about the girl's parents. "We just told them we didn't think it was a big deal."

Christi Driggs said that while she and her husband "didn't give a hoot" when they found out about Stephanie's sexual orientation, they were concerned about how other students would treat her at school.

"It makes me feel disgusted that kids are so stupid and so mean," Christi Driggs said.

Stephanie said she tries not to be alone on campus because people bother her less when she has friends around her.

Even straight members who are part of the alliance are often teased and harassed.

Jill Curtis, the lone freshman of the group and one of about six straight club members, also said she has been picked on for her involvement in the club, but said she doesn't let it bother her.

"At the beginning of the year, people made fun of me," she said. "They have no place to say anything."

Jill said she joined the club because she had some friends who were gay and saw the way they were unfairly treated. She said she wanted to make sure her friends knew she cared about them and was supportive.

"People need to know that there are people who care about this issue," she said.

Jill's mother, Gayle, said she was surprised but pleased that her daughter had joined the club.

"The only reason I was surprised was that she actually wanted to participate so extensively," she said. "But I was very proud that at such a young age that she took an understanding on such an important issue. I like that she has an opportunity to give and participate in something meaningful."

But participating in something meaningful can come with a price. The members' good intentions and support are often met with teasing and even violence by some students not involved in the club.

"Some of us went to homecoming together and at least eight soda bottles were thrown at us," Mariah said.

Mariah, who is straight, joined the club at the end of last year to support her twin sister Stephanie.

"I'm very proud of my sister," Mariah said.

However, her support was often met with derogatory comments from fellow classmates.

"People would say to me, 'Oh, you're the sister of the dyke," she said.

Mariah said she has never faltered on confronting people when they use gay slurs, such as dyke and faggot, or using the word gay to describe something in a negative way.

"People just kind of avoid looking at me when I do that," she said. "People act really guilty."

On a recent Wednesday after school, a number of students were asked about the club and its presence on campus, and also about the use of gay slurs.

Teresa Parks, a sophomore at CDO, said she sees nothing wrong with using gay slurs, depending on the situation.

"If you're just joking around with your friends, I don't see anything wrong with it," she said. "If you actually call someone who is gay something bad, then that's wrong."

Teresa said she has no problem with the club being on campus, but said she would never think about joining.

"I wouldn't want people to think I was gay," she said. "I would be really afraid of what people would think."

Parks said she doesn't believe there is anything wrong with being gay, but said she wouldn't want to be labeled something she wasn't.

Dylan Bishop, a CDO junior who said he is straight, also said he would be afraid of what people would think if he were a member of the club.

"I wouldn't let anyone know about it," he said. "It's not like it's something I would be proud of."

Dylan said he would be afraid that other students might make fun of him for being in the club which is why, if he were part of the club, he wouldn't advertise his membership to other students on campus. He also said he sees nothing wrong with using gay slurs, but agreed with Teresa that it depends on the situation.

"I don't think when people use words like that that they are directing it towards a gay person," he said.

However, Dylan also said he would never use racial slurs, no matter what the situation.

"Using words like nigger is just wrong," he said. "That's racist."

"You gotta know who you're talking to," added Jesus Acunia, a CDO junior. "If you actually use words like that in front of a gay person, that's wrong."

Jesus also said he would never join the club, even though he knows there are other straight people in it.

"I have nothing against it," he said. "Everyone has their rights. I just don't agree with it (homosexuality). I just think it's wrong."

Mariah said she hears people using gay slurs at least several times a day, and sometimes even during class. It's those times that frustrate Mariah the most, she said.

"Sometimes they don't say it loud enough for the teachers to hear it, but other times you think they would," she said. "I think (some teachers) just don't think it's a problem."

Mariah said she has often heard students use slang terms for homosexuals, such as "dyke" and "faggot" as insults, which teachers don't seem to care about, she said. But other terms, such as "b----" or "a--h---" are met with reprimand.

"So few people are going to say 'Don't call that girl a dyke,'" she said. "When a kid says you're gay or a dyke or a faggot, teachers don't recognize it."

To try and emphasize the need for tolerance on campus, the group's members have been having other students sign a Declaration of Tolerance this week. If a student signs it, it means he or she accepts every student on campus, regardless of anything that might make them different.

The group will also be participating in a National Day of Silence April 10 with other young people around the country. Members of the club, and anyone else who wants to participate, will be wearing blue ribbons to symbolize peace and will remain silent throughout the entire day, as long as they have written permission from their teachers.

Some of those teachers, and others across campus, have also taken on the job of trying to educate students about the harm of intolerance and gay slurs.

Mariah said she does have one teacher who thinks gay slurs are a problem and does what he can to correct it.

"I'll never forget one teacher, Mr. (Casey) Smythe," she said. "We were in class and someone said, really loud, 'That's so gay.' He stopped the whole class and told her to use a different word."

Smythe, who teaches English at CDO, said he believes it is important for students to feel safe in the classroom without worrying if another student is going to offend them.

"I'm an advocate for kids," he said, no matter what their situation, be it their sexuality, their race, their gender, or any other situation that might make a student uncomfortable.

"Kids spend a lot of time wondering why they don't fit in," he said. "Kids put up with a lot."

Smythe said he has opted to put an upside down pink triangle in the window of his classroom, a symbol of acceptance of all students at CDO. Several other teachers have followed suit.

"It means no put-downs, no matter what," he said.

When students do use put downs, especially gay slurs, he said they often say they don't mean anything by it.

"Then I usually say, 'Can you use the N-word and not mean anything by it?'" he said. "Words do mean something, and they hurt."

Since he has started confronting students when they use gay slurs, Smythe said he has noticed a decrease in the amount they are used in his classroom, but also said it doesn't mean any attitudes have been changed.

"I think, more than anything, my students have figured out I'm not going to put up with it," he said.

However, his no-tolerance policy has led some students to become even more confused about his reasons behind it.

"Some students have the mentality that if you support one, you must be one," he said. "They couldn't see how a teacher could confront students about using gay slurs without being gay himself. That's a mentality that I can't put up with."

James Anders, a P.E. teacher and football and wrestling coach at CDO, said he also confronts his students when they use gay slurs in class.

Anders said he especially hears slurs when the club is mentioned while he reads the announcements on Monday, the day the club meets after school.

"Some students say, 'Oh, it's just a bunch of queers,'" he said. "Usually, I address it with them and tell them it's not very appropriate. I ask them, 'Does everyone agree with everything that you do?'"

Smythe said he has seen a positive impact the Gay/Straight Alliance has had on gay students.

"As an English teacher, you get to know kids on a more personal basis with things like journals," he said. "I think students are more comfortable with coming out now."

However, some teachers aren't sure if the club's presence is making things better or worse for the tension between students on campus.

"The kids have every right to have that club," said Donna Watson, a special education teacher at CDO. "But there's a lot of tension that's created. It sets them up for a difficult situation."

While Watson, who is also the advisor for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes club at the school, said she does think the students in the club "probably need the support," she also said the club might be creating more tension between gay and straight students on campus rather than alleviating it.

"I wouldn't go so far as to say it shouldn't exist," she said. "But do I think it's wise to have the club? I have mixed feelings."

Watson said she chose to be the advisor for FCA because it most closely aligns with her personal beliefs.

"I believe that God loves everyone, regardless of their sexuality," she said. "Do I accept (homosexuality) as a way of life for myself or my children? No."

Maginnis said he believes the club is slowly having a positive influence on campus, despite the existing tension.

Maginnis said members have often had things thrown at them at school and that there have been some instances where members have had their backpacks rifled through, but that it comes and goes, and is gradually decreasing.

"People are getting more curious now," Maginnis said. "Kids are starting to understand that it's O.K. to have friends who are homosexual."

Maginnis became one of the advisors after remembering the turmoil his gay older brother went through and also because he said he feels it's important for students to feel supported and safe at school.

"It's not really a gay issue, it's about making sure kids can go to school and feel safe," he said. "I think it's really important to make sure that everyone takes an active role in making sure that students feel welcome."

Maginnis said some people on campus believe that the club is encouraging homosexuality, which is not the aim of the club, he said.

"It's not Gay 101, Training to be Gay," he said. "We're just trying to help kids understand that it's O.K. to feel however you feel about yourself."

Mariah said she can't even understand the notion that gay/straight alliance clubs would be promoting homosexuality and calls people who believe that "incompetent."

"If it wasn't hard to be gay, then we wouldn't need a club," she said. "Kids walk in the door everyday and talk about a bad experience they had a school just because of their sexuality. If anything, when you come to these meetings, all you see is why it sucks to be gay."

ADMINISTRATION ALSO A PROBLEM FOR GAY/STRAIGHT ALLIANCE CLUB

Canyon del Oro High School students participating in CDO's Gay/Straight Alliance Club say they are not only having problems with other students on campus, but with the administration as well.

Mariah Driggs, president of the club, said she has gotten the run-around from the school's principal, Michael Gemma, when the club has sought permission to have activities on campus.

"He has not been exceptionally supportive," she said.

Gemma said there has been a lot of miscommunication between himself and the group, which might be the actual cause of the group's frustrations.

Driggs said she met with Gemma at the beginning of the school year to talk about activities the group wanted to have on campus. Driggs said she felt like she was put off by Gemma when she brought her ideas to him.

"He just said that he didn't know and that we should check with other schools to see what they were doing," she said.

Gemma said that meeting was the last he heard from the group until recently, and that unless the club communicates with him directly and on a regular basis, there isn't much he can do.

"There has to be follow-through," Gemma said. "Unless kids come directly to me to talk about it, I don't know what's going on. I can't micromanage every club on campus."

The club, which brings together straight and gay students on campus during an after school meeting every Monday, is already subject to occasional harassment by other students on campus, and Driggs said her frustrations with CDO's administration makes things even harder on members of the club.

One of the club's gay members, Nick Araya, said he was punched in the stomach by a student in one of his classes. While Araya said the student made no reference to Araya's sexual orientation during the incident, Araya said he had no doubt it was the cause of the harassment.

Since incidents like the one at Columbine High School in Colorado, where the students who shot several of their classmates due to repeated harassment, Gemma said any incident involving student harassment are, and always have been, treated with care.

"We always investigate it to find out what occurred," he said. "If we find out something did happen, then the student (who committed the harassment) has to be dealt with in the appropriate way."

That could mean anything from a discipline referral to expulsion, depending on the severity of the incident, Gemma said.

"Then we always ask the student to moderate what's going on, to make sure there is improvement," he continued. "If I was aware of any student being continually harassed, I would certainly take that seriously."

Driggs said that despite the administration's positive stance on avoiding harassment, she still thinks the group is somewhat hindered when it comes to having events promoting tolerance for gay students on campus.

"It's hard because we wanted to do a lot on campus this year," she said. "(Gemma) didn't seem like a help at all."

Driggs said she was also told by Gemma that the group had to go through student government to get activities approved. Gemma said he told the club they had to talk about their ideas with student government, and that teachers and students often have activities on campus without him necessarily having to approve it.

Katie Kelley, one of the club's advisors who used to be the faculty advisor for the school's swing dance club and Students Against Drunk Driving, said the group has had trouble getting the student government to listen to their ideas about functions to have on campus.

Bill Maginnis, one of the club's advisors, said he has left several messages since October for the student government faculty advisor, Cleve Holifield, to try to get events planned on campus. Until recently, the club hadn't heard anything in reply from student government.

When Holifield was contacted by the Northwest EXPLORER, he refused to comment.

However, Oucinda Timberlake, the president of CDO's student council, said the group has never had to approve student club activities on campus and that she thought the responsibility ultimately lies with the administration.

"I'm kind of baffled by it," she said. "I don't think it should be up to us. Student government is the same as any other club."

Timberlake did say, though, that if approval for the club's activities does lie with student government, it would merely be a formality. The Gay/Straight Alliance did meet with student government a couple of weeks ago, where it approved the group's Declaration of Tolerance, a petition that is being passed around this week that students can sign to show their support for diversity on campus.

"Everybody thought it was cool," she said. "It was pretty unanimous. We really didn't have to talk about it that much."

However, Timberlake said that she still couldn't figure out why it was up to student government to approve the activity.

"But maybe there was just never another club that wanted to do something like this before," she said.

Another activity the Gay/Straight Alliance wanted to participate in was in the National Day of Silence, a movement created by young people across the country to protest the discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people. Participation would mean students would not speak at all during the day, including during class.

Driggs said that Gemma said no to the day of silence, so the group was forced to take things into their own hands, creating permission slips for teachers to sign, which would allow the students to remain silent during class. The members of the club said all of their teachers signed the permission slip and that most seemed very supportive of the movement.

Gemma said he did not say no to the students participating in the Day of Silence, rather, he told them the way it had to be done.

"It has to be a group activity within the confines of not interrupting school days," he said. "When I talk about restrictions, if they can't do it the way they want to, that gets misconstrued as they can't do it at all."

Gemma said he talked with the group further at one of its meetings where members brought up the idea of a permission slip for teachers to sign, allowing students to participate. Gemma said he was fine with the idea.

"It's still up to the teacher this way," he said.

Driggs also said that when she brought up the idea of having a speaker on campus, Gemma told her to "find out what other schools are doing."

However, Gemma said that he only told the group to find out if the particular speaker had ever spoken at any other schools to get some "reviews" to find out if he or she was any good.

Driggs said she still thinks other clubs have a much easier time getting activities approved. She also said she thinks Gemma is simply trying to avoid a potentially uncomfortable situation and upsetting people who don't support the club.

This isn't the first time this year that Driggs said the club has had problems with CDO's administration.

Driggs said the name of the club was referred to as the Matthew Shepard Memorial Student Alliance, a name she said did not get across the mission of the club.

That is the name that is also printed in the pamphlet distributed to students that lists the names of the clubs on campus. Under the description of the club, it states its mission is "to promote diversity on campus," with nothing mentioned about gay or straight students.

The club is also not listed on the school's Web site among the 40 clubs that are listed.

Gemma said, to the best of his knowledge, the club has always gone by the Matthew Shepard Memorial Student Alliance and that it is the responsibility of the club to change its name and make sure the information in the pamphlet is accurate. Gemma also said it is the club's responsibility to make sure its name appears on the Web site, but did not know who was responsible for updating that information. Kelley said she had no idea it was the club's responsibility to provide that information. She also said she agreed with the students that other clubs at the school seem to have an easier time getting activities on campus approved.

Donna Watson, a special education teacher at CDO who is also the advisor for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, said she has never had a problem dealing with the administration when the group wants to have activities on campus.

"We really are quite free to do what we want on campus," she said.

Watson said the group has had prayer activities on campus, including See You At the Pole, where students meet before school to pray around the flagpole. She said students in the club have also organized prayer groups during lunch, especially after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

"Some of the administrators even joined us for prayer on campus," she said.

According to the Amphitheater School District policy manual, the anti-discrimination policy does not take into account sexual orientation, but does take into account things like race and gender.

Todd Jaeger, Amphi's legal counsel, said the policy includes an all-encompassing statement against discrimination of any student for any reason, which is why the district never felt a need to amend it.

However, Amphi Governing Board President Ken Smith said the board is in charge of making sure policies are being followed.

"These policies were adopted by the Arizona School Boards Association several years ago," he said. "We are always in the process of looking at what needs to be revised."

Boardmember Kent Barrabee said he would welcome comments and questions from the group if they feel like they are being discriminated against.

"If there's a need for them to be protected, I would be in the forefront to do so," Barrabee said. "I think it would be helpful if their concerns were brought to the board."

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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