Coming out in the classroom
In this special report, The Spoke takes an inside look at the lives of openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) high school students–at their struggles, their hopes and their courage–and at how sexual orientation influences our school as a whole.
By Seth Zweifler, News Editor
Shortly after the 2006 school year began, an eighth grader named April Dunlop delivered a message that would change her life forever. The declaration was quick, Dunlop recalls; something along the lines of a simple “I’m bisexual” was all she needed to say to a few classmates.
Word spread like wildfire. In a period of no more than two months, Dunlop said, all but one of her close friends she once had distanced themselves from her, a fact that she directly attributes to her decision to come out.
Dunlop’s choice to reveal the truth about her sexual orientation was “one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” she said. “I had absolutely no way of knowing what people would think. It was a blind leap.”
Dunlop, now a sophomore, is one of a small group of openly LGBT students at Conestoga. Each of these students has a story, behind which lies an internal struggle to come to terms with their true feelings.
In Dunlop’s case, her introduction to sexual orientation came at a young age. For years, she said, she was brought up by her Christian mother to believe that any attraction between two people of the same sex was not only wrong, but immoral.
Then, during the summer before entering seventh grade at T/E Middle School, Dunlop met an openly gay male at a summer camp she was attending.
“That experience really helped me see that this lifestyle was OK, that these were still people,” she said.
Upon entering eighth grade, Dunlop came to the realization that she was bisexual, and decided to waste little time in telling a group of close friends. In hindsight, she feels that her decision was made “before I was probably ready to deal with the whole situation.”
During that year, Dunlop said that she would often skip school because of the “hostile learning environment” she faced, a trend which experts view as common in teens who decide to come out during grade school.
“Students who have just come out are among the most likely to miss school because they don’t feel safe in a social setting,” said Daryl Presgraves, a spokesperson for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), the leading national education organization focused on ensuring safe schools for all students.
In its most recent survey on school climate, GLSEN reported that 32 percent of LGBT students have missed at least one day of school in the past month because of feeling uncomfortable in a school environment.
“Many LGBT students end up deciding that they can’t deal with the constant negativity they hear and choose to completely avoid the problem,” Presgraves said. “I think that’s one of the most revealing statistics out there as to how these students are treated on an everyday basis.”
Throughout the tail end of middle school, Dunlop said that it felt like her sexual orientation was scrutinized by almost all who knew her, whether it was to her face or behind her back.
“It felt like everybody in the world knew,” she said. “When I would walk into a room, it would go quiet and seem like everybody was staring at me.”
Soon after, she faced one of her greatest challenges yet: telling her mother. Dunlop had been “uneasy” to do so for some time, as her mother did not advocate the lifestyles of openly homosexual or bisexual individuals, but knew that she had to let her know eventually.
“When I told my mom that I was bisexual, she said that she’d be supportive of me, but didn’t see herself changing her views on the issue as a whole,” she said. “That wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to hear at the time, but it was somewhere to start.”
After living more than two years as an openly bisexual teenager, Dunlop said that she never could have predicted much of what has happened, but does not regret the decision she made to be honest with her parents, her peers and herself.
“It’s been a rough few years, but I’m proud of the fact that I stayed true to myself,” she said. “I’m not one to change who I am to fit in with the crowd.”
For other openly LGBT students, the coming out process was one that stretched over a longer period, and was fraught with other complications.
Senior Jon Phillips, an openly gay male, said that he first realized he was homosexual when he entered seventh grade. At first, he said, he thought that it was simply a phase, and thus decided to keep quiet. Until December of his junior year, Phillips kept his true sexual orientation hidden, often lying to friends and family members in order to postpone the moment at which he would have to reveal the truth.
“I wanted to tell them, but I couldn’t bring myself to take that risk,” he said.
Midway through his junior year, however, Phillips grew tired of answering the ever-growing question of “Are you gay?”—which stemmed from his hinting to a few friends that he “might” be homosexual—with an emphatic “no.” He knew that it was time to tell his friends and family.
After using a group of close friends to gauge what sort of reaction he would get—which turned out to be overwhelmingly positive—Phillips decided to take the next step.
In May 2008, he sat down with his parents and let them know that he was gay, a fact that he had known for years.
“That was probably the hardest step of the process,” he said.
After what he called a “successful” conversation with both his mother and father, Phillips reached out further, this time sending out a mass notification on Facebook to some of his more distant friends.
In the days that followed his decision to send out the notification, Phillips said that he received numerous responses, most of which were in a positive, encouraging tone. What was particularly unnerving to him, however, was the fact that many of those who received the notification did not respond.
“That put me on edge,” he said. “I wasn’t really sure what to think at the time.”
In hindsight, Phillips feels little regret in his decision to come out.
“It’s not something that I could have kept hidden forever,” he said. “The time was right for me to come out, and now I feel like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders.”
A hostile environment
While the school and others throughout the community have made strides to provide support for openly LGBT students in the district, recent trends suggest that there is still work to be done.
Principal Tim Donovan confirmed that “multiple” student suspensions have been handed out since the start of the school year on the grounds of discrimination to openly LGBT students.
Dunlop said that she experiences some form of harassment—typically verbal—on an almost weekly basis at school. Apart from one particular incident, she said that she tends not to report these occurrences to the administration.
“There’s not much they can really do,” she said. “People will say what they think, regardless of what the consequences might be.”
Dunlop said that she has frequently been approached at school by various students who verbally taunt her, oftentimes with the use of the word “dyke,” or others of similar effect.
“It always has an impact on me, whether I show it on the outside or not,” she said. “By now, I’m used to it.”
A safe haven
For openly LGBT teenagers, the various social challenges faced during high school can be immense. In the district, however, many of these students have found acceptance with the Conestoga Gay/Straight Alliance, a group designed specifically to address and inform students about the role of sexual orientation in society.
Started nearly a decade ago, GSA’s evolution at Conestoga has been well-documented. However, club adviser Trevor Drake said that not all has been easy over the years.
“We received some opposition from the start,” he said. “At the time of our formation, the idea of a GSA at Conestoga was not supported by an overwhelming majority.”
After a year of negotiating with the school administration, Drake said that GSA was ultimately made an official school extracurricular activity.
While GSA is noted to be fairly outspoken at school, its membership count compared to that of other clubs is relatively low. According to club officers, GSA currently has 20 active members, a number which has remained fairly stable since the club’s formation nine years ago.
Drake feels that this unusually small number may indicate a growing fear that many students have when associating themselves which LGBT issues in school.
“There seems to be a social stigma attached to GSA,” he said. “There are probably other factors that explain our low membership, but I feel that many students may be scared about what it can do to their reputation.”
Club members, many of whom are heterosexual, say they have encountered numerous students over the years who have wondered aloud why they chose to publicly associate themselves with these issues.
“People don’t understand why [I’m in GSA],” club officer Katherine Law said. “I’ve had people come up to me and ask if I’m a lesbian. They just don’t understand that I could be doing this because I’m passionate for the cause.”
Over the years, Drake said that GSA has advocated for the district curriculum—specifically that in the health field—to cover the issue of sexual orientation more thoroughly in a classroom setting.
“It’s something that needs exposure whenever appropriate in order to highlight the differences that are around us every day,” he said.
According to Delvin Dinkins, district health curriculum supervisor, the issue of sexual orientation is not explicitly covered until students enter Health II—typically in their junior year—in the high school.
“There are complex topics that are more appropriate for an older grade level,” Dinkins said.
Dinkins explained that the health curriculum at the elementary and middle school level is more broadly designed to “try to create an inclusive environment where students can develop healthy attitudes to differences.”
“Our philosophy is that this idea of inclusivity transcends all types of differences students may have,” he said.
Experts and advocates of LGBT issues within education, on the other hand, feel that the fact that homophobia is still prevalent within the community indicates that students have not taken much from this education. Many recommend that the key to fixing the problem is to introduce the idea of sexual orientation earlier in school, in order to provide students with a true perspective on modern society.
“Homophobia is learned,” said Lisa Fraser, an education specialist with The SPOT, a West Chester center for LGBT students to learn and socialize in a safe environment. “If you can work with young people earlier and integrate it with regular elementary education, you can start to undo some of the negative perceptions that students get.”
While not expressly forbidden from mentioning sexual orientation in district middle schools, health teachers in grades 5-8 say that such topics in the classroom have become almost nonexistent.
Middle school health teacher David Hardy said that LGBT issues in class are “not up for discussion.”
“Our family life [unit] is a very, very tight unit,” he said. “The bottom line is we don’t cover it down here in the middle school.”
For those like Dunlop, however, their sights are set on the future, looking to a time when LGBT ideas will gain a broader tolerance and acceptance in society.
Dunlop hopes that time will come sooner rather than later. For now, she—and others like her—are turning to various social issues that were once considered controversial.
“We’ve seen similar controversies with women’s rights and segregation in our history,” Dunlop said. “To me, this is just another social hurdle that we will one day work together to overcome.”
Seth Zweifler can be reached at email@example.com.
Appeared originally on pages 1, 4 and 5 of The Spoke’s Dec. 17, 2008 edition.