Gay Teens Fight Back
The way in which the GOP continues to use same-sexers as a political football to advance its chances could be seen clearly in California, where Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (an open lesbian who co-starred in TV's Dobie Gillis series in the sixties) saw her Dignity for All Students Act beaten in the Assembly by one vote. GOP front groups "targeted only Democratic Latino legislators from swing districts in an unprecedented campaign-style effort," says Jennifer Richard, Kuehl's top aide. This included prayer vigils at their district offices, very sophisticated phone-banking that switched those called directly into Assembly members' offices to complain, mailings in Spanish to every Hispanic-surnamed household and full-page ads costing $8,000-$12,000 each in local papers. The mailings and ads featured photos of a white man embracing a Latino, a black man kissing a Latino and a Latino kid in a Boy Scout uniform, and called on voters to "stop the homosexual agenda," which "doesn't like the Boy Scout pledge to be morally straight." These ads were reinforced by a $30,000 radio ad blitz by the Rev. Lou Sheldon's Traditional Family Values Coalition in the targeted legislators' districts.
Despite a Youth Lobby Day that brought 700 gay students to Sacramento to support the Kuehl bill, two Latino Democrats caved in to the pressure, insuring the bill's defeat by one vote. But in a shrewd parliamentary maneuver, its supporters attached a condensed version as an amendment to an unrelated bill in the senate, which passed it--then sent it to the assembly, where it was finally approved by a six-vote margin (making California the first state to codify protections for gender-nonconforming students, who experience the most aggressive forms of harassment). Similar bills died or were defeated last year in Colorado, Delaware, Illinois and Texas (in New York, one introduced by openly gay State Senator Tom Duane is still bottled up in committee).
The difference such bills can make can be seen in Massachusetts, which has had a tough and explicit law barring discrimination against and harassment of gay students since 1993, and where its implementation benefited from strong support by then-Governor William Weld (a Republican) and his advisory council on gay and lesbian issues. Massachusetts is the only state that encourages the formation of gay student support groups as a matter of policy--which is why there are now 180 GSAs in the Bay State alone. There, the state Safe Schools program is run by GLSEN under a contract with the state's Education Department, and it organizes eight regional conferences each year for students who want to start or have just started their own GSA.
There is a skein of service agencies in large cities that operate effective programs for gay youth, including peer counseling, drop-in centers, teacher training, AIDS education and assistance for victims of violence (for listings of and links to groups for gay youth, visit The Nation's website at www.thenation.com). But these programs are all dreadfully underfunded and in many places, like Texas, are denied access to the schools. Also, gay youths themselves often complain that there is a lack of support from the adult gay movement. Says Candice Clark, a 19-year-old lesbian who graduated in 1998 from a suburban Houston high school, "A lot of the older gay community here is fearful of the youth as jailbait, since so many people think that if you're gay you're a pedophile." She also notes that the failure of Congress to pass ENDA--the Employment Non-Discrimination Act for lesbians and gays--means that adults, expecially teachers, can be fired if their sexual orientation is discovered.
Richard Agostinho, 22, who founded the Connecticut youth group Queer and Active after the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, and who serves as one of the NYAC national board's youth members, says the local adult-led groups "are not building relationships with young people--they need to go out and recruit them and engage in mentoring of sorts. There are plenty of young people who could add emotion and power to this movement. But if a 17- or 18-year-old goes to a meeting of a local group or community center in a roomful of 30- or 40-somethings, the adults frequently fail to create an atmosphere in which the youth feel comfortable contributing. It's a problem very similar to involving people of color or anyone not traditionally represented at these tables."
The urgency of putting the problems facing gay adolescents on the agenda of every local gay organization is underscored by a study released last September by GLSEN. It showed that of nearly 500 gay students surveyed, almost half said they didn't feel safe in their schools: 90 percent reported verbal harassment, 46.5 percent had experienced sexual harassment, 27.6 percent experienced physical harassment and 13.7 percent were subjected to physical assault.
But this new generation of adolescent activists won't be ignored. For, as Jared Nayfack says, "When you do this work you open up a whole area of your heart and soul, and when you stop, you feel it deeply. Activism is addictive--you don't ever want to stop unless there's nothing left to do...and that will be a long time."