Jared Nayfack was 11 years old and living in the heart of conservative Orange County, California, when he told his best friend from school that he was gay–“and my friend then came out to me,” says Jared. When he turned 15, Jared celebrated his birthday by coming out to his parents and closest friends. By then, he was attending a Catholic high school, and on a school-sponsored overnight field trip, Jared and his schoolmates decided to spend their free evening at the movies seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show. “Some of us had decided to get all costumed up to see it, and when the teacher who was with us saw us she threw a fit: She forced me to get up in front of the other twenty-one students–many of whom I didn’t know–and tell them I was gay. Most of the kids supported me, but later that evening, one of them–a lot bigger than I was; he had a black belt in martial arts–came into my hotel room and beat me up. I was a bloody mess, and he could have killed me if another student hadn’t heard my screams and stopped him.” Instead of punishing Jared’s assailant, the school’s dean suspended Jared and put him on “academic and behavioral probation.” “The dean told me that even though I was forced to tell the others that I was gay, I was at fault because I’d ‘threatened the masculinity’ of the kid who’d beat me up,” Jared recalls.
In fear, Jared transferred to a public high school, the South Orange County High School of the Arts. “I thought I’d be safe and could be out when I came there–after all, it was an arts program. Boy, was I wrong. Within two weeks people were yelling ‘fag’ at me in the halls and in class. I was dressed a little glam, if you will–nothing really offensive, just a little makeup. But when I went to the principal to complain, she did nothing about the harassment and told me that I was ‘lacking in testosterone,'” Jared explains. To fight back, Jared and some gay and straight friends formed a club called PRIDE, which made a twenty-five-foot-long rainbow banner to put up in school decorated with multicolored hands and the slogan, hands for equality (the banner was banned). The club also made beaded rainbow bracelets that many students wore–“even a lot of the football players,” according to Jared–but the club was forbidden by the administration “because it didn’t have anything to do with the curriculum.” The harassment got worse–so bad that Jared had to leave school two months before graduation. “I had to fight to be before I could study,” Jared explains, “but I left there feeling really let down and like a failure–we hadn’t gotten anywhere.”
When he enrolled as a freshman at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Jared says, “I was embraced by a huge and loving queer community. They told me, ‘It’s OK to be angry’–that’s something I hadn’t heard before.” Feeling a bit burned out, for his first six months at Santa Cruz Jared avoided gay activism–until the day he attended a conference of gay youth. “There were kids pulling together–I just knew I had to help out.” He attended a youth training institute run by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN); began working with Gay/Straight Alliances (GSAs) at two high schools near the university; edited and xerox-published an anthology of adolescent writings about AIDS; created a performance piece, as part of his self-designed major in “theatrical activism,” about homophobia with a cast of seven straight boys to the hit song “Faggot” by the rock group Korn; and now speaks to gay youth groups around the country. Today Jared is only 18.
Jared’s story is fairly typical of a whole new generation of lesbian and gay adolescents: brave, tough and resilient, comfortable with their sexual identity and coming out at earlier ages, inventing their own organizations–and victimized by violence and harassment in their schools. Says Rea Carey, executive director of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition (NYAC), an alliance of local and national service agencies working to empower gay youth: “Five or ten years ago, kids would go to a youth service agency and say, ‘I need help because I think I’m gay.’ Today, more and more they say, ‘I’m gay and so what? I want friends and a place to work on the issues I care about.’ Being gay is not their problem, it’s their strength. These kids are coming out at 13, 14, 15, at the same age that straight people historically begin to experience their sexuality. But they are experiencing more violence because of that.”
Quantifying the number of assaults on lesbian and gay youth isn’t easy. In most states, gay-run Anti-Violence Projects are woefully underfunded and understaffed (when they have any staff at all), and students are rarely aware of them, according to Jeffrey Montgomery, the director of Detroit’s Triangle Foundation and the spokesman for the National Association of Anti-Violence Projects. Teachers and school administrators most often don’t report such incidents. After pressure from state governments sympathetic to the Christian right, the Clinton/Gore Administration’s Centers for Disease Control removed all questions regarding sexual orientation from its national Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Now the only state to include them is Massachusetts.
There, according to its most recent questioning of nearly 4,000 high school students by the Massachusetts Department of Education, kids who self-identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual were seven times more likely than other kids to have skipped school because they felt unsafe (22.2 percent versus 3.3). A 1997 study by the Vermont Department of Health found that gay kids were threatened or injured with a weapon at school three times more than straight kids (24 percent versus 8). And a five-year study released in January by Washington State’s Safe Schools Coalition–a partnership of 74 public and private agencies–documented 146 incidents in the state’s schools, including eight gang rapes and 39 physical assaults (on average, a single gay kid is attacked by more than two offenders at once).
With the antigay crusades of the religious right and the verbal gay-bashings of politicians like Trent Lott legitimizing the demonization of homosexuals, it is hardly surprising that homophobia is alive and well among gay kids’ classmates. In November 1998, a poll of 3,000 top high schoolers by Who’s Who Among American High School Students–its twenty-ninth annual survey–found that 48 percent admitted they are prejudiced against gays, up 19 percent from the previous year (and these are, as Who’s Who proclaims, “America’s brightest students”).
All this means that, as Jon Lasser, an Austin, Texas, school psychologist (and heterosexual parent) who has interviewed scads of gay kids for his PhD thesis, puts it, “Many have a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome that affects their schoolwork–the fear of getting hurt really shakes them up and makes it hard to concentrate.”
The mushrooming growth of Gay/Straight Alliances in middle and high schools in just the past few years has been the gay kids’ potent response. There is strength in numbers: GSAs break the immobilizing isolation of gay students and raise their visibility, creating a mechanism to pressure school authorities into tackling harassment; educate teachers as well as other students; create the kind of solidarity among straight and gay kids that fosters resistance to bigotry and violence; provide meaningful safe-sex education; and help gay adolescents to speak and fight for themselves. The GLSEN national office has identified at least 400 GSAs, but since the GSA movement has been student-initiated and many self-starting groups are still not in touch with national gay organizations, the figure is undoubtedly much higher. There are eighty-five GLSEN chapters around the country, and while GLSEN began seven years ago primarily as an organization of teachers and other school personnel, it is making an increasing effort to include students in its organizing.
Another strategy that has frightened reluctant school administrators into steps to protect gay youth has been lawsuits by the kids themselves. The first on record was brought by a 16-year-old Ashland, Wisconsin, student, Jamie Nabozny, who in 1996 won a $900,000 judgment against school authorities who failed to prevent Nabozny’s torturous harassment from seventh through eleventh grades, including beatings that put him in the hospital. Currently there are nine similar suits pending, including cases in Illinois, Washington, New Jersey, Minnesota, Missouri and several in California (one brought by the first-ever group of lesbian student plaintiffs, in the San Jose area). But as David Buckel, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund’s staff attorney specializing in school matters, points out, “A lot of people call and say ‘I can’t afford to go to court,’ or ‘We live in a small town and I can’t put my family through that,’ or ‘If we sue and win it’ll raise our neighbors’ taxes and we’ll get bricks through our window.'” (And in late December, Orange County gay students filed a lawsuit against school officials, seeking to lift their ban on a GSA at El Modena High School on the grounds that the interdiction violated their First Amendment rights.)
In a civilized country, one would think, legislation to protect kids from violence and harassment in their schools should be unexceptionable. However, despite a loopy New York Times editorial praising the Republican Party for a kinder-and-gentler attitude toward gays, the GOP has taken the lead in opposing state-level safe-schools bills protecting gay kids. In Washington last year, for the second year in a row, openly gay State Representative Ed Murray–a progressive Seattle Democrat–led the fight for his bill that would have added lesbian and gay students to a law forbidding sexual and malicious harassment in the schools. “We had the votes to pass it this year in the House, which is split forty-nine to forty-nine–we had all forty-nine Democrats and picked up sixteen Republicans. But because of the tie in party membership, all House committees are co-chaired by Democrats and Republicans, and the GOP education committee co-chairman refused to let the bill out of committee. If it had been sent to the Senate, where Democrats have a majority, it would have passed.”
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.”