LGBTQ Students Fight for Their Rights

It seemed like a great idea. Earlier this year, as they looked for ways to fill the final issues of their award-winning school newspaper, The Kernal, student journalists at California's East Bakersfield High School came up with what they thought was a winner — a series on LGBTQ issues. The articles would focus on the high school's LGBTQ students and their individual coming-out stories. They'd give voice to a part of the student body that was rarely heard from before, and hopefully encourage discussion, debate, and acceptance.

A great idea, but there was just one problem — the school principal. East Bakersfield's administrative leader refused to allow the stories to be published, and in so doing, joined a growing army of educators, parents, politicians, and others trying to keep "homosexuality" out of public schools.

Taking It to Court

Not surprisingly, East Bakersfield's student journalists did fight back. They took their school to court, suing for the right to publish, in the name of free speech. The Kernal's editor-in-chief, 18-year-old Joel Paramo, summarized his and his peers' feelings in a statement he made at the hearings: "There are some negative attitudes against gay people on campus," said Paramo. "But that is exactly why we chose to focus on sexual orientation in the paper: so that the issues could be talked about in the open, not stuffed back into the closet." The verdict? It's still up in the air, but there's hope the stories will be published in the next school year.

A Growing Trend

The situation at East Bakersfield High is just one example of how LGBTQ voices are being silenced in schools across the country. In other cases, anti-gay groups and individuals in Montgomery County, MD, have called for the removal of information about sexual orientation from sex-education curricula in county schools. At White County High School in Cleveland, GA, students were prevented from forming a gay-straight alliance. Elsewhere, in states ranging from California to Oklahoma to Wisconsin, groups have tried to ban books by LGBTQ authors or with LGBTQ content from school and public libraries. And, as they're attempting to do at East Bakersfield, they've prevented school papers from publishing stories about LGBTQ issues.

A Result of Ignorance

Schools' attempts to forbid gay-straight alliances have been especially forceful. School officials in Cleveland, GA, for example, even tried to ban all after-school clubs in order to prevent White County High School's gay-straight alliance from forming.

Students like 17-year-old Talia Stein, now an intern at the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which works to end LGBTQ student harassment, think the backlash is a result of ignorance and fear.

"When people hear 'gay,' they block out the rest and they don't hear the 'straight' part of the alliance," says Talia. "They just assume the club is teaching sex, that we're turning people gay, and they never try to find out what is actually going on in the club, which is simply education and advocacy around this specific issue."

Talia's own experience at her high school in Chicago is particularly telling. "When I started school, I noticed that sexual orientation, while not necessarily talked about in a negative manner, was not talked about at all," she says. "It wasn't mentioned in health classes, it wasn't mentioned in any curriculum, we didn't have a club that outwardly did any work around the issue, and that kind of bothered me. And so I thought it would be fun to start a gay-straight alliance. So I met with a couple of friends, found a sponsor, filled out the forms, and was promptly denied."

Talia's efforts to form the club were blocked, repeatedly, for nearly a year. Eventually, though, with the help of LAMBDA Legal, a nonprofit organization offering legal assistance for LGBTQ people, the school gave in. "They said fine, have the club. And they've been supportive ever since."

For the students at East Bakersfield -- and for LGBTQ students and allies across the nation -- that's good news. But the fight continues. To find out how you can help fight for LGBTQ rights in schools, check on GLSEN's Web site.

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