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School's Out

queer teens
Culture Club: Seniors Jesse McMurray and Rafana Ung share a laugh at Lincoln High School's support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and questioning youth, which meets regularly to discuss the trials of gay teen life. Some other high schools have banned such groups from meeting on campus.

In the open environment of San Jose's Lincoln High School, gay, lesbian and bisexual teens hold hands in the halls and escort each other to dances. But parents wonder: is it hip to be queer?

By Judi Blackwell

RATANA UNG skillfully maneuvers around his cramped kitchen, pausing briefly to look up in annoyance at Deva, a long-tailed macaw who squawks loudly from a birdcage in the corner of the kitchen. Another bird, a white-plumed cockatoo, remains silent, along with Patrick, a recently adopted puppy who sleeps exhausted on the hardwood floor after a long walk around the block. It's Tuesday, family night, and Ratana's turn to cook dinner.

If report cards and scholastic accomplishments are any source of measurement, the clean-cut, outgoing teen appears extremely well-adjusted for having had such a turbulent past. Ratana says he was just 13 when his devoutly Catholic parents kicked him out of their Denver, Colo., home after they learned he was gay. Ratana's homosexuality simply wasn't acceptable in his traditional Vietnamese household.

"There's not even words to translate to what a homosexual is," he says. "After explaining that I was attracted to the same sex, all my mother could do was cry. My stepfather kicked me out of the house. It's not like I was having sex or even had a boyfriend. I just knew that when I looked at magazines, it was the men that I was looking at and fantasizing about."

After being jostled between relatives, friends and foster homes, he was adopted by two gay men last year--an arrangement made through P-FLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). Ratana transferred to San Jose's Lincoln High School in the San Jose Unified School District. Openly gay, he won the office of student body secretary this year, beating out a popular classmate. He also thrived academically and secured admission to University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he plans to major in hospitality management.

Ratana took a male friend to the Sadie Hawkins Dance at Lincoln earlier in the year, without incident. "Sadie's really was boring," comments Ratana, while stirring spinach soup on the stove. "We left early."

EVEN THOUGH gay youth are slowly cracking open closet doors throughout the country, the level of openness at Lincoln is almost unheard of. To be sure, taunting and whispering behind backs still occurs at Lincoln, but same-sex couples casually walk hand-in-hand through campus, sneak kisses in the hallways and attend school dances together. Teachers have openly and without complaint placed posters in their classrooms which read: "What would you do if your friend said he was gay?" Fliers are also posted to announce meetings for the "gay, lesbian, bisexual and questioning" support group.

Lincoln, in San Jose's quiet Rose Garden neighborhood, has become known as a safe place in the system, a haven of tolerance. As one straight student simply put it, "It's no big deal. Nobody cares what sexuality you are at our school."

A quiet and timid 16-year-old sophomore, Brad, says he was verbally and physically harassed at San Jose's Leigh High School anywhere from five to 25 times a day. "People I didn't even know would call me a 'faggot' when I was walking down the halls," he says. "Then they harassed my friends. Some people [in administration] wanted to pursue it, but what could they do? It would put me in a worse situation. Then I'd get beat up."

The stress caused by daily taunting wreaked havoc on Brad's body, causing him to fall ill and lose more than 20 pounds. That's when his mother, who has always been supportive about her son's homosexuality, discovered the extent of his problems and helped him change schools mid-semester. "I can imagine the torture he had to go through daily thinking about getting up every morning and going through it all over again," she empathizes.

When she and her husband went to Leigh to discuss the situation they hit what she describes as a homophobic wall. "I kept having to repeat that he was born this way," she says. "We were sure there were more gay, lesbian and bisexual students--and ethnicities--that were being harassed."

Today, she is philosophical. "My goal is to make Leigh and every other high school acknowledge these kids, and make them realize these kids have a body, heart and soul."

ACCORDING TO national statistics, homosexual youth are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth. Estimates show that up to 30 percent of the completed youth suicides annually are completed by lesbian and gay youth. Many run away, or, like Ratana, are kicked out of their homes. Other studies show that gay teenagers are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, drop out of school, and be verbally and physically abused by parents and other students.

In a recent, well-publicized case in Washington state, a 14-year-old lesbian and her 13-year-old girlfriend were jumped by four male students. According to reports, the boys beat up both girls, broke the younger one's hand and then raped her while forcing the older girl to watch.

Ralph Serpe, executive director of the Billy DeFrank Lesbian and Gay Community Center, says incidents like this happen all the time. Not long ago, a young girl came to him for help because her mother threatened to have her raped because she was a lesbian.

Although not always violent, attacks on the rights of gay youth come in many forms. Controversy recently struck Salt Lake City's high school district after boycotting students from East High School marched to the state capitol in protest of a school-board ban on all extracurricular high school clubs. The board imposed the ban as a way of barring gay and lesbian clubs and support groups from meeting at the school.

Last June, in another well-publicized case, Heather Rath, a reporter for Leigh High School's student paper, The Eleight, accepted an ad for the Billy DeFrank Center. ("Get the Message OUT. Meet new FRIENDS," the ad read.) Even though a disclaimer in The Eleight states that products it advertises aren't endorsed by the school or district, Principal James Russell refused to allow the ad to run. Rath pressed the issue, got herself an ACLU lawyer and took it to the school board, where the principal's decision was overturned. The incident received coverage in both Metro and Seventeen magazine.

Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill also had problems after a similar ad was printed on ASB student body cards. Parents were upset and petitioned to have the cards recalled.

Estimates vary on the numbers of homosexual teens. Trudy Gross, youth coordinator for the Billy DeFrank Center, estimates that 10 percent of the population is homosexual, according to the oft-cited 1948 Kinsey report, which translates into more than 20,000 gay and lesbian teenagers in the Santa Clara County school system. More-recent statistics showing homosexual preferences to be closer to 5 percent would mean there are still 10,000 gay youth in the county. Gross says more than 700 kids came through their facilities last year.

ELEVEN STUDENTS show up for the weekly gay support-group meeting at Lincoln, including Rich Garcia, a San Jose Unified School District board member who has come to find out, he says, how the district can help improve student life for gay, lesbian, bisexual and questioning youth. The students are initially hesitant, but after some discussion agree to let him sit in.

As the meeting gets under way, it becomes clear that some feel the group should be politically active. Some students want to increase awareness, but they don't want to call more attention than necessary to themselves. "I don't think we should run around campus and say 'Hi. We're the Gay Team,' " complains one student, which gets everyone laughing, until Sean Wilson, the adult intern facilitating the group, gets them to focus on the subject at hand.

Soon talk turns to this week's highlights of gay-bashing. One male student complains about walking into the men's bathroom, and having another student rudely ask if he's allowed in there. Again, everyone doubles over in laughter.

"Can you imagine if we had a gay bathroom? We'd color it pink and put flowered wallpaper all over it," he says, as everyone else laughs hysterically. For the next minute, the students go off on a tangent about how to decorate a gay bathroom. The hyperbole is obvious; these kids know the stereotypes, but they easily laugh them off.

Although most of the discussions are serious, the students tend to make light of their situation. After one student talks about having to leave the wrestling team because nobody wanted to challenge him, he jokes about how "straight guys get so pissed when a fag beats them."

LINCOLN, AS is well known to people in San Jose Unified, is the performing arts magnet school, a fact which has made some parents and students go so far as to call it the "gay magnet." In fact, only one student in the support group is theater bound. No, Lincoln is not a breeding ground for homosexual activity, says Stefanie Smith, an English teacher at Lincoln who also facilitates the gay support group. "The kids are out here, but there's just as many gay kids in other schools," she adds. And the reason they are out at Lincoln, she believes, is because the administration and teachers are supportive. Teachers are not terrified to raise gay and lesbian issues in their classrooms, nor are they afraid to squelch derogatory, gay-bashing outbursts by ignorant students, says Smith.

Teachers are also required to go to in-service training sessions devoted to the topic of gay youth. "The more accurate information we can give faculty, the better they can help kids. We need wake-up calls on all kinds of levels and certainly on gay and bisexual issues," agrees Betsy James, another English teacher at Lincoln. "In any other minority group, kids can go home and get a pat on the back if they've been harassed at school. Gay kids don't always have that support."

So far, the gay-sensitive philosophy espoused by the administration, students and faculty at Lincoln seems to have made a positive impact. On a recent trip, while walking through the campus with several openly gay students, some of whom were holding hands, it was surprising to see nobody even give them a second glance. In fact, they were welcomed by many students. On the way to their weekly support group, many of the gay students walking were flagged down by friends wanting to say hello and chat, something most people would never have imagined happening just 10 years ago.

"It's all right. It's no big deal. They're there and we can't do anything about it," comments Rob, a heterosexual senior at Lincoln.

HOWEVER, TO some parents, the gay youth culture at Lincoln more closely resembles a rebellion and not necessarily sexual preference. They cite the generational worship of Kurt Cobain, who wore skirts and admitted he experimented in homosexuality. Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy's "Language of Violence," is a popular anti-gay bashing song. Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang, Prince, Boy George, Tribe 8, Pansy Division, Team Dresch and Bikini Kill have all brought gay issues into the musical mainstream.

One San Jose Unified parent thinks that her own daughter, a freshman at Lincoln, was peer-pressured into being a bisexual. Kelly was 14 when her mother first realized that she had a strange relationship with her best friend-- another girl.

"It wasn't a normal friendship. It was more boyfriend-girlfriend. It scared me," she says, explaining that it was too drastic of a change and that Kelly (not her real name) had always loved boys and chased after them.

And although as a parent she was willing to support Kelly if she was gay, her biggest fear was that she would be humiliated at school. "And then she told me everyone is [gay]," the mother recalls.

Finding this hard to believe, she took a day off work to visit Lincoln and was amazed at the open affection between same-sex couples. "I saw kids hanging on each other," she says. "I hated it from the jump. It gave me an eerie feeling."

The reason she was so upset about her daughter's bisexuality, she says, wasn't so much that she was bisexual, but that she didn't have a choice and was pressured into it by a manipulative girlfriend.

"I just don't feel unless you're an adult and you get some history behind you that you're equipped to make those lifestyle choices." She told Kelly that "What you're doing, to me, is experimentation. It's part of growing up. There's nothing wrong with that, but to declare bisexuality is bullshit. You don't have enough experience behind you to know. It's not something a 14-year-old can declare with validity."

She goes on to explain that she's not against gays and lesbians.

"I don't know, maybe there aren't any long-term implications, but I feel if they're doing it out of peer pressure then it can't sit right in their heart," she says

Many students and teachers feel that gay trendiness is a ridiculous notion. Why would a student choose a path that would, in most cases, put them in a position to be physically and verbally abused? Yet other students at Lincoln do agree that homosexuality is, to a certain degree, trendy at Lincoln. Susan, a straight-A student and an out lesbian, agrees but stresses that there is no peer pressure to be gay, and that most "pseudo gays" don't last long.

HIGH SCHOOLS throughout the Bay Area have a spotty record, with intense individual efforts, at dealing with gay youth or incorporating homosexuality as part of sex education. Lincoln, Independence, Andrew Hill, Santa Teresa, Live Oak and Castilleja offer clubs, counseling and other support services. At the county level, the Santa Clara County Task Force on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth, among other things, develops and promotes policy for individuals and organizations who work with LGBT youth.

The Eastside Union High School District, which is the most progressive, according to Gross, implemented a Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Youth Advisory Board to improve awareness at all 10 district schools. In-services, specifically dealing with gay and lesbian issues, are held at every school in the district, and posters, like the ones at Lincoln, are distributed to high schools, whether or not they ever get affixed to a wall.

But even in 1996 it is still difficult, comments Narquiz Cervantes, coordinator for Eastside's Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Youth Advisory Board. "There's a fine line to how you get a something started," he says. "A chess club would be no problem, but a gay, lesbian and bisexual club definitely is. It is still seen as recruitment, unfortunately."

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From the June 13-19, 1996 issue of Metro

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