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A Hostile Hallway: GLBT Teens in High School

Everyone gets bullied in high school. But consider this incident: On October 15, 2002, the body of a Newark, California teen -- who had been reported missing after failing to return home from a party on October 3rd -- was found. Buried in a shallow grave, the victim was severely bludgeoned and strangled.

It was soon discovered that the 17-year-old, known as Gwen, was repeatedly hit with a skillet, and her semi-conscious body dragged to a garage where a rope was tightened around her neck. Her body was then dumped at a campground some 150 miles from her home. A few days later, the alleged assailants were arrested, and currently await trial.

The apparent reason for such a brutal death? Eddie "Gwen" Araujo was a transgender teen.

Since freshman year of high school, Gwen was an independent study student through Bridgepoint High School (Newark, CA). Prior to the incident, she had enrolled in the nearby alternative Crossroads High School for her senior year, but had not shown up for classes. Gwen's family pastor, Ed Moore, told the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition (NTAC) she did not finish her education because she was ostracized by her peers.

"People did not really want to accept her," Moore told NTAC. "And so not only were there personal struggles, but also struggles with how she was viewed by society."

Segregation or Safe Haven?
Gwen was not alone in her peer-imposed exile. According to the National Mental Health Association's Web site (www.nmha.org), 69 percent of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) teens report experiencing some form of harassment or violence in school. Forty-two percent do not feel safe in their schools, and 28 percent of gay teens drop out annually -- three times the national average.

Schools like New York City's Harvey Milk High School (HMHS) are trying to solve this problem. Characterized as a school for teens (especially GLBT teens) who are in crisis or at risk of physical and/or emotional harm, HMHS provides tutoring, employment training, counseling, and health and wellness education, just like any other high school. The only difference is, the environment caters to GLBT students.

Since becoming an official high school to 100 students this September*, the school has been shrouded in debate over whether a separate school for GLBT students is segregation. The school's Board Chair, Bari J. Mattes, responds by emphasizing the importance of children's rights over the issue of segregation.

"I want to be very clear about the fact that our school's existence is not a question of gay vs. straight, or inclusion vs. segregation," she says. "It's about what is best for youth in the world in which we live, where they are not accepted, and are discriminated against on a daily basis."

Dino Portalatin, HMHS' 2002 class valedictorian, says that after being "outed" by a close friend, attending a traditional school became frightening. He would run to class before the bell rang to avoid being harassed -- and those were on days he even went at all. One semester Dino totaled 85 absences.

"I knew I had potential and was a good kid, but the constant fighting and absences were only hurting me -- my self esteem, my feeling of self-worth, and my ability to make something of my life," he says. By attending HMHS, Dino says his grades went up immediately, he made friends, and finally felt comfortable in a school environment. "This school saved my life," he says. "If not for Harvey Milk, I'm sure I'd either be dead or working some burger-flipping job."

Dino is now looking at colleges and hopes to major in sociology. Which brings to mind an obvious question: What happens when it comes time to leave "gay-friendly" environments and enter the "real world," a.k.a. college?

What About the "Real World?"
Dea Nelson is publications coordinator in enrollment services at San Jose State University (San Jose, CA). For the past four years, she has given lectures at the National Association of College Admissions Counselors on easing the transition to college for GLBT students. As an integrationist, Nelson believes attending schools like HMHS should be a last resort.

"My preference would be to see these programs work at individual school and district levels," she says. "If students are at risk of dropping out, [HMHS] seems like a last ditch effort to keep kids in school."

The good news is that colleges tend to be more accepting of all people, Nelson says. With GLBT students, she says some sensitivities need to be taken into account when choosing a college. She often advises GLBT students to look at urban campuses because of their exposure to gay issues, but cautions they may not always be the right choice. "Find the right match and don't make any assumptions," she says. "Look carefully at [your] individual needs."

Nelson says more schools give support to GLBT students than we realize. She cites the Jesuit Marymount College (Rancho Palos Verdes, CA) as an example, saying the alleged toxicity of religious schools for GLBT students is just not true. "[Marymount's] alums came forward and said you can't make those kind of assumptions," she says. "They have a huge GLBT student support."

She also encourages GLBT students to look beyond student organizations, most of which come and go, and opt instead for mentors within a gay and lesbian faculty association. "A strong gay and lesbian faculty offer a different perspective on campus." Plus, gay faculty in the public eye can make students feel more comfortable on campus, she adds.

"One person coming out can have a tremendous effect," she says. "Almost all [GLBT teens] wish they had more role models."

And GLBT teens shouldn't be the only ones wishing for more gay role models. It's brutal deaths like Gwen's that show gay prejudice is still an issue. "[Gwen's death] was a huge wake-up call for our western liberal notions about ourselves," says Nelson.

In fact, one could say Gwen's assailants weren't -- as they probably thought -- getting rid of a problem. Instead, they were bringing one to light.

*This article was originally published in a 2003-4 issue of CollegeBound Teen Magazine.

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