Gay Students Wanting to Be Seen

LGBT Community Increasingly Accepted but Still Fighting for Visual Representation at School


Dec. 8, 2009—

For many teens, the adolescent experience is defined by a desire for acceptance among peers. But for gay and lesbian students, in schools across the country, there's another issue at stake. It's the fight to be represented publicly in high school and college rites of passage: the yearbook, the big school dance, the homecoming court.

In what some gay-rights advocacy organizations consider a setback in the struggle for equality, students at the University of North Texas, in Denton, recently voted against allowing same-sex and gender-neutral couples to run for homecoming court.

"You know it's unfortunate any time schools put forth policy that restricts the expression of young people, especially when students are behind it," said Daryl Presgraves, public relations manager for the New York City-based Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. "It's extremely frustrating because you want to be able to say that every student has the same opportunity."

It all started when a male student indicated he was interested in running with another male for the court, Christopher Passafiume, student senator and member of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Denton (GLAD), told ABC News on Campus. Passafiume said he informed the student that the school's bylaws prohibited his candidacy.

Despite one's gender identification, he said, students must file with a partner of the opposite sex, with males running for king and females campaigning for queen.

So Passafiume, 20, introduced a bill in the student senate that would have changed the bylaws. But it was defeated when brought to a vote Sept. 29.

Beforehand, he said, many unhappy parents, alumni and donors called and wrote the student government association threatening to remove their children from the university and to discontinue school donations if the legislation passed.

Dozens of students protested the bill's defeat by disrupting a subsequent senate meeting Oct. 14, even threatening to remove senators who voted against the proposed legislation. Carrying rainbow flags and yelling for "equal rights," members of the local LGBT community seemed to surprise the senate members, recalled North Texas photojournalism senior Charlie McRae, 24, who documented the protest.

After the demonstrators were repeatedly told to remain silent, two police officers eventually asked them to leave.

"It was kind of a heated moment," McRae said. "They marched back downstairs and they continued for a bit in front of the building."

Majority Decides 'Fate of the Minority'

It was then that the student government association decided to have a campus-wide referendum on the matter, of which only 13.5 percent of the student body (about 4,860 students out of 36,000) participated.

"The issue should not have gone as far as to have been put up to a student vote," Passafiume said. "It is unethical to let the majority decide the fate of the minority."

Yet, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community has faced a number of other obstacles with regard to school visibility elsewhere in the nation, as evidenced by events this year.

The problem, however, is not just reserved to college campuses. With more and more students coming out at an early age, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, issues concerning visibility have surfaced during the high school years.

"This isn't a shock to me," said Chris Hampton, public education associate for the American Civil Liberties Union's LGBT Project, when asked about LGBT students confronting problems at school.

"This happens all the time. But many students aren't aware of what their rights are, so they don't question it. They don't contact us so we don't know about them."

In October, Cynthia Stewart, a student at Tharptown High School in Franklin County, Ala., said she was denied the opportunity to bring her girlfriend to the prom she was helping to coordinate for next year.

After the school board refused to overturn the decision, Stewart was one of the few who contacted a civil rights attorney who put them in touch with the ACLU. Hampton said Stewart, 17, mentioned that some teachers had said they would cancel the dance if she chose to bring her date. But on the day the ACLU had planned to send the school a formal letter addressing the issue, Stewart told Hampton she had heard the prom wouldn't be canceled after all. Regardless, the ACLU decided to send a letter to the school. After receiving the letter the school confirmed Stewart would be able to attend, with her girlfriend as her date.

"With Cynthia, we just had her tell her story," Hampton said, adding that, in doing so, they hoped to increase public awareness about LGBT discrimination.

But because Stewart's girlfriend was from outside the district, assistant superintendent Donald Borden said her date would still need to go through the screening process for all out-of-district dates who attend such school functions.

"The schools handle their own problems, we don't have district rules," Borden told ABC News on Campus. "We didn't make any decision until after [Stewart] contacted her lawyer and then we just [met] with the principal."

Borden said he believed Tharptown High School Principal Gary Odom initially denied Stewart from attending the prom because of possible pressures from the community. Repeated calls made to Odom were not returned.

An 'Avalanche of Equality'?

Whatever the principal's motivation, it appears unlikely that such actions will discourage teens from following their hearts. "What we know is that younger people are more accepting in ways," Presgraves of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network said. "But, I think society as a whole has a long way to go. We are going to see a slow trickle until we see an avalanche of equality."

In August, school officials in Wesson, Miss., alerted openly gay student Ceara Sturgis, 17, that she would not be included in her high school yearbook after she chose to wear a tuxedo for her senior portrait. A district employee said she was unaware whether a decision had been reached regarding the situation.

"I think, to some extent, we're talking about gender identity and that's a more important concept," said Randall Terrell, political director of LGBT advocacy group Equality Texas.

Students who don't conform to gender stereotypes, such as women who chose to wear a tuxedo, are wrongly subjected to discrimination, he added.

Also, this spring, student Brittany Crowell of Jim Hill High School in Jackson, Miss., took a school flier to the local ACLU office where she worked part-time. The flier, which was promoting the school's prom, said students were not allowed to take same-sex dates to the dance.

The organization eventually wrote the school and said they were violating students' rights, citing the Fricke v. Lynch case. The 1980 decision, which was argued before the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island, upheld the right of gay students to take a same-sex date to a school dance.

Crowell told ABC News on Campus that a week after the ACLU brought the matter to the school's attention, school officials removed the stipulation and posted a revised announcement around campus.

"You can generally say that schools aren't ready," Presgraves said. "There are some that are taking the necessary steps but it depends on where [students] live to determine what they're getting."

But there have been some royal endings, most notably at the collegiate level.

In late October, 21-year-old Jessee Vasold, a "gender-queer" student at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., who doesn't identify as either male or female, was crowned the school's first transgender homecoming queen.

And George Mason University student Ryan Allen experienced a victory of his own in February when he was elected homecoming queen. His drag queen persona, "Reann Ballslee," won by a popular vote.

Allen, 23, who goes only by Ballslee when he is performing, said his identity was not much of an issue for most of the student body.

"Having the title of 'Ms. Mason 2009' has been fun," said Allen, who graduated from the university in August. "I know that because of my participation and winning of the pageant, I was able to represent people who never felt represented by the blonde Barbie sorority girls and uber-macho males."

Male and Female Representation

Allen said that since the coronation, he has received e-mail from members of the LGBT community thanking him for serving as an inspiration. When asked about the vote at the University of North Texas, Allen said it reinforces the notion that these individuals are second-class citizens.

"The thing about members of the LGBT community being involved in homecoming," Allen said, "is that it shows that everyone, no matter what group or identity they have, is a part of the bigger university community."

Diedrick Brackens, president of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Denton, said he had an inclination the measure wouldn't pass but was still surprised that 42 percent of the 13.5 percent of students who voted were willing to give same-sex and gender-neutral couples the opportunity to run for next year's court.

Because of the election, however, the university's student senate cannot introduce legislation that would challenge the results until after next year's homecoming proceedings.

"Let's take a male couple running for king and queen," Terrell of Equality Texas said. "You're not dealing with sexual orientation, the vote seems to be one about gender-bending roles. I agree, it is just a popularity contest but why rule that kids can't run?"

Before the special election, Dakota Carter, North Texas' student body president, said, "The ultimate issue isn't that we told gay students they couldn't run, they have every right to run. It's just that we're trying to recognize male and female representation."

Carter, 21, who is openly gay himself, said both the university and its student government remained neutral throughout the entire process, only encouraging students to voice their opinions.

"It's a student decision as to whether or not to change the composition of the homecoming court," said Deborah Leliaert, the school's vice president for university relations.

Despite the particular decision, Brackens, the president of GLAD, said the overall experience has been somewhat beneficial to his group's cause, and has served as a much-needed conversation.

"It gave me and other members [of his organization] a chance to plug our group and to tell people what we've been about," Brackens said. "Any visibility, usually, in our minds is a good thing." contributor Xorje Olivares is a member of the University of Texas ABC News on Campus bureau in Austin.