New York Times

On December 8th, 1993, the New York Times printed , which covered work I had been doing on the Gay and Lesbian Student Rights bill to protect the civil rights of LGBTQ students in Massachusetts public schools.

More from Sara Rimer:

Photo: In Boston last week, high school students demonstrated at the Statehouse in favor of legislation barring discrimination against gay and lesbian students in public schools. (Associated Press);

BOSTON, Dec. 7— Massachusetts is about to become the first state in the nation to outlaw discrimination against gay and lesbian students in public schools.

Aides to Gov. William F. Weld say he will soon sign into law a bill that passed the State Senate here after an extraordinary lobbying campaign by hundreds of high school students — gay and lesbian, as well as heterosexual.

The law is intended to affirm the rights of openly gay students to many rituals of adolescence: to form alliances and clubs, to take a date to the prom, to participate freely in sports.

Proponents of the bill say it will make it easier for gay students who suffer harassment and violence — and who are not protected by school officials — to bring lawsuits against their schools. “They will have recourse,” said Byron Rushing, the Democratic State Representative who sponsored the bill in the House. “They will be able to sue.”

The lobbying effort involved hundreds of gay students who told legislators emotional stories of feeling isolated and afraid at school. They told of being physically threatened, attacked and cursed at in class and in school hallways because of their sexual orientation. Supporters of the bill said the students provided faces to Federal statistics that show an alarming rate of suicide among gay and lesbian youth, as well as a high dropout rate.

In two previous years, the Senate had kept the gay rights bill in committee. What made the difference this year, said Marty Linsky, the chief secretary to Governor Weld, were the students.

“There were 1,000 young people up here endlessly,” Mr. Linsky said. “And I think they were able to persuade members of the Legislature that the problem was real and that the solution was reasonable. Their stories about their own difficulties were very compelling, very persuasive.”

One of the students who testified to legislators was Troix Bettencourt, 19, who told the State House about dropping out of Lowell High School after his guidance counselor informed his parents that he might be homosexual. Mr. Bettencourt said: “This bill gives every kid their freedom. It allows every kid to be themselves.”

Mr. Bettencourt, who earned his high school equivalency degree and is now a freshman at Northeastern University, was one of hundreds of students who wrote letters to their legislators, staged candlelight vigils outside the State House and marched along the Freedom Trail with signs reading: “Every Student Has A Right to An Education.” The students visited the offices of all 40 state senators, and spoke to every one of them, or to their aides.

The bill has been staunchly supported by Mr. Weld, a Republican who has been praised by gay rights advocates as the Governor with the best record favoring equal rights for homosexuals.

[Marsian] De Lellis, a 17-year-old senior at Belmont High School, who was one of the student leaders of the lobbying effort, told the legislators about the time his soccer teammates turned on him in middle school. “They spit on me and threw things at me and called me faggot, homo,” Mr. De Lellis said in an interview today, recalling his testimony.

David LaFontaine, whom Governor Weld appointed to head a commission on gay and lesbian youth nearly two years ago, helped lead this fall’s student lobbying effort. “We needed to make people realize that this bill affects people’s sons and daughters,” he said.

After Mr. LaFontaine convened a training workshop for 25 student lobbyists, he said the students “did role playing where they would practice about what it was like to meet with a legislator — supportive and nonsupportive.”

Mr. LaFontaine added: “We told them to be very forceful, never to write anyone off. We encouraged them to speak from the heart.”

For their day of lobbying at the State House in October, 150 students were divided into groups, with eight team leaders. Four or five students visited the office of each senator.

Thirty students met with a top aide to the powerful State Senate President, William M. Bulger, who had previously opposed the bill. At the time of the meeting, the bill was stalled in the Senate Committee on Steering and Policy, where it had died last year. After the meeting with Mr. Bulger, the bill got out of committee. It passed the Senate on Monday by a voice vote, with no debate.

One of the student leaders, Sarah Lonberg-Lew, 17, a junior at Brookline High School, said the last time she had tried to lobby her legislators was in the fourth grade. “It was to make the corn muffin the official state muffin,” she said. “We baked corn muffins for them.”

Mr. LaFontaine said part of the students’ appeal to legislators was their sincerity. “They understood the legislation,” he said. “But they weren’t slick, professional lobbyists.”

Mr. Rushing said: “It was very refreshing to see so many young people use the process. It was driven by students, both gay and straight students.”

‘Exploiting Public Education’

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, among other conservative groups, has criticized the Governor’s stand on gay rights. Today the league issued a statement opposing the new bill.

“The ultimate purpose here is to introduce homosexual programs into the public schools,” said C. J. Doyle, the director of the league. “The homosexual lobby is exploiting public education in an effort to validate homosexual behavior.”

Education analysts and school law experts said no other state had even approached Massachusetts in its effort to ban discrimination against gay and lesbian students. “Other states have anti-discrimination legislation,” said Frances Kunreuther, the executive director of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which runs a school for gay youth in New York City. “But there’s nobody that does anything specifically for youth. When you talk about civil rights, you wonder if they apply to people under 18.”

Gay students rejoiced today over the bill’s passage through the Senate.

One 17-year-old girl, who says she hides her sexual orientation out of fear, celebrated privately. For her, the bill is an important symbol. “This is for me and my friends,” she said.

“This bill gives every kid their freedom,” said Troix Bettencourt, 19, who testified at the State House about dropping out of Lowell High School after his guidance counselor informed his parents he might be homosexual. (Rick Friedman for The New York Times)