On December 16th, 1993, I was interviewed by Susan Ryan-Vollmar for the Belmont Citizen-Herald for the article “BHS senior lobbies for landmark bill” about my work advocating for LGBT students in Massachusetts public schools.
Belmont Citizen-Hearld, “BHS senior lobbies for landmark bill”, by Susan Ryan-Vollmar, pages 1a, 13A
Students can do many things as part of Belmont High School’s Independent Study, but it’s the rare senior who lobbies a bill into law during the semester-long project.
“I wanted to get school credit for what I was doing,” Belmont High School senior [Marsian] De Lellis said of his efforts to get House Bill 3353 – the gay students’ rights bill that was signed into law by Governor William Weld last Friday – passed. “So I did this as an Independant Study Program for school.”
And what De Lellis did, exactly is amazing, considering that he had to lobby past Sen. William Bulger – who tried to let the bill to die in committee – as well as come to terms with painful memories from his past.
When he was a 12-year-old seventh grader at Chenery school, De Lellis said he was taunted and abused by fellow classmates during several minutes of horror, which he now refers to as “the incident on the soccer field.”
As De Lellis tells the story, one fall afternoon he was surrounded by members of the soccer team, who spit on him until his shirt was “drenched” while calling him “fag” and “homo.” When they were finished spitting, De Lellis said, they picked up “animal droppings” and threw them at him.
De Lellis, who is gay, now attributes his classmates’ behavior to homophobia – although he didn’t even know he was gay at the time. “I was different from the other kids and I think they must have sensed that,” he said.
He didn’t report the incident at the time. “It was so humiliating,” De Lellis recalled. “I didn’t want to remember it … I didn’t have any confidence that it would be taken seriously, either.”
While such an experience would have cowed most people into silence for years, De Lellis, 17, has been anything but silent. As the youth outreach coordinator for the Coalition [for] Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights and a founding member of Belmont High School’s Gay/Straight Alliance, De Lellis has been vocal about the day-to-day school realities for kids who are outside the mainstream as well as the need for protection for such students.
Belmont School Superintendent Peter Holland said Friday that it is important that students be able to attend school safely “without fear of being harassed or ridiculed because of whatever personal qualities or difference (they have)… including sexual orientation.”
He added that the Belmont school system has always prided itself on its ability to provide an education for all of its students. He also said that the school would update its student policy handbook to include sexual orientation as a protected class. “But clearly in terms of practice, that’s always been a right,” he said.
According to state Sen. Michael J. Barrett (D-Belmont), the first-in-the-nation bill, which prohibits discrimination against any public school student based on sexual orientation, essentially guarantees the right of gay and lesbian students to an education.
He added that students who are forced to drop out of school because of homophobic harassment – approximately 28 percent of gay and lesbian students, according to the Education Report of the Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth – can now turn to the courts for justice.
“With this bill, some teeth are added to the good old American tradition of tolerance,” Barrett said.
“The kids who came into the Legislature to speak out about this issue have impressed me. It represents a great level of courage,” Barrett said.
“I think [Marsian] is a very serious, very sincere and very gutsy kid. He’s stood up for himself in what has to be a difficult situation,” said Barrett. “This kind of courage you might expect to see in adults but it has to be especially painful … to someone who’s young and in the very intense environment of a high school.”
Gay and lesbian students owe a debts of thanks to De Lellis for the work he did in getting the bill passed. “I did all of the grassroots organizing with gay/straight alliances in the state getting them to go to the State House rally,” De Lellis said. He also helped organize groups of students, both gay and straight, to lobby all the Senators in the state to support the bill.
De Lellis worked with David LaFontaine, political director of the coalition, in organizing an Oct. 13 rally at the State House for the bill, when it looked as if Bulger was going to kill the three-year-old piece of legislation in committee.
He was part of a small group of students who lobbied aides to four senators, and said that his biggest surprise in navigating the State House halls to rally support for the bill was how “knowledgable” senators and their aides were on the issue.
In addition to the organizing and the lobbying, De Lellis also spoke out publicly at the State House rally. In front of 300 people and news cameras from the three major local television stations, De Lellis recounted his harrowing experience on the soccer field.
His willingness to be open about his experiences landed De Lellis on the pages of the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald and the New York Times as well as one segment of NBC Nightly News. He was featured on the radio program “One in Ten” on a local radio station and has received countless offers to appear on talk shows.
And each time De Lellis speaks out publicly, he reaches other gay students as well as straight ones. Abby Freeman, a 17-year-old senior at Belmont High School said when she heard De Lellis on a talk show, she couldn’t believe the stories that gay and lesbian students called in with.
“Hearing the stories made me so upset,” Freeman said. “As a straight person I don’t get harassed and I take it for granted that I don’t get harassed.
“I feel very, very positive toward (the bill),” she added. “(Sexual orientation) was so obviously missing from the list of things students shouldn’t be discriminated for.”
De Lellis, who plans to attend art school next year, said the public lobbying experience has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “At least I don’t have to go through the painful process of coming out to everyone I know individually,” he said, wryly noting that he had taken care of that chore in one fell swoop by speaking at the State House. But he said he’s not sure he’ll continue on the lobbyist’s path.
“I think I’ll stay (politically) active,” he said. “I can always incorporate political issues into my artwork.
“I took the opportunity I that I had and did something,” he continued. “I didn’t sit around on my hands. I did something that’s going to make a difference for other people and I feel really good about it.”