On February 3, 1994, I was interviewed for Newsday, a Long Island / NYC newspaper, about my work passing legislation to protect LGBT students in Massachusetts public schools for the article “Students Changed the Law – United for Gay, Lesbian Rights”. Also included in the interview were fellow activists, Fred Simon, Anya Yankovich, Sarah Lonberg-Lew, and Chris Hannon
Students Changed the Law
United for Gay, Lesbian Rights
by Nancie L. Katz
Massachusetts is about to become the first state to ban discrimination against gays and lesbians in public schools. And most of the credit for getting the law passed goes to teens.
For two months, nearly 1,000 gay and straight youths – carrying signs flashing ‘Make Schools Safe’ and statistics about high school dropout and suicide rates of gay teens – stalked the State House, staging marches, news conferences and massive letter and calling campaigns. On a “lobbying day,” they fanned out in 10 teams to go to each state senator’s office.
They were rallying for a bill that placed “sexual orientation” alongside race, color, sex and national origin as categories protected from discrimination in public schools. The bill, which had been stalled for nearly three years, was just approved and signed into law. It takes effect in March.
“This was right up there with the biggest student lobbying effort I’ve ever seen,” Marty Linsky, Gov. William Weld’s chief secretary, said. “Until these kids came forward, not enough people knew that it was a real problem. Their individual stories alleviated some legislators’ concerns, convincing them the problem was real and this was a reasonable approach to dealing with it.”
Anya Yankovich, 17 of Brookline High, who helped organize the youth effort, said: “It’s like for the first time, you’re getting people to listen to you. The entire process is empowering.”
Proponents say the law can be used at schools to allow same-sex couples to go to proms, permit gay-straight clubs, and introduce the subject of homosexuality in health and sex education classes. Above all, they hope it will lead to a safer atmosphere in schools – where the words “faggot” and “queer” still remain among top insults.
David La Fontaine, head of the Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, said other states, including Gov. Mario Cuomo’s office in New York, already have expressed interest in filing a similar bill.
Some people, however, are furious at the new legislation. “This law is not about ending discrimination, but about advancing homosexual ideology and empowerment,” says C.J. Doyle, head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.
Massachusetts already had forged a national lead last spring when the state Board of Education recommended schools adopt policies to promote sensitivity to gays and lesbians.
That move was prompted by a report by the Governor’s Commission, which found gay and lesbian students nationwide felt persecuted in school, leading to isolation and depression and contributing to making gays and lesbians 28 percent of high school dropouts and nearly one-third of teen suicides. Studies show gay and lesbian youths are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers.
Students began rallying around the bill last summer. LaFontaine gave advice on approaching legislators and organizing rallies and news conferences. A group of students began contacting students who had signed their names at events sponsored by state and local gay and lesbian groups to tell them about the bill.
Among emotional testimony was that of [Marsian] De Lellis, 17, who described how peer surrounded him in seventh grade on a soccer field, spitting and throwing “animal droppings at me” because he is gay. In high school, he said, name-calling is a common experience.
“I related the story about how if the bill was passed it wouldn’t foster such attitudes and people wouldn’t feel justified in taking actions against gay people,” he said.
Young voices on gay rights
“No One Suspected me of Being Gay”
Fred Simon, 17, senior at Lexington High School, Lexington, Mass., actively campaigned for the gay rights legislation and last fall organized a gay-straight club at his school.
“I wanted to organize that because I feel school can be a lonely or desperate place for gay and lesbian people. You feel like you’re the only one. It’s very isolating and it can be very painful. The bill was something we heard about and something we could work on. No one (had) suspected me of being gay. I’m on the track team I’m fairly masculine, I suppose. I don’t fit the stereotype of what a gay person is, whatever that means.”
But after he formed the group, students started calling him names “like faggot and freak” “One day, I confronted someone. I was walking out of one of the buildings. He said, ‘Faggot, I can see a faggot!’ I asked the person why he would use that word. He said, ‘Get out of my face!’ and pushed me.
“What needs to change is society’s attitude. The bill can only do so much. It’s going to start with people changing their hearts and minds about an issue. The bill is good to have but i don’t think that should be the sole focus. The focus should be on education, eradicating prejudice.”
[Marsian] De Lellis, 17, a senior at Belmont High School, in Belmont, Mass., personally wrote a letter to each senator to get the gay rights legislation passed. He tells students:
“Keep fighting for what you believe in. You can accomplish anything you put your mind to. Believe in yourself. Do not give up even when it’s really tough. Overcome the fear of rejection and stuff. Have a good network of supportive people.”
Anya Yankovich, 17, senior at Brookline High School, says her involvement in gay rights began when she founded the Gay-Straight Alliance at her school in 1992:
“At Brookline High, we have a very supportive administration. But I have a friend who lives out in western Massachusetts. She was threatened. She got spit on. She went to the administration and said, ‘I’m scared. Can you help me?’ They said, ‘There’s nothing we can do.’ A week later, she got physically assaulted by sever girls because she was perceived to be a lesbian and ended up in a hospital. That hit me so hard because she was the first person I met who had experienced physical violence. It hit me on every level, a personal level, and an idealistic level. It’s completely unacceptable for students not to have a right to [public] education.”
Sarah Lonberg-Lew, 17, a co-founder of Brookline High’s Gay-Straight Alliance and a core organizer in the student rallies for the gay rights bill. Before the legislature’s vote, Sarah used to stand vigil every Monday afternoon outside the State House with a sign about the problems of gay students.
“My primary hope for this is that it empowers gay students, not just in Massachusetts, to take action against harassment, against uncomfortable situations in schools and to take back our right to a public education. My hope is that the other 49 states will adopt legislation similar to this one. The power of knowing something like this exists is incredible, even if you are not a stereotypical gay youth, but just struggling with feelings of sexual identity inside. Just to know the state of Massachusetts recognizes that gay youth exist is an incredible feeling. It really does a lot to counter the feelings of isolation.”
Chris Hannon, 16 now attends an alternative school in Boston after he dropped out of a private Catholic high school.
“I had gone through grade school accused of being effeminate or a queer. I kept my head down. I was effeminate or a queer. I kept my head down. I was effeminate. I didn’t play any sports. [In high school] I got called the usual names, a faggot, homo. I was ostracized. I was their punching bag most of the time. I barely survived my freshman year. I contemplated suicide once or twice but never went through with it. [My sophomore year] I came out to a friend. That spread like wildfire. He told a person who told six people that I was a faggot. I started getting death threats at my locker. People called me at home, saying ‘Get out of school, we’re going to kill you.’ I got pushed down the stairs twice.
“I hope this bill is gonna keep some kids in school and keep some kids alive. I feel a lot safer now. Not just for me, but also when one of my friends comes to me and says, ‘I got harassed or beat up.’ Before my hands were tied. If I went to the principal, he didn’t have to do anything. Now he has to do something. It’s like I’m more free to help people now.”