In 1994, The Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth produced a documentary I appeared in on the formation of the commission and the passage of the Gay and Lesbian Civil Rights Law of Massachusetts, which I worked on. Gay and lesbian youth making history was a thirty minute documentary on the historic events of 1992 and 1993 that lead to the creation of the Governors Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth and the passage of the Gay and Lesbian Student Rights Law which I worked on.
REBECCA SPENSE: This video produced by the Massachusetts Governor’s commission of Gay and Lesbian Youth chronicles the historical events of 1992 and 1993 when gay and straight students made history. This was an exciting time for me and many other students across Massachusetts. We held rallies at the statehouse, public hearings from Western Massacusetts to Boston. And we lobbied our legislature on Beacon Hill to pass a bill protecting gay and lesbian students from discrimination in public schools.What you are about to see shows the power of young peoples voices and the dramatic effects of their courageous actions.
LULU SAVAGE: Seeing how government is treated in this society. It’s treated with respect. It’s treated with a lot of power. And if they can see that a group like that — an organization set up by Governor Weld – set up by the government is going to be working for our needs and for our problems — which is so vast today. It’s an incredible thing for him to do for him to be able to say, “We’re going to help you out here. We understand this is something that’s killing you by being a gay youth and we want to help you out.”
I know for me, it just all of a sudden made me sit back and say, “Wow, someone out there actually cares and I can keep living and keep going, because someone will help me.”
Whereas before, I came across this, or came across gay culture, or came across people who actually cared about gay youth, it was a very very lonely time, and still is a very lonely time, because people don’t accept gay youth as real human beings and often times don’t accept gay people or youth alone as real human beings. And to have the governor’s commission set up to help out with high school is just an incredible undertaking
Governor William F. Weld,
Massachusetts State House
February 10, 1992
GOV. WELD: The young people of this commonwealth and every other state are the most precious resource that we have and represent the hopes and the dreams and the very future of the state. The pressures on youth can be tremendous for homosexual, gay and lesbian teenagers in particular those pressures may be multiplied a number of times over.
The unfortunate reality is that nearly 30 percent of youth suicides are committed by gay and lesbian youth and more than 25 percent of young gays and lesbians are forced to leave home because of conflicts over their sexual identity. Incidents of harassment and violence and discrimination against young people, because of their sexual orientation are all too common. Our administration, the Weld / Cellucci administration, is committed to putting an end — once and for all to violence and discrimination and hate crimes directed at any category of people. This is especially true for our young people, because for them, the burden of prejudice and violence and discrimination all too often leads to tragic ends. The problem particular of youth suicide among gay and lesbian teens is not a small one and the impact on families is obviously devastating and-far reaching.
Alvin, why don’t you come up here? Byron, why don’t you come up here?
GOV. WELD: We started to address this special physical and emotional health problems of teenagers last year in July with our “Protect Teen Health” program that we announced over at … with Jackie Jenkins Scott and Georgette Watson. This was aimed at AIDS, and STD’s in general, and teenage pregnancy prevention and that program also is aimed at preventing tragedies before they occur. We also supported the legislation sponsored by representative Alvin Thompson and Senator Robert Havern and I’m sure you too, Representative Byron Rushing, back in May to create a Gay and Lesbian Youth Advisory board and while I’m disappointed the legislature was not able to act on that legislation in the past session and I am happy that we are able to create this commission by executive order and here is the executive order and I am now signing it to create the commission.
Swearing In of
the Governor’s Commission
June 11, 1992
GOV WELD: I would like to call upon the new commission to conduct public hearings across the state during the next few months, we need to hear from gay youth themselves. We need to hear from parents, and teachers, and social service providers. The Commission I expect will take testimony, will gather information, will make recommendations to us on how to confront the root problems which lead to gay youth suicide. At this time, the Lt. Governor and I would like to jointly conduct the swearing in of the members of the Commission. If each of you please raise your right hand and repeat after me after the pronoun, “I,” each time that I say it.
“I, do solemnly swear that I will bear true faith and allegiance…”
Jessica Byers, 16 year old
Member of the Commission
JESSICA BYERS: Hi I’m Jessica Byers. I just want to say that I think that this commission being state wide is really important, because I hope that it will help more high schools start up groups like Project Ten East at my school which provides an affirmative place for gay and lesbian teenagers, and a place where their friends and supporters can just come to express their support. There’s no reason for kids to feel desperately lonely because just because of their sexuality. Sexuality should be about love and it shouldn’t inspire hatred.
JESSICA BYERS: It’s true that one person’s sexuality isn’t always everyone’s business but until we can get rid of all the ignorance and all be comfortable with each other, it has to be discussed when kids are young and in schools and everywhere.
David La Fontaine,
Chairman of the Commission
DAVID LAFONTAINE: …Because this really signals a new phase, a new direction, for the gay rights movement. It’s a new kind of activism. It’s a new focus. For the first time we are coming together as a community and that includes our family and our friends. And we are saying, we are going to make advocating for gay and lesbian youth a top priority. They are not going to be put behind the gay rights bill. They are not going to be shunted aside because the right wing accusations about recruiting children. We are going to put their needs first. And I think that’s what this commission is about. It’s a coming together of people who recognize that there’s nothing more important than giving a voice to gay and lesbian kids and ensuring that they will have the healthy and happy future that they deserve.
As chair of the commission, my top priority is going to be to examine and change what goes on in school systems. For gay and lesbian kids, life in school can be a daily nightmare — a nightmare of abuse, harassment, threats of physical assault. Many of them can’t bear it. Many of them leave school. Many of them leave home. Too many of them attempt suicide. And we have an obligation. We have a moral obligation to make sure all kids — gay and straight — have a safe and healthy learning atmosphere. That’s an obligation that the state of Massachusetts, I believe must live up to. This is a child welfare issue – No more or no less
REBECCA SPENSE: In the fall of 1992, the Governor’s Commission organized a series of five public hearings across Massachusetts. Gay and lesbian youth spoke of the rejection and isolation they suffered at school and at home. A total of 90 people testified and over half of those were gay and lesbian youth themselves. The honest and often painful stories of lesbian and gay teenagers would move the people of Massachusetts towards a recognition and humanity of gay and lesbian youth.
Troix Bettencourt, President,
Boston Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Youth
TROIX BETTENCOURT: I couldn’t hide it any more. I got kicked out of my house in July. And at that point, there was violence involved. My mother went nuts and just came at me with an iron. I went downstairs and locked the door and she called the police. And the police came and they asked me what was going on. And I told them. And my mother started saying alway..with the fags and doing this and doing that. And he started cracking all kinds of gay jokes and telling me what he would do to his kids if they were gay. And told me that he thinks that I should leave
And I said, “Well no, where am I going to go?
And he said, “Well that’s not my problem.”
And he took my keys and he made me leave. And I went to a friend’s house. And by that time I hadn’t come out to a lot of my friends. And it was okay to have a gay friend, but when it came time when it came time I needed someone’s support from them, it wasn’t okay to help me out, because then what would people think about them? And then when I called the Department of Social Services, because that’s the only place I knew that I might get some kind of help, they told me they couldn’t help, because I was gay and because my 18th birthday was coming up in September, and by the time they got to the case, then I’d be too old to take their services. So there I was left alone with nowhere to go, nowhere to go to, nowhere to stay.
Devin Beringer, 17 year old
High School Student
DEVIN BERINGER: I was always an outcast at school. Books were my best friends. I ostracized myself from the rest of the world, because I felt as if I could trust no one — not even my parents. The pressure of feeling so alone manifested itself as bits of manic depression, hysterical outbreaks, and eventually suicidal tendencies. I would spend hours sitting in my window cill wondering would jumping make things better? Hoping that someone would help me. All I needed to be told was that my feelings were normal and that I wasn’t the only one who felt them.
At …brook, homophobia and hazing were rampant. I had to act heterosexual and had to make dehumanizing comments about girls, or else be labeled a faggot. I had to prove my masculinity by hazing the underclassmen… When pushing wasn’t enough, I turned to whiffle ball bats. Once someone was rolled down cement steps in a laundry bag just for the fun of it. The psychological torture was the worst. Any expression of emotion was taboo and I would get teased or hazed if I ever slipped up or let on that I was homesick or felt any other so-called weak emotion.
I was constantly denying feelings I had for other guys. In the process of hiding these feelings, I repressed all of my emotions. I refused to admit to admit why it was I couldn’t help staring at the boy in my geography class. I was unable to deal with the truth so I just convinced myself that the attraction was an exception and that he just had a magnetic personality. Concord Academy changed all of this. It was the first place I encountered that was even slightly gay-positive. When I arrived, an openly gay faculty was assigned to be my advisor. He was the first openly gay person I had ever met. Through him I learned that being gay is not a horrible disgusting thing that society makes it out to be, but a normal and natural part of me.
Lee Fearnside, 17 year old
high school student
I learned to see gay people as alien and criminal. Soon I acknowledged that I was one of those who I had been taught to detest. I was a lesbian and my world had been turned upside down. The festering self-defeating emotions surged to the fore as I learned exactly what it meant to be gay in American society. Because of the invisibility of sexuality, I thought that I could just pretend to be straight and avoid all this discomfort. I tried that for a while doing my share of drugs and denial, using guys to prove to myself that I could be straight if only I tried hard enough, but instead of being accepted into the mainstream, I lost my self respect. I felt completely isolated from my family and friends. It appeared that I was the only one who ever had these queer feelings. I couldn’t come out to anyone. After all who would associate with anyone who was as sick and deranged as I thought myself to be if only they knew the truth. Not only does society shout at me that I’m evil, but an inner voice whispers it as well.
REBECCA SPENSE: On February 25th, 1993, The Commission released it’s report “Making Schools Safe: Breaking the Silence in Schools and in Families”. One of the chief recommendations was to create student support and education groups called “Gay Straight Alliances”.
New England Cable News
February 25th, 1993
NARRATOR: Governor Weld’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth released their findings on making schools safe for gay and lesbian students. It reported that 98 percent of students hear homophobic comments often, and 60 percent would be afraid to admit to their friends if they were gay. 17 year old, Jessica Byers knows that fear first hand. The high school senior is a member of Weld’s commission.
JESSICA BYERS: I’d like to start by reading you something in my diary when I was a 14 year old freshmen. I know that being gay is not something you chose… It just happens. I don’t want to be a Lesbian though. It would be so hard. I can’t really do anything about it now, but if anyone knew it would be awful. I know kids my age would never accept this kind of thing. If anyone ever reads this, I’ll die.
NARRATOR:-A recent report confirmed that thirty percent of the teens who try to commit suicide are those grappling with their sexuality.
JESSICA BYERS: My experience seems really mild now, compared to the horror stories I have heard. Coming out should not be the terrifying process that it is.
NARRATOR: The study found that overall students supported the gay straight alliance, but responses from females and males were drastically different. The majority of girls supported the group. The majority of boys didn’t. Boys were also twice as likely to say discrimination against gays was acceptable.
DAVE HAMMER: I don’t know if it’s even like a macho thing… I mean like the generic cool guy is supposed to get the girl.
MARNIE GIBBONS: I don’t think that kids right now purposely mean to be mean sometimes when they call kids a fag, especially, but it’s just part of their vocabulary. And just like when we’ve taught kids that it’s not okay to call somebody a ni***r any more… It’s the same sort of a thing.
NARRATOR: Some male students admitted only off-camera they didn’t support homosexuals. But in the anonymous survey, some said, “I hate them,” ….. “..just keep them out of my sight and away from me.”
Attitudes like these prompted Weld’s Commission to release it’s first report on how to make schools safe for gay students. It recommends schools create policies to protect gay students, support groups for gay and straight students and their families, provide teacher training, and gay studies in the library and curriculum.
AMALIA BARREDA: Cambridge Rindge and Latin is one of the handful of schools across the commonwealth currently tackling the issue of discrimination against gays and lesbians. Those behind this program have high hopes that the governor’s recent recommendations advocating gay rights in schools will make the issue a high priority will make high priority among educators across Massachusetts.
The five recommendations call for establishing school policies protecting homosexual students from any form of discrimination, training all school staff in crisis intervention and violence prevention, starting school-based support groups for all students, keeping information in school libraries for homosexual adolescence, and expanding the curriculum to include gay and lesbian issues.
Lesbian high school student, Jessica Byers, hopes the recommendations will help people be more comfortable with the issue and stop avoiding it.
JESSICA BYERS: I mean all I want is to just have it be like everybody else and be able to talk about it if I want to talk about it. Not if I don’t. Not have to have to be a really big deal
AMALIA BARREDA: But opponents say the issue does not belong in the classroom morally or practically. Pat Anthony is a laid off teacher whose a member of Citizens for Family First.
PAT ANTHONY: And again, teachers are overworked as it is. We’re just trying to teach the basics. We don’t have time to add anything new.
AMALIA BARREDA: The head of the Governor’s Commission, however, says that a 30 percent suicide rate, among gay high school student is a big problem that needs addressing now.
DAVID LAFONTAINE: We can’t afford to let peoples’ fears get in the way of giving the kids the health they need.
AMALIA BARREDA: The State Department of Education has also given its approval to the recommendations. Gay rights supporters say that’s another huge step toward making a very touchy issue more acceptable and hopefully beyond. For the night file, I’m Amalia
REBECCA SPENSE: On May 18th, Massachusetts caught the attention of the nation. The state board of education unanimously endorsed four the report’s key recommendations. Finally our voices and stories would impact every high school in the state.
America Close Up
JANE PAULEY: Gay issues remain in the closet in most schools. But some educators are finding a solutions by reaching out. NBC’s Mary Alice Williams has more
JAMES COHEN: Many high schools across this state are known to be not safe for gay and lesbian teenagers.
JESSICA BYERS: Students have nothing to protect them from being discriminated against or harassed constantly by their peers and even their teachers.
MARY ALICE WILLIAMS: No one knows how many gay high school students there are. But it was this testimony by homosexual kids that forced Massachusetts to acknowledge a population that could number in the thousands — a population so deeply hidden that many people, including school officials, had to be convinced they even exist
ROBERT ANTONUCCI: I feel if there’s only one student who is being harassed, who is being discriminated against, who faces a violent situation, that that student needs protection
MARY ALICE: The Massachusetts Board of Education has adopted the nation’s first statewide policy recommending schools set up support groups and counseling for gay students and their families, train teachers in suicide prevention, and above all, protect gays and lesbians from violence.
C.J. DOYLE: They’re using public safety as a Trojan horse to get homosexual programs to be accepted by an unwilling public.
MARY ALICE: This debate has punched every moral, political, and religious hot button.
JESSICA BYERS: This isn’t a choice I’m making. It’s just something I realized about myself.
MARY ALICE WILLIAMS: Being a teenager is touch enough. Something as simple as a blemish can wreck the week.
JESSICA BYERS: I remember writing down that I didn’t think I could tell anyone else that I was gay and that it would always be something I’d always have to keep a secret because kids
TROIX BETTENCOURT: If someone is called a fag in a high school, there’s a 95 percent chance that no one is going to stop them from using that word, while if someone says, “ni**er,” they’d get attention, they’d get a lecture about it.
MARY ALICE WILLIAMS: Troix Bettencourt seemed a macho guy — played soccer, even had a girlfriend. When he finally admitted he was gay, friends shunned him, his folks kicked him out, he dropped out of school.
Consider this. 28 percent of all gay teenagers drop out of high school — more than twice the national average. A department of student services study indicates they are more prone to abuse alcohol and drugs. And 30 percent of all teen suicides are committed by kids trying to deal with their own homosexuality.
TROIX BETTENCOURT: I did think about suicide. I never attempted suicide, but I did think about it.
REBECCA SPENSE: One month later governor weld and education commissioner Antonucci announced the creation of a statewide safe schools program. In the coming school year, the program would train teams of students and teachers from 150 high schools.
Commissioner of Education
June 30, 1993
ROBERT ANTONUCCI: This is the beginning of training. This is the beginning of understanding. And it really has to be seen as a grassroots approach, so that within the next year, the next two years, the next three years, is that we have teachers in this commonwealth and all public schools – When I say teachers, I also mean administrators — who have an understanding of the issues that are so complex today that face students who come to our doors. And if we can begin that effort here tonight in a very positive way, a very enthusiastic way, in a way that really says to schools that we’re here for all children. And I realize it becomes a sensitive issue for some people. It becomes an issue some people do not want to address. But I need to stand before you and tell you that we have to do this and focus whats really important, the students that we serve. So tonight we come together for the alliance, we come together for the Department of Education, we come together with students, community people, and the teachers to begin an initiative that’s so important.
Governor William Weld
GOVERNOR WELD: 30 percent of all completed teen suicides are committed by homosexual youth. This is not about a so-called “different” way of life… It’s about life itself. I know that every teacher and every parent in this commonwealth fundamentally agrees that no young person, gay or straight, should driven to take her own life because of isolation and abuse. This is a tragedy we all have to work together to prevent. We can take the first step towards ending gay youth suicide by creating an atmosphere of dignity and respect for these young people in our schools. Those who are here are teachers, guidance counselors, school principals here tonight have an essential role to play in supporting young people suffering from isolation, and low self esteem. By making our schools safe and by providing school-based support for gay and lesbian students, you’ll both help them to learn and you’ll save lives.
Kevin Jennings, Teacher
KEVIN JENNINGS: Gay and lesbian students are uniquely alone and isolated in a way that their counterparts facing discrimination are not. Put yourself in the shoes of a student who at the median age of 13 realizes his sexual orientation. Where would your turn for support? Your family?
Our commission found that 26 percent of gay and lesbian youth are forced to leave their homes by their parents once it is discovered that they are gay.
Our commission found that 97 percent of the students at Lincoln-Sudbury High School, for example, had their peers use homophobic epithets while at school
Our commission survey found that 53 percent students we surveyed from 15 gay youth groups statewide had heard their teachers use homophobic language while at class.
Quite simply, these gay and lesbian students have nowhere to turn
REBECCA SPENSE: The most extraordinary victory of all was our lobbying and organizing to push the Gay and Lesbian Student’s rights bill into law. The state-wide student advisory council had filed the bill for the past three years. 500 gay and straight students rallied at the Massachusetts State House on October 13th. One week later 150 of us personally lobbied our state legislators..
Student Rights Bill Rally
October 13, 1993
DAVID LAFONTAINE: It took 17 years to pass the gay rights bill in Massachusetts… 17 years… That’s how old some of you are probably. 17 years while violence and hatred continued. Are you willing to pass the student rights bill for 17 years?
DAVID LAFONTAINE: 16 years?
DAVID LAFONTAINE: 15 years?
DAVID LAFONTAINE: 13?
DAVID LAFONTAINE: 12?
DAVID LAFONTAINE: 11?
DAVID LAFONTAINE: 10?
DAVID LAFONTAINE: 9?
DAVID LAFONTAINE: How about 8?
DAVID LAFONTAINE: 7?
DAVID LAFONTAINE: 6?
DAVID LAFONTAINE: 5?
DAVID LAFONTAINE: 4?
DAVID LAFONTAINE: 3?
DAVID LAFONTAINE: 2?
DAVID LAFONTAINE: 1?
DAVID LAFONTAINE: When do you want this bill to pass?
DAVID LAFONTAINE: We have waited too long.
16 year old youth
CHRIS HANNON: Every day, I didn’t hear the word, “faggot” once or twice, I heard it said dozens of times. And with the increase of verbal harassment, there was an increase of physical attacks. I was pushed, kicked and spit on like some vile piece of trash. I brought this to the attention of my guidance counselor and I also at the same time came out to her. Her response was, “You’re too young to be gay.”
I asked her, “What did that matter? I’m still getting harassed every day”.
When I asked her what she was going to do about it, I remember her exact words were, “Couldn’t act you act a little less — you know… a little less gay?”
When I asked her what she going to
Marsian De Lellis,
17 year old youth
MARSIAN DE LELLIS: One day at practice, when the coaches were away or not looking, everyone on the team surrounded me. They shouted different names at me, including anti-gay epithets such as “FAGGOT,” and “HOMO,” threw things at me, including dog droppings and spit on me until my shirt was soaking wet. I wasn’t out and I didn’t even know that I was gay at the time, but the other team members identified me as gay, because I did not fit in with them.
Brookline High School Student
The incorporation of a gay rights amendment into Brookline High School’s constitution has made Brookline a place where I can safely direct my energy toward my education, secure in the knowledge that my teachers support me and that the administration will back me up if ever I am discriminated against. It is clear that learning is impossible for a student is torment by his or her peers, because the administration refuses to acknowledge that there is a problem. It is absolutely imperative that we pass this bill. It is not a matter of special rights or privileges. It is a matter of gay students demanding our right to a decent education.
Lietenant Governor Paul Cellucci
LT GOV. PAUL CELLUCCI: The testimony that Chris and [Marsian] just gave to us. — The simple fact is that kind of hate has no place in our schools and it has no place in our state.
BYRON RUSHING: This bill will not give gay and lesbian students rights. Gay and lesbian students in this state already have rights. You have those rights not because you’re gay. You have those rights not because you’re lesbian. You have those rights because you are human beings!
NBC News Close Up
December 10, 1993
TOM BROCAW: In a landmark piece of gay rights legislation today signed in Boston – its aim — protecting homosexual students in public schools. More now from NBC’s Fred Briggs
CHRIS HANNON: I was pushed, kicked, thrown against lockers, and worst of all, spit on…
FRED BRIGGS: A gay high school student — one of hundreds who lobbied state legislators to pass a bill prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians in Massachusetts public schools. Governor William Weld signed the bill into law today.
FRED BRIGGS: Governor William Weld signed the bill into law today
GOV WELD: They’re protected under Massachusetts law in terms of non-discrimination.
FRED BRIGGS: Massachusetts already has a law protecting gays from discrimination, but its been interpreted to apply to adults mainly — certainly not children, certainly not in school… …The bill has teeth and it says if any gay student is discriminated against…
REP BYRON RUSHING: that student now knows that he can go to the administration and he can expect the administration of that school to be on his side and follow the law.
FRED BRIGGS: And the student can sue the school if it isn’t. Although 51 percent of the state is Roman Catholic, the church has been silent on the law, but not Catholic lay mens’ groups.
C.J. DOYLE: This is an effort to use the schools to proselytize, legitimize, and validate homosexual behavior.
FRED BRIGGS: Backers of the bill said it’s just a way to have students and teachers respect gay students and their lifestyles, and now it’s the law.
REBECCA SPENSE: We the students of Massachusetts have shown what we can accomplish when we work together to fight discrimination and prejudice against gay and lesbian youth. We hope that our struggles and victories on behalf of lesbian and gay youth will inspire young people everywhere.
Produced by the Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth
The Commission would like to thank the following videographers for their footage:
We would also like to acknowledge the following television stations:
WCVB-TV Channel 5 News
Channel 57 (PBS)
New England Cable News
This video was produced for informational and non-profit educational purposes onlyWe encourage the showing of this video for non-commercial purposes.
The Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth