School’s Out (book)

Governor Weld’s chief secretary, Marty Linsky, readily acknowledged the impact of students on the bill’s fate. “There were a thousand young people up here endlessly,” he 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.”

Among the speakers was [Marsian] De Lellis, a seventeen-year-old senior at Belmont High School, who told legislators about the time his soccer teammates turned on him in middle school, spitting and calling him names. Andrew Lavin put himself on the line by addressing public hearings; as a result of the media attention, he became isolated and had object thrown at him during school. Chris Hannon told of leaving high school after receiving a death threat and other harassment for revealing his homosexuality. He and several friends made the bill’s passage an utmost priority: each personally called and wrote all forty senators. One indirect but ego-boosting result of their efforts was that several students received national attention. They fielded questions from reporters across the country, and appeared on television and radio stations across the land.

But effective as that was, the students’ efforts involved more than public speaking. Led by Mr. LaFontaine, chair of the Governor’s Commission, 150 young lobbyists descended on the State House one October day. They divided into groups, each with a leader, and together visited the offices of every state senator.

Thirty of them met with a top aide to powerful Senate president William M. “Billy” Bulger, a conservative lawmaker from an Irish-Catholic district. His earlier opposition had scuttled the bill; at the time of the lobbying, it was stalled in Senate Committee on Steering and Policy. After hearing the youths, Mr. Bulger helped release the bill.

Other lobbying efforts included a letter-writing campaign that elicited hundreds of pieces of mail, a candlelight vigil outside the State House, and a march down the Freedom Trail.

When the House and Senate passed the bill with an easy voice vote on December 6, the students were understandably elated. The last time one of the leaders, seventeen-year-old Brookline High School junior Sarah Lonberg-Lew, had lobbied legislators was in fourth grade. “It was to make the corn muffin the official state muffin,” she said. “We baked corn muffins for them.” This victory, she acknowledged was a bit more momentous.

Governor Weld took a bit of heat for signing the bill in private, although Mr. LaFontaine noted that he had been the commission’s strongest ally. “Having a Republican governor champion this issue, creating a group and funding training programs, has opened a lot of eyes. He has made this a much safer issue for both teachers and activists. And the governor forced Democrats to be much more active too, because they don’t want to be perceived to be to the right of Republicans. They have to live up to their rhetoric.”

Governor Weld’s private signing was forgiven eleven days later when he met with student leaders and ceremonially signed several copies of the landmark legislation. Then a hundred gay, lesbian, and straight high schoolers, along with their adult supporters, gathered in the State House to celebrate the bill’s passage.

Byron Rushing, the Democratic state representative who sponsored the bill in the House, told the group that they had made “an overt statement of your understanding of the respect and rights deserved by everybody. You said that because you are a human being and because you are here, you have inalienable rights that cannot be taken away by anybody. The legislature did not give you rights. You got those rights when you were born. The legislation says only that no one can take away those rights. It was your organization and your perseverance, and it was your clear, logical arguments that got this bill passed, and you should all feel great pride in your accomplishments.”

Yet developing, introducing, even passing a bill is one thing – implementing it is quite another. Citizens can petition and lobby, legislators can debate and vote, governors can sign – but ultimately it is up to the bureaucrats to put it into practice.