Gay and lesbian students seek support in Central Kitsap
June 11, 2008 · Updated 11:26 AM
"Most adolescents have to tolerate some degree of harassment and struggle with their identities - it's just part of growing up. But being a sexual minority adds another dimension to normal teen angst and pressure can mount, especially when kids are socially isolated and victimized by peers. Teens who are sexual minorities are four times more likely to kill themselves than other teens in their age group and they usually deal with an extraordinary amount of stress, according to Patricia McKenzie, a guidance counselor at Olympic High School. I don't think the public understands how tough it is to be a gay teen in society. They don't want to be different, and some can't even be out to their families, so they don't even have family support, said Sherry Pangborn, co-chair of the Silverdale chapter of Parents and Friends of Gays and Lesbians (PFLAG).Critical support networksCounselors and support group leaders agree that these youths are better off if they can find other lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered or questioning (LGBTQ) teens. But locating this critical peer support in Central Kitsap is complicated, because no district schools have gay-straight alliances or support groups. In addition, there is an absence of community groups organized for these teens.I think gay and lesbian youth need additional support - they need to be assured that just because they're a minority doesn't mean there is something wrong with them, said Lenore Morrey, program manager for reproductive health and HIV/AIDS services for the Bremerton-Kitsap County Health District. She added that she believes these youths are more vulnerable to exploitation and harassment because they have fewer role models and often have lower self esteem.If these kids can find each other or non-judgmental friends ... when they feel they can come out, they do much better. They need that modicum of support, McKenzie said.Three gay students from Central Kitsap High School said they were discouraged by the lack of support groups, and that such a group would go a long way toward raising awareness and promoting acceptance. The students asked that their names not be used.We don't really get to meet people who are like us, said a junior boy. We have to go to Lambert House in Seattle.Lambert House is a drop-in center for LGBTQ youths ages 14 to 22.I have met other gay people and I look to them for support - a support group would be nice, though. I would join, said another CKHS junior.Lee Marcum, principal of Klahowya Secondary School, said a group of students expressed interested in starting a gay-straight alliance at the end of the 1999-2000 school year. They approached the Associated Student Body about getting a club charter, but never followed through.I guess it just lost momentum, Marcum said.While the presence of such a group might be controversial, Marcum says he would probably support it.It is an issue that can polarize adults, he said. There are a lot of people whose religions frown on homosexuality ... but I wouldn't necessarily shy away from it. The Pierce County AIDS Foundation and the Rainbow Center oversee a drop-in center called Oasis for LGBTQ youth ages 14 to 25. Oasis leaders facilitate support groups and plan dances and potlucks for sexual minority youth in the greater Puget Sound area.Gas vouchers are available for teens who must drive long distances to visit the center. But CK teens who don't have driver's licenses might not be able to make the trip to Tacoma. Schools take actionOne of the most crucial elements of making schools comfortable for LGBTQ teens is the presence of teachers and administrators who take harassment complaints seriously. While the Central Kitsap School District's sexual harassment policy does not explicitly mention sexual orientation, this would not hinder a complaint filed by a student on the grounds of sexual orientation, according to district spokeswoman Jeanie Schulze. The categories that are listed are there because they're legally protected by Title IX and Title VII, Schulze said. However, the general language is there so we could deal with any perceived sexual harassment.The CK School District distributes a list of rights and responsibilities to all students. Under the harassment section it reads Harassment specifically includes, but is not limited to ... race, religion, gender, sexual preference or disability of another. Punishments for a first offense include detention and after-school work detail for one to five days.The problem of harassment has garnered greater attention in recent years, according to Marcum. We sent five staff member to an in-service this fall - the topic was dealing with harassment in a school setting. They are working with the building discipline committee to form strategies, Marcum said.Students at Olympic, Central Kitsap High School and CK Junior High said during recent interviews that teachers take homophobic epithets very seriously.Most teachers make a big deal about it, said Olympic sophomore April Shannon.Nonetheless, students and school officials acknowledge that harassment of students perceived to be gay is prevalent.Over the years there have been several kids who have come forward about a constant stream of harassment on buses or at school, McKenzie said.She said she always asks these students what action they want taken - sometimes they want immediate disciplinary action, but other times they just want the perpetrator warned.It's amazing. When we talk to them the behavior stops more likely than not, McKenzie said. If it doesn't get reported it goes on and on. Verbal harassment was cited by gay and straight students as more common than physical harassment. Many students also said gay males are targeted more often than lesbians.It's accepted, but they still get teased - there is definitely prejudice. If it's a guy they'll say it right to his face. It's usually a group of guys who gang up on one guy, said Derek Howell, an Olympic sophomore.Out and proud?Asked about the general climate at CK High School, gay students said it was mostly safe. One junior said it was better than the last high school he attended.CK is more accepting than my other schools, he said. I was afraid to come out there and I didn't know any gay people. I'm not alone here.Nonetheless, the school environment is still not accepting enough for many to acknowledge their sexuality openly.Teens aren't really out here because it's not city-like like Seattle, said a CKHS junior. There are a lot of in-the-closet-teens who are afraid of getting beat up.Asked what advice they would give to incoming gay students, the students replied that they should be honest.I'd tell them it's OK, said a CKHS senior. I've been going here a while and I haven't been harassed much.Another would warn them to be careful but stressed they should still try to enjoy high school.Be careful who you tell, said the junior. It's pretty safe here but don't flaunt it. Don't hit on any guys unless you know they're gay - and have fun.Advice from other students varied, revealing that the warnings are founded.I'd tell him not to say it - you heard about the kid who got tied to the fence post. I'd hate to see that happen to anyone, said Olympic sophomore Derek Howell.It's comfortable enough to be open about it here, said CK senior Jennifer Ryan. Just be open - don't be afraid. "