LGBT youth blaze trails in Ga. high schools

As a 14-year old “queer” freshman at Apalachee High School in rural Barrow County, Carly Baker faces some tough odds.

She has clashed with other students who bullied her and her gay best friend. And when she approached her principal about starting a gay-straight alliance, she was told such a group wouldn’t fly in this part of the Bible belt.

But Baker, while appearing diminutive, is quite fearless and unwavering. She has armed herself with resources she obtained at the first annual Gay-Straight Alliance Youth Summit held on Feb. 19 at the UGA campus in Gwinnett County and is now researching the best way to again bring up her plans to school administrators.

“I’m going to meet again with my principal. When I went to the summit I picked up a pamphlet for counselors and what I’m doing now are finding key points,” she said.

“I don’t think he [her principal] is deliberately trying to deny me my rights. I didn’t even know about the Equal Access Act,” she said.

The Equal Access Act is a federal law passed in 1984 that mandates public schools provide equal access to extracurricular clubs. Religious organizations lobbied hard for its passage to ensure Christian clubs could be included at a high school and now the law also plays a key role in ensuring public schools allow gay-straight alliances.

Baker’s school in Winder, a city of about 15,000 people located about an hour from Atlanta, is the “home of the Wildcats” and has about 1,580 students.

Baker said she knows about 20-25 people at school who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. She identifies as queer because she said she falls in love with a person, not a gender label.

But many of her friends are afraid to come out to their parents and to the public because of strict religious upbringings, as well as the conservative community in which they live.

With the support of her parents — Carly’s mom attended the youth summit with her to also learn more — Baker actually had the idea of starting a GSA while in middle school.

“All through middle school, everyone was saying, ‘That’s so gay.’ In seventh grade one of my best friends came out to me that he was gay. We knew before he did.

After that everyone found out and he was treated like trash,” she said.

“It really scared me. He would go home crying every day because people were bullying him. I decided something needed to change.”

Summit unites LGBT youth from across the state

About 110 LGBT high school and college students attended the first GSA Youth Summit on Feb. 19, sponsored by the Georgia Safe Schools Coalition, Ben Marion Institute, Georgia Equality, Lambda Legal, PFLAG Atlanta, Clark Central GSA and the Lambda Alliance at UGA.

“I was particularly struck by a student who said she didn’t want to leave because she felt safe and comfortable around everyone for the first time as a queer student,” said Anneliese Singh, a founder of the Georgia Safe Schools Coalition and assistant professor in the Department of Counseling & Human Development Services at UGA.

“It is really important for the Georgia Safe Schools Coalition members that we don’t let ourselves or anyone off the hook for keeping LGBTQ students and those perceived as LGBTQ safe in schools. So, our message as a coalition to attendees was really, ‘These are your rights. You are beautiful — and you are powerful beyond what you even realize.’ There is no doubt about it — Georgia LGBTQ students and their allies are creating major changes in their schools on a daily basis,” Singh said.

“We have so much to be proud of, and so much work still to do.”

Unlike the hurdles Baker faces at Apalachee High School, Jeremy Shaffer, 18; Mykela Holland, 17; and Chris Brack, 16, all attend the Paideia School, an independent school located in Druid Hills in Atlanta. With many openly gay faculty members, organizing a GSA on campus has never been an issue.

Since 1992, Paideia has had a GSA and it currently has between 10-20 people attend weekly meetings. But while it may seem like being gay at Paideia is easy, there is more still to be done everywhere, said Shaffer, who was named the summit’s first Georgia Young Advocate of the Year. Shaffer and Holland are co-presidents of their GSA.

“I think there’s not as much support in the community as there needs to be. This [high school] is a time when people come to terms with their sexuality and discover who they are. This is the most important time they need support,” said Shaffer.

Added Brack, “There are so many different stories, so many have had to try real hard [to form a GSA] and they are real brave,” he said.

At Berkmar High School in Suwanee in Gwinnett County, there was an attempt to start a GSA but it was disbanded. Rick Hernandez, 16, a junior at Berkmar, said when he became a freshman he and other students relaunched the GSA.

“And this year we’ve had the most support ever,” said Hernandez, who is now president of the group.

Damien Pugh, 17, also a junior at Berkmar, has not come out to his parents. But he is able to find comfort by attending his school’s GSA.

“It’s good for people to come to feel safe, to share experiences. Now I have ‘fake’ 14 children, people who come to me for help and I can share my experiences. I still haven’t come out yet but I’m planning to pretty soon,” he said.

The summit was a day for fun, but also an incredible amount of learning in break out sessions and panel discussions on topics including bullying and what steps have to be taken to start a GSA.

“These are unbelievably brave and inspiring people who are truly doing some of the most important work they can in schools — being who they are as LGBTQ young people and standing up for their rights,” said Singh. “Many students didn’t know their legal rights in schools regarding GSAs and the legal and ethical obligations educators have to them.”

‘This is my passion’

Carly Baker said she never really had to come out to her parents.

“For me, I don’t have a specified sexuality. I’ve talked about it with my parents. Whoever I fall in love with I fall in love with and gender doesn’t matter,” she said.

But she knows the support she receives from her family is not typical and she wants to use whatever power she has to try to make Apalachee High School a safe place for LGBT students.

“It would be easier if I just sucked it up and graduated. But when I was in middle school and I saw my best friend in the whole world when he cried, it just scared me to death. I’ve seen people get suicidal. Nothing about that is acceptable,” she said.

Currently, with the support of her parents, Baker is trying to organize a National Day of Silence at her school, slated for April 15 this year. The National Day of Silence is meant to bring awareness about anti-LGBT bullying in schools and is organized by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, or GLSEN. In 2007, GLSEN had recorded 60 GSAs in high schools across Georgia.

Last year, the state legislature passed a K-12 anti-bullying bill. It requires all local school boards by Aug. 1 to “adopt a policy that prohibits bullying of a student by another student and shall require such prohibition to be included in the student code of conduct for schools in that school system.”

The bill does not specifically address bullying against LGBT students, but gay activists considered the passage of the bill a huge victory from a conservative General Assembly. The bill was sponsored by Republican Mike Jacobs of Atlanta.

Baker’s best friend from middle school is now in high school with her and still suffers taunts from other students.

“But he’s one of the strongest people I know. He just goes through every day as he is,” she said.

With a GSA and support for gay students at her high school, Baker hopes that people can learn to live with each other and not be intimidated by differences.

“People are afraid to be who they are. I can’t sit back and watch them suffer anymore. This is my passion,” she said.

“I don’t want to approach this with anger,” she added. “I want to reach out to students, to the community with open arms. I want to change the direction of our generation. We’re already more open to new ideas and this just one more way to make the world a better place.”


Top photo: Despite opposition, Carly Baker (left), 14, a freshman at Apalachee High School in Barrow County, is determined to form a gay-straight alliance at her school. Her mother, Vanessa Baker, supports her. (by Dyana Bagby)