Discovering my sexual orientation in a violent, poverty-stricken environment was not easy. I remember the first time someone called me a “dyke,” in the locker room of Markham Middle School. At that time I was a punk rocker, wearing ripped jeans and men’s shirts. I didn’t yet consider myself queer — or even really know what that meant — but I was already aware of homophobia. Not until junior year of high school did I begin to explore my identity. Jordan High was reflective of the area that I lived: It was dangerous. Race riots broke out between Latinos and black students, and students were not welcoming of gays. I did not feel that teachers, administrators or counselors could support me.
But in school, students were always trying to improve our environment and change it for the better. I was lucky to be around peers who were also tapping into their sexuality and together we founded a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA). We pushed for awareness about hate crimes and violence against the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning (LGBTQ) community and created a safe space for students. I don’t think that it was enough time for the perspective on homosexuality to change, but I found that the students were very open to learning more about it. When we created the GSA, we thought it would be a permanent club that would exist for the future. I did not expect for it to dissolve and leave no peer organization for students today.
A lack of resources for LGBTQ youth has consequences. The 2011 National School Climate Survey by the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network found that 82 percent of LGBTQ youth are harassed in schools nationwide. Those that are harassed have lower grade point averages, were less likely to pursue higher education, have lower levels of self-esteem and high levels of depression. The study found that there is less bullying when there is a GSA.
Nationwide the outlook on gay rights has changed in the five years since I graduated from Jordan High School. The Pew Research Center found that Latino support for gay marriage has risen to 52 percent from 31 percent six years ago and support by blacks for gay marriage is at 38 percent compared to 26 percent six years ago. But in my experience, anti-gay attitudes have stayed mostly the same in South LA. It’s a hyper masculine area, where the hardcore thug lifestyle is what most youth idealize. Flamboyant gay men, trans prostitutes and masculine butches exist in the community but they are forced to live in the margins. Words like “fag,” “she-male” and phrases like “no homo” are used publicly and without consequence.
The only organization that I could find that fights against homophobia in the Watts area is Bienestar, located in South Central. Cynthia Ramirez is the mental health specialist and program manager for the youth group. I asked why there needs to be more resources for LGBTQ youth and she told me that “in South LA and in general LGBTQ youth might not have the support system or they might not be comfortable coming out to their families.”
“Clubs that are more open minded are really important to a youth that might be questioning,” she added. “They would have a safe place to go. I think that schools that haven’t established a GSA, should.”
In Watts — and at Jordan High — to be gay often means being made fun of, and the experience of fear and shame often distracts from academics. High school junior Emilio knows about this well. He is not out in school or at home. He has not told his family that he is gay, but he believes that they already know and this is why they mock him. “They like to yell at me and make fun of me,” he said. “They suspect, so it kind of hurts me.” It is hard to come out when you face the reality that you might be alone.
While he is not out with everyone, Emilio is very proud of his identity and wants to help other youth accept their orientation. “I’ve seen kids who’ve never met anyone gay and they meet me and they were so surprised and so shocked,” he said.
The situation for gay students at Jordan High, which is now two smaller schools, appears to have worsened since I was a student. The GSA is no longer active, and no other organization has taken its place. Since the network was founded in San Francisco, CA in 1998 it has gown to more than 900 clubs in California. They are student–run clubs in junior and high schools that bring together LGBTQ youth and allies.
Student organizations need to be created by students. It is up to youth like Emilio to take leadership. But in order to do so they need a community and teachers that step up to help them feel confident and safe enough to do so. The fact that students have not kept the GSA going at Jordan is likely because what goes on in schools tends to reflect the community. “The kids are very afraid to come out because they don’t trust their peers,” Judy Chiasson, the intervention coordinator at the Human Relations, Diversity and Equity Office at LAUSD, said regarding the homophobic environment in Watts. In order for there to be changes in schools, students and community members would have to be in support of LGBTQ rights.
For now, the only work that LAUSD is able to do, according to Chiasson, is to ensure administrators follow policies that protect against discrimination against LGBTQ teachers and students. “What we do is to make sure our principals know that this is what we believe as a district. I’m pretty confident in staff and colleagues, and if not, there are consequences,” Chiasson said.
Rebecca Parshall, a 9th grade a teacher at Jordan High, said that there was no immediate help for LGBTQ students like Emilio. “As far as I’m aware, and I’m a teacher here, we don’t have any formal resources,” she said. Some students find help through relationships with their counselors, but Parshall thinks more should be done to support LGBTQ students.
The GSA provided me with a space to express myself without judgment. It proved to be an opportunity where Jordan High youth could be more aware of LGBTQ struggles. It also initiated a discussion about gender and sexual orientation that needs to happen in all communities. People in Watts and elsewhere should learn from Emilio’s wise words about acceptance: “I love myself too much to care about anything anyone else says. I try to help people at Jordan, tell them, ‘Be yourself. Don’t let anyone put you down.’” But many youth in Watts do not have the strength and courage to accept their orientation, and they need support to succeed in school and in life.
Emilio sees this at Jordan High, “We have these kids that cannot be themselves because they have no one to go to, they have no one to help them.” he said. More support could be transformative. “They would perform better in school; it’s just a logical thing, if a kid can express himself a kid can be better in school and at anything they do.”
This story was produced by Reporter Corps, a program of USC Annenberg’s Civic Engagement and Journalism Initiative that trains young adults to report on their own communities, and The Hechinger Report.