2003 Student Press Liberties Award Winners

1st Place ($125)
Homophobia in the Halls: Constant Use of Gay-Bashing Language Keeps the Closet Closed at SPFHS
by Jason Hipp
The Fanscotian
Scotch-Plains-Fanwood High School
Scotch Plains, NJ

2nd Place($75)
The Death of Liberalism
by Ali Musa
The Hiller Times
Union Hill High School
Union City, NJ

3rd Place ($50)
Forging or Breaking the Chains? Banning Books in Schools Creates First Amendment Clash
by Joyce Rivera
Bear Facts
Bergenfield High School
Bergenfield, NJ

Homophobia in the halls: Constant use of gay-bashing language keeps the closet closed at SPFHS

By Jason Hipp

It’s not dare called by its name, but homophobia is present at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School. Who are we kidding? Every day in the halls: “that’s gay” or “you’re a fag” or a certain teacher is “gay” because he assigned too much homework.

When pressed they’d probably say they’re not talking about homosexuality. Homosexuals would tell you otherwise.

“Hearing things like I do now is almost painful,” said one senior at SPFHS, a gay male who has come out to approximately ten friends. “I know some of the people using the words don’t mean it, but it just makes me think to myself, even though I know it’s not a negative thing, that there are people who would look down on me. And as strong-willed as I am, I don’t know if I could deal with that.”

The senior said he has never heard any direct expressions of views on homosexuality, only the typical “gay-bashing language” which he calls “very far-reaching. I hear people using words like ‘gay’ and ‘fag’ as insults at least five times walking between classes, not to mention during or after school or at lunch.”

The effect is he’s only told ten friends, even though he’d like to be more open about his sexuality in a more accepting environment.

According to the American Psychological Association, coming out is important for the mental health of gay men, lesbians and bisexuals. “The more positive the gay, lesbian, or bisexual identity,” the web site stated, “the better one’s mental health and the higher one's self-esteem.”

The senior has received support from the friends he has told, as has a bisexual female junior.

“The thing that has probably dissuaded me from telling more people has been my own paranoia and fear of rejection,” she said. “I'm always open about everything that I feel and like to put everything out on the table for all to see, but I fear losing my friends over it.”

She noted that stereotypical views of homosexuals are often repeated in school and the fact that “the words gay and faggot are used constantly in a derogatory way.”

According to the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, unchecked name-calling “is a recipe for disaster. …The world a targeted student inhabits shrinks as fear and low self-esteem corrode their ability to concentrate on their studies or engage in the social life of the school: they become more wary of doing anything to call more attention to themselves, including speaking in class, playing sports or participating in school clubs or trips. These increasingly isolated students wind up spending far too much of their young lives figuring out how to survive another day — physically, mentally, and emotionally.”

That might explain that while some students at SPFHS are out to small groups of friends, statistics — it is typically said that one in ten people are gay — would call for a lot more.

At SPFHS, only eight students have attended or shown interest in attending the Gay-Straight Alliance meetings this year.

“It’s hard for kids to come to this because they don’t want to get labeled,” said Sandra Kling, the adviser.

At Westfield High School, active member Rachel Emmet estimated that 30 students have shown interest in the alliance and 15 regularly attend meetings. At Cranford High School, co-founder Joseph Gallucci said 15 students regularly attend alliance meetings and another ten have shown interest.

Emmet said about three students are out to the entire school community while she knows thirteen who are open to friends and another five open to her and a couple of others.

She believes that a number of factors have contributed to the atmosphere, including a lot of gay and liberal faculty, posters advising tolerance and a message board maintained by the alliance, specific discussions on gay issues in health class and several assemblies stressing tolerance of gays.

Of course, it probably doesn’t hurt that the “Philosophy & Objectives of Westfield H.S.” statement goes out of its way to specify that curriculum and extra-curricular activities should honor diversity among sexual orientations, among other aspects. As a result, issues like same sex couples are covered in health class. At Cranford, Gallucci remembers homosexuality being discussed in every health class he’s had.

At SPFHS, health teacher Kling discusses homosexuality “very briefly,” mostly in freshmen health, although in more depth if students show interest. Among the topics covered are identifying what homosexuality is, how it’s not a choice and the use of relevant language.

Still, about three years after the creation of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, Kling has known of only one openly gay or bisexual student, Katarzyna Bartoszynska, one of the club’s founders during the 1999-2000 school year.

After receiving bad treatment in Idaho, “I figured New Jersey would be more open-minded,” she said, acting very open about her sexuality during her senior year.

“Once some girl claimed that I had slashed her tires,” she said. “A lot of people said I was strange. But no one, to my memory, was really horrible about it.”

Still, Bartoszynska remembers what high school could be like. “At SPFHS I definitely had the sense that there were kids who were in the closet and would be afraid to come out or would get a lot of crap for it.”

According to a 1999 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey, gay, lesbian or bisexual students were over four times more likely to have attempted suicide, over three times more likely to miss school because of feeling unsafe and over three times more likely to have been injured or threatened with a weapon at school.

For the gay senior at SPFHS, it took him “a long time” before he finally admitted to himself he was gay this summer.

“You know how those childhood years are,” he said. “All you want to do is be like everyone else. It doesn’t matter what you think; it matters what everyone else thinks. Just sit quietly and agree and everything will be OK. I just wanted to be like everyone else.”

The problem for gay students is being like everyone else comes at a cost — but the cost of being different may be even higher.

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