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Teens seek gay support group

Oak Harbor High School seniors AJ Burgin and Korja Giles were tired of seeing their friends taunted, and homophobic slurs treated as jokes. Their concerns have prompted them to submit an application to start a gay teen support group at the high school.

Gay-Straight Alliance is a national organization with clubs established at high schools across the country. The club would mark the first time in recent memory, perhaps ever, that Oak Harbor High School has offered a formal support group for gay teens.

GSA is designed to both support gay teens and foster greater awareness and acceptance. It is open to teens who either know they are gay or are struggling with their gender identity, and those who support them.

The students feel it’s time to start a dialogue on this hush-hush subject.

“We pretend that the issue doesn’t exist,” Burgin said. “How can we expect people to come out of the closet and be themselves if we keep the issue in the closet for them?”

High School Principal Dick Devlin said in his 13 years at the high school there has not been any kind of support for gay teens other than the school counselors, who will talk to any student with a concern. There have been no public awareness campaigns at the school, but Devlin said he has not personally witnessed any harassment based on a student’s sexual orientation. In accordance with the district’s policy on harassment and bullying, Devlin said they treat all student concerns seriously and investigate each claim.

“I haven’t seen it, but I don’t live in the world the kids live in,” he said. Devlin’s observations exemplify why the girls want to start the club.

“In a Navy town people pretend homophobia and gay people don’t exist,” Burgin said.

She and Giles have seen teens that they know to be gay harassed and ridiculed. “Gay couples are heavily ostracized,” she said. While a few gay girls are open about it, all the gay boys they know keep quiet. Some even pretend to be straight, partaking in ogling girls to seem like “one of the guys.”

The Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network, in New York, has conducted studies which show that harassment is the rule rather than the exception for gay students.

The network is the largest national organization of parents, students and educators working to end anti-gay bias in K-12 schools, and a resource for Gay-Straight Alliance groups.

The organization estimates anywhere from 3 to 10 percent of teens are gay, or “LGBT,” short for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender.

In a survey conducted by the group last year of 904 students nationwide who identified themselves as either lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, 83 percent reported being verbally harassed, 42 percent report being shoved or pushed and 21 percent were punched, kicked or injured with a weapon.

While there is no count of gay students in the Oak Harbor School District, with approximately 1,800 students in the high school, Home Connections and Midway High School, statistically there could be more than a hundred youths struggling with their sexual identity.

“It’s reasonable to assume that in a (student) population that size it would exist,” Devlin said.

Oak Harbor High School students randomly surveyed recently showed mixed reactions to the issue of gays and harassment at their school.

Junior Kiana Quidachay, 16, said she knows some gay teens, but hasn’t personally seen any harassment. She speculated some students might be homophobic. She felt that most gay teens at school would admit they were gay if they were asked, but they were generally not open about it — especially the boys, adopting a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude.

There was a perception among the group that it was more acceptable, even cool, to be a gay female than male.

Senior Greg Devore, 18, said some girls even say they are lesbians when they are not.

Still, Quidachay and her friends felt a support club at the school would be a good thing.

“People should be comfortable with their sexuality,” she said.

Gay teens at Oak Harbor High School also have no authority figure role models, as Devlin said there are no openly gay teachers among the staff of 88 at the high school.

While he has never been mandated by state or federal law to address homosexuality among his students, Devlin said he welcomes the club, and supports the efforts of Burgin and Giles.

“We want to support all students,” he said.

With little or no open dialogue about gay issues, Burgin and Giles don’t know how the Gay-Straight Alliance club will be received at the school.

“Starting this club will require courage, I have no doubt about that,” Burgin wrote in the proposal, “but our new school motto is ‘Be Brave.’ Let’s prove that we’re living up to it.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

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