In 2002, Stephanie Lawless was a closeted teenager at Bend High School. At that time, a few friends knew she was bisexual, but no one knew that, beneath the sports jerseys and masculine mannerisms, she was not a boy but a transgender girl.
"I knew of roughly three to five individuals that were 'out' as being LGBTQ," Lawless recently recalled in an interview with the Source. She added, "most suffered at least to somewhat of a degree for being out then."
Like many transgender individuals, Lawless didn't come out until she became suicidal and decided that transitioning from male to female was a matter of life and death. She announced her intention in March of this year and says that, with the exception of her family, she's received support from most people; she is paying that support forward as the facilitator for a support group for local transgender adults.
What a difference a decade makes: If Lawless were in high school today, yes, she'd likely face some challenges, but, as students settle into the school year, it is evident that there has been a seismic shift in the legal and social landscape for LGBTQ students. Most formally, four years ago, the state legislature passed the Oregon Safe Schools Act; specifically, that law requires school districts to enact detailed anti-bullying policies and including uniform procedures for addressing harassment and retaliation.
The law has pushed changes throughout school districts, but LGBTQ advocates have noted that it does not go far enough. The language guiding Bend-La Pine School District's policies, for example, stops short of including gender identity and expression as a protected class. A 2013 report card by the Oregon Safe Schools and Communities Coalition—an organization that works to prevent suicides by LGBTQ youth—gave the Bend-La Pine district only a "silver star" for its efforts. (Gold is the highest rating.)
But, at a recent meeting of the Mountain View High School Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), the increased amount of acceptance and support for LGBTQ students was evident. A group of 40 or so students filed into a spacious classroom. They started on their lunches as the GSA president, Devon Hulick, an articulate, self-assured—and openly gay—senior, called the meeting to order.
The students sat with rapt attention as the GSA president recruited them to join poster making, news reporting, and fundraising committees. An enthusiastic duo announced plans for a no-talent show to support area GSAs, and students shouted out venue suggestions. It could have easily been a meeting for any other student group supporting its chosen cause. The only thing gay about it is the name – and a handful of its members. Most of the group's teenage members are straight, including the its Vice President Betsy Grimes. The GSA's demographic reflects the growing number of young people who support LGBTQ rights—a 2013 Pew Research Poll reports that 74 percent of 18-32-year-olds believe society should accept homosexuality. And while many of the LGBTQ members – and no small number of those who identify as allies – say they have experienced anti-gay bullying and harassment, they aren't there to commiserate. They want to create change.
"I've gotten more crap this year than the past three years combined," Hulick explained at the meeting. "It's because the GSA is growing. It comes along with being more well known." Adviser Matt Fox said he's noticed students are more open about their sexual orientation than they were when he began teaching 11 years ago in Portland. It's not uncommon for him to hear: "I came out this summer," in class introductions. He attributes the openness to increased support from peers.
"You can see improvement here," Fox said as he watched the meeting from the sidelines. "We may not be seeing a decrease in bullying, but we are seeing an increase in allies." Group members said that students are mostly supportive – with the exception of "immature" first-years – and that the administration has their back. But the students also agreed that, despite the district's policies—and the state law requiring school administrations to be more proactive and vigilant—bullying still happens.
One Mountain View student said she got involved with the GSA for her brother, who was "chased out of the state" by homophobic family members, and now lives in Wyoming. Another pointed out that bullies don't just target kids who are out; they harass anyone who looks "gay."
While straight members of the student alliance get some flack by association, most studies show that LGBTQ youth still bear the brunt of bullying in schools. According to the 2013 State of the Safe Schools Report, 53 percent of LGBTQ students in Oregon reported being harassed in the previous month, compared to 28 percent of straight youth; 20 percent said they had attempted suicide in the last year, compared to 5 percent of their heterosexual peers.