On March 6, Alyx Steadman's hands and voice shook as the 18-year-old explained why lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students should be considered protected classes of people in the Hamilton School District.
"I survived the torture of middle school," he told the Hamilton School Board and roughly 100 parents, teachers and students who convened at Daly Elementary School. They were there to debate the merits of adding sexual orientation and gender expression as protected classes in district policies governing harassment and intimidation, equal educational opportunities and employment.
The Hamilton-Bitterroot Valley Chapter of Parents Families and Friends of Lesbian and Gays asked the school board to make the changes. If they're approved, discrimination and bullying against LGBT students and teachers would be expressly prohibited.
Steadman was the only gay student to speak during the meeting. He told the crowd that he knew he was gay early. He came out to a few friends during recess while attending fifth grade in Hamilton. Steadman recalled that by middle school, "a few people told a few people, who told everyone else." Other boys called him a "faggot," he says. The worst part was being ostracized.
He's now a skinny, bearded Hamilton High School senior. The well-spoken young man told the crowd that homophobia remains pervasive in parts of the Bitterroot.
That would be no different than in other parts of the nation. According to a 2009 survey by the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, nine of 10 LGBT students reported harassment at school in the U.S. Nearly two-thirds of the more than 7,000 students polled said they felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation. Nearly a third of LGBT students skipped school because of safety concerns.
The nation, meanwhile, has watched in recent years as a spate of persecuted teenagers have killed themselves in highly publicized incidents. Gay teens are up to four times more likely than their heterosexual peers to commit suicide.
PFLAG's Saundra Amsden said statistics like that illustrate the need for stronger protections for LGBT youth.
"We're just interested in making things better," she said. "We would love not to need to do this."
Amsden and Steadman, however, appeared outnumbered. Multiple pastors spoke against adding LGBT people to protected classes. Sexuality and gender, they said, are topics for parents to teach, not schools.
Pastor Kevin Horton of Crossroads Christian Fellowship, in Victor, said that if the school board approved policies protecting LGBT people, it would be perceived as an endorsement of anti-Christian values. "Sexual orientation is a behavioral decision," Horton said. "You will be offending those who happen to have a Bible view of these issues."
Bitterrooters Steve and Terri Jarvis, meanwhile, worried that creating protections for LGBT kids could leave the district vulnerable to frivolous lawsuits. They also cautioned that anti-discrimination mandates could open the door to a "pro-gay agenda."
"I'm wondering where this would end," Terri Jarvis said.
Others in the crowd, like Gene Williams, an African-American, said singling out one group of kids for "special protections" simply isn't fair. "My people never did need extra treatment under the law," Williams said. "What we needed was equal protection."
Others said that many people face discrimination for a variety of reasons, including social status and body type. They asked if new policy language could simply prohibit bullying against everyone and protect equal education opportunities for all.
Hamilton isn't alone in grappling with these issues. The Montana Office of Public Instruction and Board of Public Education are now deliberating similar questions as they tweak accreditation standards for schools across the state, says Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Dennis Parman. "The topic of bullying is reaching the national discourse level."
A state-appointed task force is now updating Montana's accreditation standards, which set a baseline for school districts. The task force has discussed adding gay and lesbian students as a protected class in equal opportunity mandates. However, Parman says, the task force is now leaning toward incorporating the phrase "prejudice toward none" rather than listing protected classes. "It could be their sexual preference...it could be their gender, ethnicity...religious background. This language says none of that mattersthis protection's for all."
The Board of Public Education, in conjunction with the Superintendent of Public Education, is slated to deliberate changes this September.
The Hamilton School Board plans to vote on its proposed policy changes during a March 27 meeting.
As for Steadman, he started the Bitterroot Valley's first LGBT youth group in January—it now has eight members—and will graduate this spring. He's already been accepted to the Davidson Honors College at the University of Montana and Willamette University and is waiting to hear back from other colleges. That means he won't personally be affected by any school policy changes in Hamilton. But he says he's pleased to have the chance to engage his community in this conversation.
"To talk about it is big, because there's a stigma in this community about talking about homosexuality," he says. "Some people don't want their kids talking about it. They just want to push it aside and say that it doesn't exist. But it clearly does."