Their eyes meet, Sam and a classmate. “Quit looking at me you stupid fucking faggot,” the classmate sneers. Sam looks away, trying not to attract further attention, but it’s too late. The girl’s comment has stirred up the class. There are more slurs of “fag” and “queer” and one student pretends to vomit on Sam. The class is in stitches and the teacher treats the incident as raucous horseplay.
This is how Sam [not his real name], an openly gay Hamilton High School freshman, describes a classroom experience.
The stories Sam recited to his mother finally became too much for her to take, and fearing that her son was in physical danger, she pulled him out of school.
“Having a teacher that was backing the kids,” she says. “I just didn’t feel safe having him at that school. But we don’t have the finances to move to Missoula, so what could I do. I shouldn’t have to move just because he’s gay.”
After a couple of weeks and several meetings with Hamilton High principal Kevin Conwell and other administrators, Sam’s parents were convinced that he should return to school. While Sam and his parents are worried that not much will change, Conwell insists that the administration takes the alleged harassment seriously.
“In no way, shape or form will we tolerate students being harassed,” says Conwell. “Our first priority here is that they have a safe environment to learn. If this is indeed happening we’ll do everything we can to put a stop to it.”
Since his return to class, Sam says he’s noticed certain teachers who have been less tolerant of prejudiced comments, but he thinks the school still has a long way to go before the homophobic behavior is eliminated.
“It’s bad in middle school, but it’s horrific in high school,” he says.
“I’ve said so many times, I quit, I quit, I quit. But I can’t quit because it means that I’d be letting them take control of the situation and I won’t do it.”
Around the time Sam’s parents pulled him out of school, they began looking for someplace where their son could get some support. Suspecting Hamilton wasn’t the place, Sam’s father called the University of Montana. After being juggled through the hands of several organizations, the couple was told about a gay and lesbian support group for high school students in Missoula.
The group, which started meeting in October, is based on the twin protections of confidentiality and anonymity, and offers an alternative to Big Sky and Hellgate High Schools’ Gay/Straight Alliances (GSA). In GSA school settings, anyone can walk by the room and see who’s involved, says group facilitator Tracy Hardy. A lot of students aren’t ready to be that open about their sexuality.
20-year-old UM student Devi Reye now attends group meetings partly for herself and partly to help younger students who are struggling. Reye, who didn’t come out until college, says she wishes there had been an anonymous support group like this one when she was a student at Sentinel.
“You can’t be out at Sentinel,” she says of the only Missoula public high school without a GSA chapter. “The joke is that there aren’t any gay kids at Sentinel.”
Because Hamilton High also hosts no GSA, the Missoula support group was the first place Sam felt he could comfortably be himself. But Sam’s mom says the group provides much more than that for her son.
“There was big change in him,” says his mom. “He became a totally different person after he started coming to these meetings. Where there was a lot of depression and frustration and anger, it disappeared.”
Sam and his mother admit that in the weeks before he joined the group, Sam was threatening to commit suicide.
“I think we all know that there was a good chance that Sam wouldn’t be here,” Hardy says. “Lucky he has some really supportive parents.”
Hardy, who teaches in the Missoula school district, witnesses first-hand the pressure that can be put on middle school students wrestling with questions of sexuality. In Hardy’s classroom, the words “gay” and “fag” have become the most popular and derisive insults a student can use. She’s convinced that part of the problem is that kids don’t have gay role models.
“I think if I was out in my classroom and I said that language is not ok because I’m gay, it wouldn’t happen as much,” she says. “So one of my goals is to be out in my classroom.”
The support group has had such a positive effect on Sam that it’s inspired his mom to start a similar group in Hamilton, and possibly a Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays chapter. Sam knows only two other openly gay students in Hamilton, but getting them together along with some sympathetic friends would be start. “I know Sam has a few friends that would like to get together and eat potato chips and peanut M&Ms and drink soda pop,” she says. “I just want them to feel comfortable and I’m willing to do that not only for my son but for the few other people.”
As for Sam’s future plans, they aren’t surprising. He wants to feel safer and more accepted, and he wants his school to take steps towards that end. Principal Conwell says it’s going to happen.
“This is a community within a community,” he says. “So we need to make this as comfortable a place as possible. We’re not going to sweep this under the rug.”