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Gays Unwelcome at School?

Homosexual students attending Fairfax County Public Schools say they face hurtful comments but little overt harassment.

Every school day at 10 a.m. Brian Picone, an openly gay 16-year-old, rides a bus to Fairfax High School for dance class, knowing he will once again face slurs from students who pass him in the hallway.

“They call me faggot. There’s a lot of yelling and pointing,” he said. “It’s scary. It’s really bad there.”

Picone’s fellow students at his regular school, Falls Church High School, have mostly come to accept that Picone is gay. He still frequently overhears the words “fag” and “gay” used as synonyms for stupid, and the posters he makes for the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance club are often ripped off the wall, but he knows it could be worse.

“There’s still a lot of homophobic comments going around but I’ve gotten used to it,” he said. “It probably makes a lot of the closeted gay people uncomfortable though.”

Picone and other openly gay and lesbian high school students enrolled at Fairfax County Public Schools said they face discrimination because of their sexual orientation on a daily basis. The name-calling can lead to an overarching feeling of being unwelcome at school, said Picone and others.

Picone’s mother, Andrea Picone, said she constantly worries about her son’s safety at school.

“It’s hard for me because you don’t want him to feel helpless. He’s got to be able to go out in the world and learn to take care of himself,” she said. “It makes me want to run over there and crack some heads.”

Andrea Picone said she urges her son to avoid being alone at all times while at school.

“If somebody’s bold enough to do something when someone else is there, at least there will be a witness,” she said.

According to a recent study by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network the anecdotal evidence from Picone and other Fairfax County teenagers mirrors the experiences of gays and lesbians nationally.

The study suggests that 77.2 percent of lesbian, gays, bisexual and transgendered students suffered repeated anti-gay remarks at school in 2003. Meanwhile, the study found that 83 percent of the time, faculty did nothing intervene upon hearing discrimination.

Students who feel harassed at high school because of their sexual orientation are also three times more likely to miss school because they feel unsafe, and are more than twice as likely to be depressed or consider suicide, according to a study published in January by researchers at the University of California Davis.

EVAN SISLEY, an 18-year-old openly gay junior at Chantilly High School and an avid photographer, is known in the less-accepting corners of his school as the “Photo Fag.”

“It’s cool to hate gay people,” he said. “That stuff’s very hurtful. If you think about it, homosexuals are probably the most despised and feared group in the country today.”

Sisley is president of Chantilly’s Gay-Straight Alliance, which held a Hate Crimes Awareness Week at the end of April. As part of the week’s activities, Sisley and the GSA held a candlelight vigil and participated in the National Day of Silence to commemorate victims of gay bashing.

After much negotiation with the school’s administration, Sisley got approval to hand out brochures containing frequently asked questions about homosexuality. On Monday, April 19, Sisley handed out the brochures to passing students, while wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt with Matthew Shepard’s name emblazoned across the front. Shepard was murdered in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998 because he was a homosexual.

The majority of the students took the brochure, but one student grabbed the stack from Sisley’s hands, ripped up the paper and dropped the remains on the ground.

Not long after, papers displaying a Bible verse sometimes construed to condemn homosexuality were posted throughout the school’s hallways. The message, Sisley said, was clear: Being a member of the gay and lesbian community is not acceptable.

“We can take that as a direct threat on our lives,” Sisley said, referring to himself and the three other openly gay students at Chantilly. “Some people are so ignorant they just don’t care.”

Rarely will someone say an anti-gay comment to Sisley’s face, but he said hears slurs used in regular conversation everyday.

“Every single day, every single class I hear someone use the word ‘gay’ as a putdown,” he said.

FAIRFAX COUNTY Public Schools does include gays and lesbians in its nondiscrimination policy, which prohibits discrimination because of religion, race, gender, marital status, national origin or disability.

Two years ago the school board tried to add “sexual orientation” to the list of protected groups, but was hamstrung by Attorney General Jerry Kilgore’s legal opinion that said the school system could not add protections for gays and lesbians without approval by the General Assembly.

Last month, the Fairfax County School Board voted to amend part of its nondiscrimination policy by removing some references to protected groups. The move was called a “step closer” to an all-inclusive policy by several school board members.

“You can’t protect one group but not another,” said Mike Geuss, an openly gay 18-year-old senior at Oakton High School. “We’re one of the most discriminated against groups in the schools.”

Geuss, who started a Gay-Straight Alliance club at Oakton two years ago, said he would prefer to have no groups expressly listed in the nondiscrimination policy, so gays and lesbians would be included with other minority groups.

Since the Gay-Straight Alliance club at Oakton was formed, Geuss said Oakton’s environment has become more inclusive. When he hears anti-gay comments, he said he doesn’t hesitate to say something back.

“I don’t go around trying to get in an argument with everybody, but I usually confront the people,” he said.

Before the GSA was created, Geuss heard anti-gay remarks an estimated 70 times a day. Now, he said, he hears the criticism, “That’s so gay” an average of 10 times a day.

“Everyone still needs to be a little more accepting,” said Suzanne Reuter, Geuss’ friend and fellow member of Oakton’s GSA.

AT SOUTH LAKES High School in Reston, the level of acceptance for lesbians and gays is about the same elsewhere in the county — it’s no picnic, but students aren’t afraid for their lives.

Craig Lewis, an 18-year-old openly gay senior at the school, said he was on the receiving end of discrimination for his sexual orientation during his first two years at South Lakes, but now his classmates have become more accepting of him and his lifestyle.

“I’ve been through the rumors,” he said. “They don’t bother me now, but they did and they’re pretty harsh.”

Every once in a while Lewis said he hears anti-gay comments directed at him in the school’s hallways, but he tries to ignore it.

“There are a lot of people who don’t see it as discrimination,” he said. “They think it’s OK to discriminate against homosexuals, especially in high school.”

Lewis, who is active in the school’s drama department, said he believes the people making derogatory comments toward him and his fellow members of the gay and lesbian community are ignorant, making their opinions easy to brush off.

“I know that these are the people who are going to be delivering pizzas when they’re, like, 46,” Lewis said. “Maybe that’s an insult to 46-year-olds who deliver pizzas.”