Coming out

Students establish Gay/Straight Alliance group at SSHS

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It's been called the "Ellen effect" or the "Matthew Shepard effect." Whatever the name, no one can deny that perceptions of homosexuality are changing.

In the past 10 years, gay characters have found their way to prime-time TV shows such as "Will & Grace" and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." Even if those characters represent stereotypes of the gay man, as Steamboat Springs High School student Jason Powell said, "at least they're positive stereotypes. It's definitely a leap forward."

As the fashion-conscious antics of those gay TV characters play in the living rooms of mainstream America, the population they represent is gaining acceptance.

Slowly.

The gay rights story continues in Steamboat Springs, where gay teens went before Steamboat Springs School District officials last spring to request the approval of a Gay/Straight Alliance.

The administration was supportive immediately, but also cautioned the teens. There were concerns about the students' safety.

"People talk about diversity, but there is not always a lot of tolerance," said Gay/Straight Alliance sponsor Jill Pierson, an English teacher at Steamboat Springs High School.

But for Joel Graham, 16, Krista Walters, 18, and Jason Powell, 16, this is not the time to be afraid. This is not the time to stay in the closet.

During an interview Wednesday, all three teens were sure to use the words "homosexual" and "gay" in their conversation. They did not want to dance around the issue with terms such as "sexual minority."

"This group is about teaching tolerance," Walters said. "In Steamboat Springs, people can be so hush-hush about this issue, and they can be cruel."

Walters, Graham and Powell got the inspiration to start a local chapter of the Gay/Straight Alliance after attending a national Gay/Straight Alliance conference in Denver last spring. GSA has chapters in schools across the United States.

After the three went through the process to start an extra-curricular club, the Gay/Straight Alliance started holding weekly meetings in Pierson's classroom. More than 20 teens regularly attend meetings. Some attendees are openly gay or questioning; some are there simply to show support.

"We wanted to create a place where people could come if they wanted to talk," Graham said.

At the end of the last school year, the high school administered an anonymous Steamboat Cares survey of its students. Of the 480 students, or 78 percent of the student body, who responded, 4 percent of boys and 5.4 percent of girls said they felt unsure about their sexual orientation.

The survey also revealed a disturbing connection between students who questioned their sexuality and students who had attempted or considered suicide. Of the students surveyed, 38.1 percent of those confused about their sexual orientation had attempted or considered suicide.

Homosexual adolescent boys are 14 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers, according to notes accompanying the survey.

Pierson had a college roommate come out to her years ago. By the time her roommate got the courage to tell someone, she was on the brink of suicide, Pierson said. "I wish she had a place to go like these kids do."

Graham remembers the depression he went through before he came out to his friends and family.

Unlike many in previous generations, Graham did not wait until late in life to come out. Now a junior, Graham came out to friend in the eighth grade.

"I was amazed by her reaction," he said. "Nothing changed between us."

His mother was equally accepting.

"I was having a hard time with a relationship, and my mom sat down and said, 'Let's get the whole gay thing out in the open first,'" he said. "She was amazing."

Powell came out to his friends and family in eighth grade, too, and met with similar reactions.

Graham and Powell came out to supportive friends and family, but, Pierson said, not everyone has such a support system.

"There are kids out there who may not have those friends," she said. "(Being gay) may be accepted, but it's not talked about. A lot of people still squirm when you mention it."

In September, the group started hanging fliers at school to advertise their meetings and saw several of them torn down.

"To me, that proved that we need (a GSA)," Walters said.

Eventually, the members of the GSA hope to turn their group into a community-wide organization but, for now, they are happy just to exist and to have their existence known.

"There are people out there who want to be supportive but don't have anyone to support," Graham said. "And there are people who need support. We just want to be known. For now."

For more information about the Steamboat Springs chapter of GSA, e-mail sshs_gsa@hotmail.com.

-- To reach Autumn Phillips call 871-4210 or e-mail aphillips@steamboatpilot.com

(Before running this article, the Steamboat Pilot & Today gained permission from school administration and parents to run the names and photos of GSA teens.)

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