High School Controversial

It was only first period at McKinley High School in Baton Rouge when 17-year-old Leslie-Claire Spillman sensed that something was wrong. The door to her classroom burst open, a girl jumped in and yelled, "It's time!" Spillman soon heard students murmuring and slamming lockers in the halls. As she edged her way outside, she realized that all the commotion was about--her. "No Gay Clubs!" the kids were chanting as the crowds began to grow thicker and meaner in the halls. Spillman is the openly bisexual cochairman of the Gay-Straight Alliance, a group she and her friend Martin Pfeiffer, also 17, had fought for six months to form. They had started with the school's principal and battled all the way to Louisiana's East Baton Rouge Parish School Board. But the morning's mini-melee was tougher than any of those fights. A girl walked up to Spillman and said, "Watch your back. I'm going to f---ing beat you're a--." One of Pfeiffer's teachers barricaded him in a classroom. When it was all over, the school suspended 36 anti-gay protesters. Yet that didn't make it any easier for Spillman and Pfeiffer. "The kid lives in a pressure cooker," says Pfeiffer's mom, Molly. "I don't know how he gets up every morning."

It's not always this dangerous to be openly gay in high school. In fact, it may never have been easier. Gay-Straight Alliances have been a major factor in helping teenagers create openly gay lives. First established in 1988, GSAs were designed as both support groups for gay students and--with the help of the sympathetic straight students--a bulwark against homophobia. The Gay, Lesbian, Straight Teacher Network estimates there are about 700 GSAs nationwide, most of which were formed--peacefully--in the wake of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard. But the move out of the classroom closet isn't always smooth--or predictable. In Orange County, Calif., pro- and anti-gay forces have been fighting for months over El Modena High School's GSA, even though a federal judge ruled last fall that the group must be allowed to meet on campus. On the other hand, Decatur High--smack in the middle of the Georgia Bible belt--has had a GSA for two years with practically no dissent. "Kids who are out are the class president, the star athlete. Same-sex couples at proms aren't even a weirdo thing anymore," says Ritch Savin-Williams, a Cornell psychology professor. "There's an interesting dichotomy today. It's really bad for some, but many gay kids are doing well."

For Pfeiffer and Spillman, the road has been rocky. It was Pfeiffer's idea to start the GSA. He'd been taunted by kids since middle school--long before, at 15, he came out to his mom at Wal-Mart--and decided a support group would help gay students and foster tolerance. When Pfeiffer went to the McKinley principal last October to talk about starting a GSA, she said no. Next Pfeiffer went to the school superintendent. After placing 25 unreturned phone calls over a month, he finally got a response: "inappropriate." So he went to the school board, which held a series of contentious meetings.

Pfeiffer--with his bleached-blond hair, pierced ears and a choker necklace adorned with his boyfriend's school ring--spoke about how the years of harassment had once made him suicidal. Spillman says she actually dropped out of school, became a heroin addict and spent five weeks in detox after the gay taunts became so unrelenting. Perhaps it's not surprising that, while it's easier for many kids to be open about their sexuality today, the suicide rate of gay teens is alarmingly high. A 1997 study of Massachusetts high-school students found that 46 percent of the gay, lesbian and bisexual kids surveyed had attempted suicide in the last year. "If you're in a society that tells you you are an abomination, right or wrong it's what you believe," Pfeiffer says.

The anti-GSA contingent used that fear factor, too. They brought in an "ex" lesbian and gay man to the decisive board meeting to talk about how miserable they were before they adjusted their sexual orientation. "Dresses! Some of them [the boys] wear dresses. What are you going to do?" the ex-lesbian warned. At one point, Spillman started to cry. After five hours of debate, the 12-member board came up only one vote short of the seven needed to pass the policy allowing the GSA on campus. But the school superintendent--perhapsmindful of the 1984 Equal Access Law that prohibits schools from selectively prohibiting extracurricular groups from meeting on campus--decided not to stand in the way of Pfeiffer and Spillman's group after all. (The principal did not return calls requesting an interview.)

And that was the easy part. Once Pfeiffer and Spillman got the go-ahead from their principal, the anti-gay pressure at school intensified. Pfeiffer says one boy was brazen enough to taunt him--"Hey, gay boy!"--right in front of the main office. "People like you are the reason I am starting this club," replied Pfeiffer. For all his brashness, he started having his friends escort him to his classes. On that raucous day last February, Spillman and Pfeiffer saw the student protesters on the front lawn carrying signs with that old line, GOD MADE ADAM AND EVE, NOT ADAM AND STEVE. But they had no idea that students planned to demonstrate inside as well. It got very noisy very quickly. Pfeiffer's English teacher immediately locked the door and told him to keep his easy-to-spot blond head away from the window. "We have the right to speak freely," says Chiquita Harris, one of the students who was suspended for three days because of the incident. "School is not a place for a gay club." It will be soon. McKinley's 20-member GSA is scheduled to have its first on-campus meeting on March 22. What will happen then is anyone's guess. Ironically, while Spillman and Pfeiffer were fighting the good fight, another high school in the parish, Scotlandville, already had its first SGA meeting, uneventfully. "I think 20 years from now, the environment will be so much different in Baton Rouge because of these clubs," Pfeiffer says.

It has already changed the two gay teens who fought to make it happen. Despite the battle scars, Spillman and Pfeiffer say their crusade to bring a gay-support group to their school has made them better, stronger people. "I feel this activated feeling," says Spillman, who, despite the year she lost when she dropped out, is expected to graduate this spring. "I used to count the days to escape Baton Rouge. But being in Baton Rouge--that's where the work needs to be done. I have a voice I can use." Pfeiffer, a straight-A student who is already taking courses at nearby Louisiana State University, also plans to continue to work as an activist. "People can't break me anymore. I've got something in me that no one can take away, no matter how violent and vicious they are," says Pfeiffer, who has applied to Harvard and Boston University. "I don't want to leave this high school without leaving something behind." He already has.

Photo: BLACKBOARD JUNGLE: Spillman (left) and Pfeiffer fought for six months to bring a Gay-Straight Alliance to their school. And the battle isn't over yet.

Photo: The 'At-Risk' Students: Melissa Hernandez and Marcos Whitaker were classmates at New York City's Harvey Milk School, founded in 1984 for at-risk gay and bi-sexual students. "Our role is to dismantle myths," says Verna Eggleston, the director of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which runs the school. "We all have the same body parts. We all have the same ambition. We're all human."