Teen's stance against homophobia honored

River Hill High student will receive award from PFLAG

December 07, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Stephanie Haaser, a 16-year- old junior at River Hill High School in Clarksville, stood on a cafeteria table last month and shouted "End homophobia now!" before bussing her friend Katherine Pecore, a 17-year-old senior.

The demonstration focused a media spotlight on the school and on intolerance toward gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender teen-agers. Haaser, a heterosexual, became an instant celebrity, appearing on multiple talk shows and in hundreds of newspapers. Her photo was at one point the fifth most popular picture e-mailed from the Yahoo news Web site, and her name recently returned 869 Internet hits on the search engine Google. She received letters and calls from people as far away as New Zealand.

On Thursday, she will be honored with a "Hope for the Future Award" in Washington during a ceremony held by Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, a 30-year-old outreach group promoting equality. She is also being named a student adviser to a scholarship program that PFLAG will unveil in January.

"I'm surprised at the amount of influence that I've been able to have. It's more than I ever hoped for," said Haaser.

Haaser said she thinks the situation at her school has improved in recent weeks. She has heard students correct themselves after tossing out a slur and hasn't heard a single "derogatory term used against homosexuals" since the story about the kiss broke Nov. 12.

"It's hard to say why," she said, acknowledging that people might be careful around her because of her "strong views."

But some say the verbal abuse has gotten worse at the school since Haaser's gesture.

"I hear more stuff every day," said Courtney Teed, a 14-year-old freshman and a member of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance after-school club, along with her stepbrother, Jeff Taylor. Taylor, who is keeping count, said he heard 60 slurs in four days last week.

"That's kind of the reason why I joined [the Gay-Straight Alliance]," Taylor said, sitting among friends at a Clarksville restaurant last week. "It just [angered me] so much that people could be this hurtful."

The school is working toward improvement, officials say. Last week, the chairwoman of Howard County PFLAG, Colette Roberts, met with Principal Scott Pfeifer to discuss ways River Hill could improve its climate. And members of the Gay-Straight Alliance plan to give a presentation to faculty members next month.

Maryland law protects students from discrimination based on sexual orientation. Still, the prejudice is not just a problem for River Hill or the state. It is a national crisis, according to results this month of a survey by the National Mental Health Association, which has launched an anti-bullying program called "What Does Gay Mean?" The program is aimed at developing respect.

The study found that three-quarters of teen-agers say students who are gay, or perceived to be gay, are teased or bullied, while 93 percent of students hear homosexual slurs at school; 51 percent of them say they hear the terms daily.

Constant bullying, the researchers concluded, puts gay students at "increased risk for depression, anxiety disorders, school failure and often suicide."

But there are many supporters out there as well, said Teed, who is a lesbian.

"I used to be afraid to tell people, afraid girls would be afraid to talk to me. But a lot of people are accepting," she said.

But, she added, the picture is different for gay males, who seem to attract the brunt of criticism.

Alex Plaxen agreed. The 17-year-old River Hill senior wants to be treated like everyone else, but he said he is often not because he is gay.

He said he has been told to get AIDS and die; to go home because he doesn't belong; and that certain people would not sit next to him if they knew he is homosexual.

"That hurt a lot. I'm no different than anyone else," Plaxen said. "I went home and cried that day."

The people harassing others might be few but vocal, according the Mental Health Association survey. Just 4 percent of teen respondents acknowledged bullying or finding it funny, while 78 percent said they reject that behavior, which can sometimes turn violent.

Popular culture -- at least on television shows such as Will & Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy -- seems to be embracing sexual diversity to a certain degree, giving some small hope.

"I think they all add to demystifying the lives of [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] persons and their families -- even Queer Eye, though I have mixed feelings about some of the story lines that are developed," said David Tseng, executive director of the national PFLAG organization, based in Washington. "It has helped to humanize the way in which [such] persons interact with others."

Haaser's stand also has contributed, Tseng said, by pioneering "a national public discussion of the role of straight young men and women in the fight for equality."

Roberts, of Howard County PFLAG, said her teacher friends are using Haaser's story as a discussion topic in classes. In Anne Arundel County, at least one Gay-Straight Alliance group has seen a rise in membership because of the action taken by Haaser and the publicity that followed.

In Indiana, a 15-year-old straight boy has been inspired to speak up.

"I want to help educate people," said Eli Van Sickle, who lives in Terre Haute.

The biggest thing people need to learn, said Plaxen and Teed, is that they are just kids, like everyone else. The only thing separating them, they say, is their romantic preference and the treatment they sometimes receive because of it.

"It puts more weight on your shoulders," Plaxen said. "In one aspect, you're expected to be proud of who you are. On the other hand, you just want to be like everyone else. You just want to be the same, and yet you're so different. "

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