Howard teen to be honored for anti-homophobia stance

She kissed her friend, attracted media spotlight

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 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."

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, prejudice is not a problem only 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 begun 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 who are perceived to be gay, are teased or bullied, while 93 percent of students hear homosexual slurs at school and 51 percent 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."

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