'Out' at School, and Tension is in
by Susan Snyder, Philadelphia Inquirer, February 8, 2004
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high schools are struggling with a new problem in student
behavior: rising tensions between heterosexual and openly
Nationwide, lesbians increasingly are declaring their sexual
orientation and publicly displaying their affection for each
other at younger ages, and Philadelphia appears in step with
The phenomenon has led to embarrassing moments in some cases and
physical clashes in others. Accusations of intimidation have
surfaced on both sides: from lesbians who say they are being
harassed and from heterosexual girls who say they have been
grabbed and bothered.
At Simon Gratz High last month, a fight broke out in the
cafeteria between a group of lesbians calling itself Lipstick
and other girls, according to police. In December, a student was
beaten outside Kensington High after she "interfered" with a
relationship between two girls who were openly lesbian, police
said. At Northeast High last spring, staff and students were
taken aback when some girls were seen unabashedly groping each
other in the halls.
"It's new territory when it comes to counseling and discipline,"
said Paul Vallas, chief executive officer of the Philadelphia
School District. "Administrators and faculty are reluctant to
deal with these issues, because they don't know how."
Vallas says it is difficult to pinpoint the root of the
tensions. He has received complaints from three schools this
year that lesbians were behaving aggressively toward others.
Meanwhile, "DTO" - an acronym for Dykes Taking Over - has been
scrawled on walls at several schools.
When complaints arise, Vallas said, "the challenge that you face
is distinguishing between consensual activity, or cases where
the girls are responding to harassment from other girls, or when
the girls are threatening other girls. They're all unacceptable.
Consensual sexual activity isn't going to be tolerated in the
schools either - same-sex or opposite-sex."
Eric Braxton, executive director of the Philadelphia Student
Union, a student activist group, said he first heard about
conflicts between gay and straight girls in city schools four or
five years ago.
"It always seemed like something folks were very uncomfortable
talking about. In the last few months, it's risen to levels that
it's become an issue that people are talking about," he said.
The district has heard enough concerns about the issue that it
plans in April to provide training for teachers, administrators,
aides, school police and other staff on gay and lesbian issues.
That instruction is being developed by the Mazzoni Center, a
Philadelphia gay and lesbian health agency, and by the Mayor's
Advisory Board on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues.
The district also plans to incorporate new lessons for students
on respect and tolerance in its high schools beginning this
September and in elementary schools in September 2005.
Jeanne Stanley, a psychology professor at the University of
Pennsylvania who studies gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender
issues, said teens were responding to "a degree of outness in
general and more acceptance."
And although some teens are sure of their sexual identities,
others experience "fluidity" during this time of sexual
questioning, Stanley said.
School districts across the country have encountered some of the
same situations as Philadelphia, according to the National
School Safety Center, based in California. (Administrators at
several area high schools in the suburbs, however, said they
were not seeing more out lesbians, or experiencing conflicts.)
Educators say they are not finding the same problem with boys,
who tend not to be as open about their sexuality in school,
possibly because they don't feel as safe doing so.
Confrontations between gay and heterosexual girls surfaced
publicly four years ago at University City High School.
Then-principal Florence Johnson, who discussed the matter in a
WYBE-TV (Channel 35) documentary that aired in 2002, said that
students had complained that lesbians were "brushing up against
us, watching us in the bathrooms, gathering in corners, and
talking about us."
Students also battled each other near the school, and parents'
Johnson held an all-girls assembly to discuss concerns. The
assembly riled gay-rights advocates, who said Johnson had
unfairly singled out lesbians and portrayed them as predators.
They said she should have met privately with the students
involved. Johnson, who has since moved to a central-office job,
said she dealt with the issue at an assembly because the whole
school knew about it.
Dexter Green, the district's chief safety executive, said he
believed conflicts involving lesbian students had increased,
though he did not have statistics; information about sexual
orientation usually does not appear on reports.
In the Gratz case, such information did. Michael Lodise,
president of the school police officers union, said the Gratz
officer indicated that the Lipstick group seemed to be trying to
Several students involved in the incident, however, said they
were not aware of Lipstick and that the fight had nothing to do
with sexual identity. But they said that the school had
experienced tension between straight and gay students.
Gratz principal Delores Williams did not return a call seeking
In the last two years, 10 city high schools that experienced
conflicts involving lesbian students sought help from Danny
Horn, education director of the Mazzoni Center.
Horn said educators at those schools complained that some girls
in lesbian-identified groups were grabbing and harassing other
girls. He said he usually found some truth to the reports, but
noted that lesbians also were banding together to bond and to
ward off provocation by others.
A recent national survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight
Education Network indicated that four of five gay, lesbian and
bisexual students reported that they had been verbally or
physically harassed in school.
In the case at Northeast High, recognized by gay advocates as
being one of the best in dealing with these issues, some staff
and students complained about girls who they thought were being
overly affectionate in the halls.
"People were being embarrassed," said Cynthia Jenkins-Hassan, a
nurse and director of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance, a club
whose purpose is to foster discussion and better understanding
of gay and lesbian issues.
Jenkins-Hassan and an administrator told the girls such activity
had to stop. The girls countered that opposite-sex couples did
"Some people felt like they were discriminating," said a
16-year-old student who described herself as gay and asked not
to be identified.
Jenkins-Hassan and the administrator told the girls that such
activities by heterosexual couples also would not be tolerated.
The school has followed through with that promise, said both the
16-year-old and Jenkins-Hassan.
It's not clear where the declaration DTO started, but the
acronym has been embraced by some lesbian-identified girls. One
16-year-old who attends a North Philadelphia high school
displays those letters on her book bag. She said that the
letters were merely a symbol, like the rainbow used by gays to
proclaim their sexual identification, and that no formal DTO
As the girl, whose mother would not let her daughter's name be
used, put it: "It lets people know who we are, and we're proud
She said being open about her sexuality had helped her improve
her grades, and had stopped suicidal thoughts over her sexual
At William Penn High, some staff and lesbian students describe
an atmosphere of intolerance toward gay students.
Tiffany Powell, 18, a senior who is openly gay, said school
police officers and teachers had made disparaging comments to
her. She said one school police officer told her, "Girl, you
know you want a man. You know you're too pretty for this."
She said she sometimes lashed back, and got suspended as a
William Penn principal Leonard A. Heard did not return calls
Vallas said he would investigate. He says he supports the
creation of gay-straight alliances in every high school; about a
dozen of the district's more than 50 high schools have such
Carole Greenauer, vice president of PFLAG Philadelphia (Parents,
Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), said the Vallas
administration had adopted a positive approach.
"He has made it clear to the principals that they are to be
supportive of gay-straight alliances and to keep those kids
safe," Greenauer said.
But Rita Addessa, executive director of the Pennsylvania Lesbian
and Gay Task Force, said the district could better deal with
such concerns if it had correctly implemented a 1994 policy
adopted by the school board. That policy - passed to ensure that
students receive multicultural, multiracial and gender education
- requires curriculum and staff training.
"This board," Addessa said, "has never invested the money, time
and talent to implement [the policy], and has only been engaged
in token efforts over the last 10 years."
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