LGBT rights advocates received another blow Jan. 27 after a civil court ruled that a Riverside County Lutheran high school could lawfully expel two female students based on their assumed sexual orientation.
The two girls, whose close friendship was considered by the school as being “characteristic of a lesbian relationship,” sued the school after their expulsion, only to have the court decide that the school was exempt from adhering to California’s anti-discrimination laws because it is a private religious institution.
The two students, choosing to remain under the anonymous names “Jane Doe” and “Mary Roe” during the proceedings, were best friends and freely admitted to loving each other, although they never revealed whether or not the nature of their love was romantic. It was only after a teacher looked at their Myspace pages and made conclusions about their relationship that California Lutheran High School’s administration decided to take action.
With wounds from the passing of Proposition 8 still fresh, the idea that sexual orientation can be grounds for expulsion in some schools is hard for many Mills students to digest. Jules Shendelman, a member of Mouthing Off!, the school’s Queer Alliance, was “horrified” by the court’s decision, stating that it “represents not just gay issues but feminist issues as well.”
To Shendelman, the allegation that the girls were participating in “lesbian behavior” is problematic, as it rigidly outlines the parameters of acceptable behavior between women. She emphasized the fact that people everywhere have the power to redefine such terms through grassroots organizing and protest.
Suki Bourquin was also outraged at the court’s decision.
“How is it that Myspace and rumors can get children kicked out of schools for loving each other?” she asked.
“It is very disturbing that an institution would use a stupid social connection tool as proof.”
People like Shendelman and Bourquin may take solace in the fact that not all LGBT students have to face the same kind of treatment as the two San Diego girls. The Julia Morgan School for Girls, the middle school located on the Mills Campus, prides itself on its progressive approach to education and its diverse student body. According to Melody Ferris, assistant to the head of school and development director, everything from the school’s environment to the school’s curriculum is designed to create a safe and comfortable space for students from all backgrounds.
“It is a really big focus of our school that no one be discriminated against. We are a diverse community that embraces all kinds of families,” she said.
Clare Kelly, 20, now a UCLA junior, attended JMSG from 1998 to 2001 during its first years as a school and agrees that the administration’s philosophy of diversity was well-implemented when she was a student there. She first became exposed to LGBT people and their issues during her time at JMSG and she remembers going to San Francisco’s Gay Pride Parade as part of the school’s service learning curriculum.
“Our teachers taught us that there was a gender continuum and a sexual one too; there’s not just gay or straight,” she said.
At the time of her attendance, however, the student body wasn’t as progressive as the school’s administration. Kelly remembered a student vandalizing a bathroom with “So and so is a lesbo,” which, because of the small size of the school at the time, was an explosive deal. She recalled the school’s response to such occurrences:
“JMSG would take everything really seriously,” she said. “If a teacher ever heard someone saying something bad, we would have to have a four hour assembly so nobody ever even wanted to say anything homophobic.”
Emerald Mitchell, a 2008 alumna of St. Mary’s College High School, a Roman Catholic school in Albany, had a similar experience. She described the school’s administration as tolerant and supportive of queer students but felt that some members of the student body lacked sensitivity about LGBT issues. Although many students disagreed with it, homophobic language was commonly used at St. Mary’s and resources for queer students were scant.
“[Students] who were either out or in the closet were pretty much on their own, so it required a lot of confidence,” she said.
“Whenever somebody came out, it became the gossip topic-people didn’t mind their own business and since many were sheltered, they had preconceived notions of what it meant to be queer. I wouldn’t call it the best community in the world, but it wasn’t the worst either.”
Despite the continued presence of homophobia in schools, resources for LGBT students are becoming more widely available in the United States. According to a USA Today article about queer youth, 3,200 high schools have Gay-Straight Alliance clubs, as compared to a few dozen in the mid 1990s.
The Riverside County students are now in college but will continue to fight against what they feel was a violation of their privacy and civil rights. Undeterred by the unanimous court ruling, they plan to take their case to the California Supreme Court.