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City Lights: Intolerance still in the background

November 10, 2010|By Michael Miller

I didn't meet an openly gay person — at least, one of my generation — until my freshman year at UC Irvine. The resident advisor for my dorm announced casually to her group during welcome week that she was a member of the campus group Irvine Queers, and that pretty much ended the topic, as I never heard anyone bring up her sexuality for the rest of the year.

She was a terrific resident advisor, which may have been why people left her alone. But having lived through a decade of public school, where "That's so gay" was the most popular insult, and even effeminate boys insisted that they were straight, I found myself amazed at how unassumingly she fit into the group. No slurs tacked on her door, no obtrusive questions, no girls (or boys) tensing up when she walked into the room. Perhaps, with a woman living under the roof who didn't flaunt her sexuality but wasn't ashamed of it, gay jokes seemed like a waste of energy.

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The last few weeks have brought a series of news stories about gay teenagers and one college student who committed suicide after persistent bullying. The struggle to legalize same-sex marriage and repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has been called the last great American civil rights struggle, but changing laws can only accomplish so much — it can't stop an eighth-grader from hurling an epithet or a wet wad of toilet paper.

I have personally known dozens of gay and lesbian people, including friends, professors, coworkers and interview subjects, and I sometimes get lulled into thinking sexuality isn't much of an issue in modern-day society. But the headlines regularly demonstrate that that isn't the case. So last week, I sat down with members of the Gay Straight Alliance at Huntington Beach High School to hear their views about tolerance on campus.

It was an off-the-record conversation — out of respect for the students' privacy, I agreed to withhold their names — and the group I spoke to comprised both gay and straight students. I had come seeking the answer to a simple question: Are the recent national headlines isolated cases, or is school really a place of terror for students who come out of the closet?

The truth, they said, is somewhere in the middle. But their answers were encouraging in a few ways.

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