BURLINGTON - Football players at Burlington High School "told me they were going to bang me straight," says Tameka Eastman-Coburn, a lesbian student who complains of being frequently harassed at BHS because of her sexual identity. Just last week, for example, a male first-year student called her a "she-man," Eastman-Coburn reports.
Homophobic bullying, said to be widespread in Vermont high schools, will be a focus of the state's first Gay-Straight Alliance youth conference scheduled for April 28. About 80 Vermonters ages 13-22 are expected to take part in the half-day event at the University of Vermont's Living/Learning Center.
Heterosexual students actively opposed to the sort of menacing bigotry experienced by Eastman-Coburn will account for a large share of conference attendees, says Lluvia Mulvaney-Stanak, director of Outright Vermont. The Burlington-based organization is sponsoring the conference as part of the 8th annual Youth Pride Day, which also includes a speak-out on the steps of City Hall and a Queer Prom at the Memorial Auditorium Annex.
"Gay-straight alliances are building respect and acceptance in many high schools in Vermont," Mulvaney-Stanak notes. "They're vital in bringing about changes that need to happen, and this first conference is a chance for members of existing alliances to network with one another and to help form new alliances. They can be a great source of strength and support."
Eastman-Coburn, an 18-year-old BHS soccer player, says Outright Vermont has served as a source of strength in her own life.
"It was really helpful when I first came out two years ago and was able to meet other youth who were queer and struggling with the kinds of things I was," she recounts. "It allowed me to have a voice. I couldn't make it through [harassment at school] if I didn't have Outright Vermont providing me with an understanding of being an outsider, of being different from the norm."
Formed in 1989, Outright Vermont regularly conducts awareness workshops in schools as part of its mission to "build a safe environment for queer youth," Mulvaney-Stanak says. Sometimes, however, these sessions are met with intolerance on the part of parents.
Last month, for example, a right-wing radio talk-show jock tried to prevent Outright Vermont from holding a planned 2-day series of workshops for juniors and seniors at Missisquoi Valley Union High School in Swanton. Paul Beaudry, the father of a student at the school and the host of shows on WRSA in St. Albans and on WDEV in Waterbury, argued that Outright Vermont aims to recruit youth into "the homosexual lifestyle."
Beaudry's "mistruths" proved unpersuasive as the Missisquoi Valley Union principal and school board "stayed strong," Mulvaney-Stanak says. The half-dozen members of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance were instrumental in ensuring that Outright Vermont's message was heard, she adds.
"Despite the community climate around these issues, we found that the student body of MVU was incredibly respectful, mature and welcoming," Mulvaney-Stanak says. "I think that some members of the community could learn a lot from their young people."