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Speaker discusses equality for gay and lesbian students in schools

Donna Speak (front, center), winner of the 2010 Education Minnesota Human Rights award, poses with Morris Area High School students, who participated in the “Day of Silence” on Friday, April 11. (Michael Strand/Special to the Sun Tribune)

MORRIS – On Friday, April 11, Morris Area Parents and Friend of Lesbians and Gays (MAPFLAG) teamed up with Morris Area High School students to present a talk by Donna Speake, winner of the 2010 Education Minnesota Human Rights award for advocacy in securing equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students at Maple Grove High School, where she is a counselor.

The talk was held in conjunction with the “Day of Silence,” a national event designed to bring attention to LGBT harassment in schools. On April 11, students who identify as straight and gay around the nation took a vow of silence for the day to illustrate the silencing effect of bullying.

Morris Area High School students participated in the Day of Silence last year, drawing only eight participants. This year, however, some 60 MAHS students participated, said Morris senior Grace Dressler, who emceed the talk.

The Day of Silence at MAHS was organized by the district’s currently unofficial Gay-Straight Alliance, which is a national youth leadership organization designed to provide educational resources geared toward addressing harassment against LGBT youth in schools.

“There is a need for an official Gay-Straight Alliance at the Morris schools,” said MAHS teacher Andrea Pavlicek, who supported the students in organizing this year’s Day of Silence activities. “Growing student interest for the organization was evident by the number of students who participated today. Much of the resistance to the group is a misconception of the purpose of a Gay-Straight Alliance. Contrary to some beliefs, it is not an organization for only for LGBT people. It is an effort on behalf of both gay and straight students to create a safe educational environment for all students.”

Donna Speake keynoted the event and spoke about her efforts to secure equal treatment for LGBT students at Maple Grove High School.

In 1997, as a first-year counselor, a student walked into Speake’s office, told her he was gay, and asked for her help to create an organization for LGBT students. Over time, the students founded a Straights and Gays for Equality (SAGE) group at the school.

“It’s been a journey for me, I’ve learned so much from my students,” Speake said. “I learned that the bullying and derogatory remarks are common for the vast majority of gay students, and that it started on the bus and went all day, every day.”

The goal for Speake in starting SAGE at the school was to provide a safe outlet for students to share their struggles and experiences.

For many years the group did not receive equal recognition or treatment as other, equivalent school organizations. Discrimination against SAGE meant that the group could not hang posters in the hallways, use the PA system for announcements, or develop a budget, Speake said.

The climate of discrimination at Maple Grove Schools stood in violation of the Legal Access Act, which says that if one group has certain privileges, then those same privileges must be extended to all similar groups. As the years progressed, the safety for LGBT students at the school deteriorated and resulted in serious bullying and abuse, which the administration ignored, in violation of state and federal law.

At one point, Speake said, an LGBT student was thrown down a stairwell, which drew no reprisal from the administration.

Speake confronted this discrimination head-on. A simple letter to the American Civil Liberty Union of Minnesota explaining the situation kicked-off a series of events that resulted in a high-profile court case. The suit ended in 2008 after some five years and four appeals.

Speake said that she was discriminated against as well for her unpopular efforts to found SAGE. For example, she was at one point told to provide all the names of SAGE members, which was at that time totally confidential. She refused and was threatened with termination.

“I felt the experience of being discriminated against. I felt as though I was doing something wrong, even if I wasn’t. That was the feeling of being gay. I felt as though I were isolated, the only one standing with the kids. To me it was a wake-up call as to what it feels like to face that discrimination every day,” she said.

“The first thing we did after winning in 2008 was put up a poster,” Speake continued, “but the principal needed to sign-off on it, which she refused to do. The court threatened to fine the school $10,000 a day until it complied with the lawsuit. The poster was put up the next day.”

Speake said that in their first year as an official organization, SAGE posters were spit on and vandalized, meaning each one needed to be laminated.

“That’s no longer the case today. Things have really changed for the better,” Speake said. “Overall the climate is improving, slowly. It doesn’t happen overnight. For us it has been more than 10 years, it takes a long time, but it will get better. If you don’t do anything, of course, nothing will change at all.”

Speake attributed the improvements in school to better education and training for teachers and bus drivers on how to address bullying of LGBT students. When they won the lawsuit, SAGE gained a budget, which they spent on shirts for students and faculty. Today faculty regularly wear SAGE shirts on casual Fridays as a show of support for LGBT students.

“Making a safer environment for LGBT students creates a healthier school environment for everybody,” she said, stressing the need to address the bullying and abuse rampant in schools against marginalized groups of all types. “Allowing discrimination and abuse against one group of people allows for a culture of harassment for everyone.”

The Morris Area PFLAG chapter is a broad-based, community organization which seeks to create a safe and affirming atmosphere for LGBT people and their families. The national organization is the largest and oldest family ally program in the world boasting some 350 chapters and 200,000 participants in all 50 states. The group is open to all community members and meets the first Thursday of each month in the community room at the Morris Public Library.