Ryan HessIt was not until my junior year of high school that I became acutely aware of the discrimination homosexuals faced in the real world. It is well-documented that the Red Cross openly discriminates against gay men looking to donate blood. During my junior year, my high school hosted a Red Cross blood drive, sponsored by the National Honor Society. I went (partly as an excuse to get out of class) to donate blood that morning.

When I was finally seated in one of the booths, I agreed to volunteer for a process known as double red cell donation, which allows the donor to give two units of red blood cells instead of one. Many people are ineligible for this procedure because they do not meet certain height and weight criteria, and at this point in time I had really started packing on the pounds.
I was required to fill out a simple yes-or-no questionnaire that pertained to the potential donor’s personal and medical histories. All seemed to be going well until I arrived at the point of the questionnaire that asked if I had sexual contact with another male since 1977. Mistaking honesty for a virtue, I checked the ‘yes’ box.

When the Red Cross worker returned a few minutes later to review my answers, I was denied from donating blood for no other reason than that I was a ‘practicing’ homosexual; no matter that I had been in a monogamous relationship for close to a year at that point in time; no matter that the both of us were extremely prudent when it came to the practice of safe sex; no matter that being rejected from donating blood merely for answers given to a questionnaire raises serious questions about how carefully the Red Cross screens donated blood for disease.

Surely the Red Cross had access to a study unbeknownst to all other medical professionals which found the blood of homosexuals to be genetically inferior to that of heterosexuals, just as the organization must surely have had some sort of special insight as to why blood plasma should be racially segregated, as it was in the mid-twentieth century.

Needless to say, I left school that day confused, angered, and humiliated. How could an organization be so incompetent as to basically discard the (O-positive) blood of a universal donor? Although the Red Cross is an international organization, I thought surely this sort of blatant discrimination would be illegal in a state like New Jersey. After a few weeks, I had put the incident out of my mind.

Toward the end of the school year I discovered, through a teacher, that my high-school had a broadened version of a Gay-Straight Alliance, which provided a venue for all students who were the victims of bullying or who felt like outcasts to meet and find emotional support. The club was known as the ‘Lotus Club,’ deriving its name from the flower, which, as my teacher said, “grows out of shit and muck to become a beautiful flower.” The lotuses, of course, were all of us.

The teacher who ran the Lotus Club retired at the end of that school year. Since most of us in attendance at the club were ‘outcasts’ because we were members of the LGBT community, we agreed that the following year we would form a Gay-Straight Alliance. We figured the name alone would create more of a splash and thus potentially draw in more people, as opposed to the little-known and little-understood Lotus Club.

At the beginning of the year we found two moderators, one of whom was the only openly lesbian teacher in the entire school district. We elected officers (I was elected treasurer… not that we had much money in the first place) during our first meeting. The GSA, however, was not hierarchical, providing everyone with an equal opportunity to speak and be heard.

One of our first orders of business was making posters to be hung up around the school. Since our club happened to draw a lot of artistic people, the posters turned out beautiful. However, one of our first run-ins with administrative homophobia was the principal’s initial refusal to allow us to hang up a bunch of the posters, since all posters needed principal approval before being displayed. For most of the posters, the principal objected to the word ‘gay’ being featured too prominently. But for one poster, the principal objected because it was “too sexual.” The poster featured two penguins holding hands.

Our first fundraising event was a t-shirt-making party. Everyone chipped-in five dollars and in return we all had dinner (greasy pizza, basically) and could now boast colorful shirts advertising the GSA. Before too long, our GSA drew in around forty members during our weekly meetings. For my high school, a forty member after-school activity was enormous.

We then decided we should make and hang up more posters. Most posters were the size of a single sheet of paper, printed directly off the Internet; in total, there were about one hundred or so. Since we had such a struggle the last time in getting posters approved, we thought we should prepare many in expectation that a lot would be rejected. None were.

For one of our meetings, we had small groups take a small pile of the posters and assign them a certain area of the school to hang them up in. When that week’s meeting of GSA adjourned, we all went home for the weekend and thought little more about them. However, the following Monday, hell broke loose.

That morning, students began ripping down some of the posters, tearing them up, and even hurling the d- and f-words at students who they knew to be GSA members. One student’s mother even called in to the school, demanding that her son be allowed to form a ‘Straight Alliance.’ Not only was the demand so absurd, but a ‘Straight Alliance’ would be illegal, as no school is allowed to have a club that is inherently discriminatory to an entire group of people. Initially, my school’s administration dealt with the rowdy students effectively. However, time would soon prove that the administration was not on our side.

Within the first week of the new set of posters, a memo was sent out by the administrator in charge of after-school clubs which ordered that no club may have more than fifteen posters displayed at once. Although the rationale of the memo made sense (since too many posters from too many clubs would make the school seem sloppy and cluttered), the timing of the policy change was outrageous.

It was not the first time that such an event had taken place in the school. A few years prior, members of R.E.B.E.L. (Reaching Everyone by Exposing Lies), which is a New Jersey anti-smoking club for teenagers, posted fliers on nearly every locker in the school. Immediately after, most of the fliers were taken down. However, there was no change in policy as a result. What made the GSA’s message of acceptance so much more outrageous than an anti-smoking message? Homophobia, as is evidenced by the thousands of gay teen suicides a year, can be every bit as destructive as tobacco smoke.

Admittedly, some of the posters were absurd; for instance, many had large-font anti-gay epithets (i.e. faggot, dyke, etc.) with a giant cross-out sign over them. Why these were approved is beyond me. But why should hundreds of students have been outraged by a bunch of posters? The backlash spoke volumes to the oppressive environment of the school and proved exactly why a Gay-Straight Alliance was necessary.

Following the events, GSA membership dwindled, and rarely even attracted ten people to its meetings by the end of the year. There is no doubt in my mind that this was a result of both the anti-gay intimidation by students and a lack of support from the administration. The Civil Rights Movement picked up significant momentum in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education because the Civil Rights leaders and foot soldiers alike knew that they had an ally in what is perhaps the most powerful branch of government. The reverse can no doubt be said of my administration’s attitude toward the Gay-Straight Alliance and what it meant for the already intimidated LGBT students.

At the end of that school year, a mere few days before my graduation, I met with my school district’s superintendant. He, unlike many others who helped run the school, was a true ally, and even threw GSA a pizza party at the end of the year. My one plea to him was to help keep GSA going. He and I agreed that there was a great need for a Gay-Straight Alliance at my high school. Keeping to his promise, there currently remains a Gay-Straight Alliance at my former high school.

I can only hope that our initial efforts help laid the groundwork for harassed and bullied LGBT youth at my school. After all, the “It Gets Better” slogan is only partially true. Homophobia is a disease and, like many diseases, only gets worse if it is allowed to fester. In order for it to get better, you first have to fight.

By Ryan Hess

Ryan Hess is Student at American University in Washington D.C. under Rodger Streitmatter and is majoring in political science
We hope the Ryan will be contributing more articles and essays in the future making him a regular feature writer at LGBT-Today.


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