Students tell of tension on gay tolerance day

Wed. April 20, 2005 12:00 AM

Flossmoor, IL - A student-led effort to oppose homophobia at Homewood-Flossmoor High School may have backfired Tuesday when hundreds of students donned shirts with Christian and anti-gay slogans.
Student activists who wore shirts emblazoned with the words "gay? fine by me" said they were outnumbered by peers wearing hateful messages and were targeted for harassment.

The T-shirt drive was intended to create a safe place for gay students and to put a human face on gays, lesbians and their allies.

But student journalists covering the event described the atmosphere as "tense."

"It was crazy. There were all these students with gay shirts and God shirts," said student newspaper reporter Joe Maloney. "In my first-period class, debate class, there were way more God shirts."

Chelsea Lavin, a broadcast student, was more pragmatic."People that you normally would say 'Hi' to in the halls were wearing shirts opposite of you, so you looked in the opposite direction," she said.

Alissa Norby, one of the T-shirt day's organizers, said she didn't know whether to define the project as a success or failure.

"If I was still in the closet and came to school (Tuesday) and saw hundreds of kids wearing anti-gay shirts, I'd probably go home crying and begging my parents to let me transfer," she said.

Students estimated more than 100 students wore anti-homophobia shirts, and more than 200 students wore shirts that listed "Crimes committed against God." The crimes included the elimination of school prayer and separation of church and state, but did not include anything about homosexuality.

Other male students wrote slogans on white T-shirts such as "I hate gay people" and "Gay? Not fine by me (unless you're a lesbian)" and "Gay? More chicks for me," students said.

The anti-gay messages effectively canceled out the anti-homophobia shirts, said H-F senior and gay activist Jamison Liang.

"Whenever you made eye contact with people wearing the opposition shirts, you could feel the tension," he said.

This was the second year that students promoted gay acceptance with a T-shirt day. Last year, about 100 students wore "gay? fine by me" shirts to school with little opposition. This year, organizers expanded the effort and got permission to promote and sell the shirts at school.

The "gay? fine by me" campaign is being promoted at schools nationwide. It started at Duke University in 2003.

Jacques Jacobs, youth pastor at Family Harvest Church in Orland Park, seized the opportunity to oppose the movement this year and gave away shirts with "Crimes committed against God" slogan to students.

"Many people feel that the most discriminated group of all is the Christian student in the public high school," Jacobs said.

Homewood-Flossmoor High School spokesman David Thieman said administrators allowed the students to wear shirts promoting and opposing gays on the same day. He said no disruptions were reported to the administration.

"It was a normal day," he said. "Business as usual."

But organizer Myka Held said she reported two boys for taunting her by saying "gays would burn in hell." She said her dean made one boy apologize and promised to speak with the second boy today.

Students also claimed teachers were reprimanded for distributing shirts with Christian messages.

"This was the first time I felt unsafe in school," said Held, who is straight.

The event's organizers got permission Tuesday from the student council to recognize the school's gay support group as a club. Club status will allow the group to hold the T-shirt day next year without opposition, Norby said.

But for now, she thinks the school will return to normal.

"(Though) it depends on what you define as normal," Norby said.

"If you mean go back to hateful people and judgmental people, with an undercurrent of racism, sexism and homophobia, yes, we'll go back to normal."

By Kati Phillips
Staff writer, Daily Southtown

Related: (4/19)
Day of Gay Tolerence and Support Disrupted

Article republished with permission.