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Gay students dance toward mainstream

The lights are low. The music pulses. The school's common area has become a dance floor.

There's a culture war blowing up outside, but nobody's paying attention to that. Tonight's for making memories.

As two girls in peasant skirts touch foreheads, the lyrics sink in deep:

I can't wait to get to school each day

and wait for you to pass my way.

• • •

A generation ago, dances like this didn't happen in Pinellas County. But since the annual event for gay and straight students began three years ago, it has gotten bigger and bigger. This year's dance, held May 9 at Pinellas Park High School, drew 200 students.

If that isn't a sign of rapid change, maybe this is: Six years ago, Pinellas had four gay-straight alliances, student-run clubs that encourage tolerance for kids who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender.

Today, it has 16 — one in every high school but East Lake.

Many alliances have dozens of members. Each of the clubs at Pinellas Park and Dixie Hollins has more than 100.

"It's a different generation," said Lynn Mattiace, a Pinellas resource teacher who works with the district's office of Safe and Drug Free Schools. "There's quite a large number of students who think, 'What's the big deal?' "

It goes without saying that the way people treat gays and lesbians is a lightning-rod issue in schools and beyond.

This month, a federal judge reopened a lawsuit on whether a gay-straight alliance at Okeechobee County High School could meet on campus. The district superintendent told a Baptist newspaper that she opposed the club because her district was "abstinence only."

Closer to home, Hillsborough County Commissioner Brian Blair urged people last month to protest the "Day of Silence," an annual event in many schools aimed at ending mistreatment of gay students. This year's event was held in memory of Lawrence King, a California eighth-grader who allegedly was shot to death by a classmate for being gay.

"No group of citizens should be given government sanction and support to promote their social and sexual agenda upon the rest of us, and especially our children," Blair wrote.

This fall, Florida voters will decide whether to ban same-sex marriages.

Supporters may pull it off, but they know what the long-term trends are. The kids at the dance win more friends every day.

• • •

I am a 46-year-old man, I am gay. I was literally terrorized and threatened on a daily basis in high school, simply because I am gay. It was common knowledge that I was beat up on campus, my car was vandalized and my personal well-being was jeopardized, and not one faculty member stood up and took notice.

When I read articles such as the one on Brian Blair and his hate-filled rhetoric, it scares me, and makes me scared for the children of today. Does Mr. Blair know how many teenagers commit suicide over this topic? Does he know how many children end up on the streets because their families throw them to the wolves?

— Mark Grantham of Gulfport, in a recent letter to the St. Petersburg Times

• • •

Being gay in high school still isn't a walk in the park.

Lyndsey Collins found out how tough it can be when she was given a classroom assignment to draw her perfect mate.

The 14-year-old drew a girl with red hair and blue eyes. Other students pounced.

"They were like, 'That's a girl!' " said Lyndsey, a freshman at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High. "I turned bright red. I was frustrated. I thought, 'I shouldn't have to feel embarrassed.' "

Other students share similar stories.

A lesbian student at Palm Harbor University High said a boy in her history class tried to tell her "what they do with faggots." A lesbian at Countryside High said her teachers told her, "You can change."

When the Times asked the mother of another gay student for permission to include the student in this article, the woman left this message: Yes, she said, as long as what's printed doesn't get her child "stopped and killed."

But even as digs and slurs and worse still go on, there are moments like this:

At Pinellas Park High School on this year's Day of Silence, Nancy Velardi asked if any of her fourth-period language arts students wanted a ribbon, a sign of support for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.

As two boys approached, another asked, "Are you gay?"

Velardi ignored the snickers. But a girl in the back row didn't.

"That's not what this is about," she said. "Anyway, what does it matter if you're gay or not?"

• • •

The head of the Christian Coalition of Florida, which is among the groups pushing the gay-marriage ban, says that no one should be bullied but that groups that support homosexuality shouldn't be allowed in schools.

"You can see that the more and more you accommodate for these lifestyle choices, the more the demand persists," said Dennis Baxley, a former state representative from Ocala and former education leader in the state House.

Last year, a Gallup Poll found that tolerance for homosexuality in the United States reached an all-time high of 59 percent, up from 43 percent in 1977.

The generation gap on the issue is striking. On one question, the survey asked people if they supported "homosexuality as an acceptable alternative lifestyle."

Among people 55 or older, 45 percent said yes. Among those 18 to 34, 75 percent said yes.

• • •

Back at the dance, the slow jams end and the DJ announces he's "taking it back up." The night is almost over.

A girl with a rainbow headband pulls out her cell phone camera. Her friends lean in close and smile.

Click.

A teenager captures a magic moment. And maybe a piece of history, too.

Donna Winchester can be reached at winchester@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8413. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Gay students dance toward mainstream 05/31/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 2, 2008 3:15pm]

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