‘STRAIGHT TALK’ FROM TAFT COUNSELOR HELPS KIDS COME OUT
Following the LGBTQ March on Washington in 1987, participants Rob Eichberg and Jean O’Leary, both from Los Angeles, had the vision of a national day where all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals could live openly. The Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education responded with a mandate calling for the safe and respectful treatment of our LGBTQ students, staff, and families.
National Coming Out Day is now celebrated every October 11th in all 50 states and internationally. The 2012 theme is Come Out and Vote for Equality.
In recognition of the event, the LAUSD Journal is running brief profiles of staff who have taken on the role of helping high school students come out in a safe and tolerant environment. The first of these focuses on Bridget Brownell, who heads the Gay-Straight Alliance at Taft High School.
Fifteen years ago, a student at Taft High School came to a teacher’s meeting and asked if anyone in the room would be willing to serve as faculty sponsor for the campus chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance.
Bridget Brownell, then 22 and new to Taft, recalls that the request prompted male coaches to giggle and teachers of both sexes to nervously shuffle papers and stare at the floor, which is how people avoided making eye contact in the days before I-phones and laptops served that purpose.
Brownell, however, did none of these things. She raised her hand and volunteered for the role, although in the interests of full disclosure, wanted to make sure before going ahead that she met the requirements.
“I said, ‘I’m straight, can I do it’?”
Fifteen years later, Brownell is still straight and still faculty sponsor of the GSA at Taft, along with maintaining her full-time job as chair of the health department. In the early days, Brownell said maybe five students per week would “quietly sneak into the room” and attend the meetings. This year, the group has around 40 members, which includes a pan-sexual student as president and a straight student as vice president.
Brownell attributes the increase in membership to greater societal acceptance of those who are lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender. In its own small way, the Taft GSA, with its outreach programs and safe zones, has contributed to the shift in attitudes toward homosexuality. For Brownell, it’s a chance to make history in her own generation.
“I believe in equal rights,” she said. “I would hope that during the civil rights movement I would have marched with African-Americans in the south.”
Brownell, who graduated from high school in 1993 in a small Connecticut town, does not recall any openly gay students among her classmates.
“No one was out,” she said. “I do remember hearing a rumor that a senior who was big in theater was gay. But that was it. No one talked about it (homosexuality) at all.”
At Taft, Brownell has taken a variety of actions to create a hospitable environment for gay students on campus. For example, not long after stepping into the role, a student approached her and asked why the school library didn’t include more books on the; history, culture, and individual stories of gay people. Brownell didn’t have an answer, but rather than leave it there, she spent an entire summer reading fiction and non-fiction books
Beginning the next year, and continuing ever since, Brownell has been working with the school librarian to maintain and expand a sizeable collection of books featuring gay themes, characters, and issues. The library now carries over 50 titles, including “A Boy’s Own Story” by the esteemed novelist and essayist Edmund White and “Issues in Lesbian and Gay Life” by Ellen Herman. There is also a list of books for friends and family, including “Beyond Acceptance: Parents of GLBT Talk About Their Experiences,” by Carolyn W. Griffin.
One of the key functions of GSAs at any high school is to create a place where students are comfortable to discuss their own sexual feelings and desires and, if emboldened by that opportunity, to have an honest conversation with their families. Asked to recall any memorable “coming out” experiences among students affiliated with the GSA at Taft, Brownell cited the example of a boy who had every reason to believe it would not go well.
“He came out to us originally, and he was really nervous how his family would take it,” said Brownell. “They had a shrine to the Virgin Mary in the house.”
“One day, they (his parents) came into his bedroom and locked the door,” she continued. “They said to him; “we know you’re gay, and we love you.”
Due to Brownell’s public role with GSA, she is occasionally called on to give advice to others. For example, she has been approached by Taft employees seeking guidance on how to talk to their own gay child. She has also counseled recent Taft alumni who didn’t discover until after high school that they were attracted to people of their same sex.
From the day 15 years ago, when a young teacher made an on-the-spot-decision to head the nascent GSA at Taft, the organization has acquired a genuine presence on campus. Last year, in conjunction with National Coming Out Day, the GSA constructed a large closet, out of which stepped its members, gay and straight.
Now, the GSA is faced with the challenge of being equally inventive in 2012. It’s a challenge that Brownell will gladly accept.
By: Tom Waldman
Posted: Sep. 11, 2012