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LGBTQ students at West Linn High School share stories of discrimination and harrassment

PMG PHOTO: HOLLY BARTHOLOMEW - Students from West Linn High School gathered in support of LGBTQ students at a walkout hosted by the Gay-straight Alliance Students from West Linn High School Gender and Sexuality Alliance shared experiences of harassment, name-calling, slurs and vandalism they've endured in school to a crowd of students, while a group of counter protestors, many in Make America Great Again hats, chanted "We're not anti-gay. We just want Chick-fil-a."

WLHS GSA organized the Nov. 8 walkout, which drew over 200 students and a couple dozen parent and community supporters, to bring to light recent instances of what they feel is homophobia and transphobia at the school. The fact that Chick-fil-a, a corporation known for donating money to anti-LGBTQ groups and a conversion therapy center, has been selling food out of a truck at WLHS football games this season has exacerbated feelings of unease and fear among the school's LGBTQ community.

Students' stories

Billie Henderson, a senior and member of GSA who prefers they/them pronouns, told the Tidings that their car was recently vandalized in the school parking lot. They found the word "queer" written on their windows, along with "detailed" drawings of genitalia.

Susie Walters, a friend of Billie's and co-president of the GSA, said that students involved with the vandalism were suspended from school for three days, but other students have come to their defense, saying they did not deserve the suspension, claiming the vandalism was an accident.

"There are 122 parking spots in there and mine was the one that got 'queer' written on it," Henderson said.

"Hate crimes aren't an accident," Walters added.

Henderson's experiences with homophobia and transphobia aren't limited to the one instance of vandalism.

"I've been through the halls and I've been called 'tranny' and insulted for the way that I dress. I've been afraid to go in the bathrooms alone because if someone thinks I don't look female enough, I could be attacked. There was one time I was talking to a friend in the bathroom and this girl yelled from behind the stall, 'Oh is there a guy in here?' and that was very uncomfortable," Henderson recounted. "It's even gone as far back as my freshman year and freshman year I wasn't out as trans. But I still expressed myself and was open about my sexuality and in wellness-back then I would have been using the boys' locker rooms- and people would slam my locker shut when I was trying to change my clothes and I had more dicks drawn on my lockers."

Walters, a senior, had more than a few of her own stories of prejudice and harassment she's faced as a lesbian.

Freshman year, after a lifetime of playing softball, Walters quit because of the way her team treated her based on her sexuality.

"People on my team would say things to me or treat me poorly because they felt like I was giving them a bad rep because I'm a lesbian and because a lot of people believe that softball is a lesbian sport and there was a lot of cis-people on the team that said, 'You being gay and being in this sport is making us look gay,'" Walters said.

Like Henderson, Walters also faced harassment in the locker room.

"In middle school, when I would go to the locker rooms, people would give me weird stares and once someone asked me to not change in the locker room anymore," Walters said.

PMG PHOTO: HOLLY BARTHOLOMEW  - Community members gather in support of students from WLHS GSA who walked out of class, Friday Nov. 8. Walters also recounted the time last year she and a friend were called "faggots" at a football game.

"People here are called things like 'faggot' and 'dyke' and other slurs that I don't feel comfortable saying every day," she said. "And I am affected just thinking about when it happened to me a few times in my life."

Mara Buchanan-Hovland, a senior, and Walters' GSA co-president, is a lesbian who uses they/them pronouns, though they have a different experience with homophobia than Walters because they present themselves in a more feminine way.

"When I came out to a lot of people, a lot of them did not take it well, and ended up blocking me (on social media) and spreading rumors about me to their friends and would tell people that I was kind of a predator, when I'm not and they would say things behind my back and it would come back to me," Buchanan-Hovland said. "I've also experienced transphobia. I've had a lot of people tell me that my gender is not real —just to specify, my gender is a demi-girl —and I've had a lot of people tell me that my gender isn't real or that I'm an idiot or stupid for using they/them pronouns." Demigirl is defined as someone who partially, but not wholly, identifies as a woman, girl or otherwise feminine.

All three students said they have encountered a lot of people who struggle to use they/them pronouns for people who prefer them.

At a West Linn City Council work session Nov. 4, Council President Teri Cummings said she was inspired by the recent Multi-City Equity Summit and wanted to "encourage and respect whatever pronouns people choose for themselves."

Cummings then went onto say "some of these pronouns use the word, 'they' as if there's more than one person and that doesn't make sense to me personally. If I was going to talk about somebody and it was somebody that didn't want to be gender specific, I would probably just use that person's name. I wouldn't feel comfortable calling the person 'they.'"

Henderson and Buchanan-Hovland explained "they/them" pronouns as a simple way to refer to someone without specifying gender, because a lot of people don't feel comfortable identifying as male or female.

"I know people who consider being female, without using biological terms, as feminine but I know tons of people who use she/her pronouns and are a lot more masculine, regardless of if they're transgender or not," Buchanan-Hovland said.

"A lot of people make fun of this word but it really is a social construct. It was designed to put people into these categories but a lot of people don't feel comfortable being put into those categories," Walters added

She went on to say that often without even thinking about it, people use they/them to refer to an unnamed person because they don't know their gender. It shouldn't be too hard to apply the same pronouns to a single person who says they prefer to be recognized that way, she said.

More than a few students

Walters estimates that around one tenth of the student body at WLHS is either openly LGBTQ or in the closet. She said GSA has around 30 members, though certainly not all LGBTQ students feel comfortable going to GSA meetings. As far as she knows, each of them experienced the same kind of harassment Walters, Buchanan-Hovland and Henderson describe.

Most instances of homophobia and transphobia go unreported, they said.

"I have a friend who is a sophomore and she is a lesbian and she faces daily attacks in the hallways. People will come at her and grab her backpack and call her slurs," Walters said.

Hederson and Walters said there's a challenging dichotomy at their school that says queer students either chose to face this discrimination by coming out, or that by being queer, they have no other choice but to face the discrimination. These beliefs come from internalized transphobia and homophobia, they said.

There have always been elements of homophobia and transphobia at school, the students said, but lately it seems to have reached another level.

"In the past couple weeks, I've felt pretty threatened, pretty frightened and pretty reclusive," Buchanan-Hovland said.

Walters suspects the intensifying hostilities may have something to do with election season. She noted there was a similar uptick in prejudicial harassment in 2016, though then it was mostly racial and religious discrimination.

Walters, Henderson and Buchanan-Hovland said that the harassment isn't limited to the school hallways and locker rooms. It's even more prevalent online.

"Especially with social media, it's kind of a grey area. The school has said that there's not much that they can do," Buchan-Hovland. "There's also a lack of follow-through with consequences when things do happen."

West Linn-Wilsonville School District spokesman Andrew Kilstrom said that the school has little control over what students do online if it doesn't involve school-related matters, but the administration does the best it can to investigate the online incidents that are brought to their attention.

When the GSA posted about the walkout on its Instagram page, the post received nearly 500 comments, and not all of them friendly, Walters said.

GSA got messages about its students being too sensitive and even some that contained slurs, she said.

What does Chick-fil-a have to do with this?

PMG PHOTO - An instagram post from WLHS GSA anouncing Friday's walkout received over 500 comments. The WLHS Booster club signed a contract with Georgia-based fast food company Chick-fil-a to serve food out of a truck at home football games this season. The district had little oversight over this process, Kilstrom said.

However, now that so many students have brought to the administration's attention their feelings about Chick-fil-a and its support of anti-LGBTQ groups, the district will provide more oversight into decisions for who is allowed on campus, Kilstrom explained.

Walters said she and others have had multiple conversations with WLHS Principal Greg Nueman about the presence of Chick-fil-a at games. She said the truck wasn't present at the homecoming game after she talked to Nueman but it returned for the rest of the season.

"Others have said, 'Oh, are they gonna take away Chick-fil-a?' and people saying, 'These people are so sensitive and ridiculous. Imagine feeling threatened by a chicken sandwich,'" Walters said.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: KALEIGH HENDERSON - WLHS students gather outside the school duing a walkout Nov. 8.Despite the fact that much of the narrative around Friday's walkout centered around Chick-fil-a, Walters said the walkout was about much more. The presence of Chick-fil-a on campus was the final straw for students after a worsening atmosphere of homophobia, the GSA explained.

"In 2017, Chick-fil-a donated $1.8 million to discriminatory groups —including the Salvation Army (anti-LGBTQ+ on a government level), the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (anti-LGBTQ+ on an education level) and the Paul Anderson Youth Home (conversion therapy)," The GSA's Instagram post said. "The message of having this company making money on our school campus only enforces the unsafe culture perpetuated at West Linn High School."

While a handful of parents and community members turned out in support of the GSA walkout, not everyone was so pleased.

"I'm mad because high school kids don't need this political sideshowism.. just a useless and harmful distraction from actual learning," one parent wrote in a comment on a post about the walkout on the West Linn Community Facebook Page.

Despite some of these sentiments, it's become apparent to the students of WLHS GSA that they are not alone. Walters said students from across the state have reached out, offering their support and wanting advice about how to orchestrate a walkout of their own.

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