Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth are increasingly confronting how public agencies address their civil rights, and it’s forcing a rethinking at all levels.
Whether it’s confronting schoolyard bullying at the school district level or introducing state legislation on bathroom access, gender and sexual orientation issues are increasingly making their way onto the public agenda.
In Orange County, many students are getting organized to support one another and advocate for safer school environments.
They’re also finding key allies among some of Orange County’s elected officials.
This weekend, LGBTQ students and supporters from across the county gathered in Santa Ana to discuss their efforts and the remaining challenges they see.
The event, held Saturday at Valley High School, included speeches and a series of workshops, and was billed as the first such convening in Orange County history.
It was organized by The Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center of Orange County, also known as The Center OC, which has been heavily involved in helping local LGBTQ youth advocate for themselves.
In interviews, several students said many Orange County schools have undergone a major shift in recent years towards being more accepting of LBGTQ students.
“I think that the schools really have changed,” said Vince Buendia, a junior at Gilbert High School in Anaheim who co-founded the school’s gay-straight alliance.
Gilbert’s administration has been supportive of the alliance group, he added.
Cindy Cuevas, a junior at Valley High who recently helped create her school’s gay-straight alliance group, also said her campus has been very accepting of LGBTQ students.
At the same time, advocates said, many students still face bullying for their orientation and are often punished more harshly than their peers.
Joey Hernández, a community engagement and policy advocate with the American Civil Liberties Union, cited an example from a school in Los Angeles County.
A male student was on the cheer squad team for four years, Hernández said, and regularly faced bullying from his teammates. The cheer squad leader had called him every derogatory name in the book, he added.
One day, the male student called the squad leader a “bitch,” and was immediately suspended and put up for expulsion, Hernández said.
The administration “saw this bullying had been happening for four years,” said Hernández.
“The first time that he ever retaliated,” Hernández said, the school administration started expulsion hearings after they “had failed to protect him for four years.”
Another example Hernández cited was a transgender student in Downey who was threatened with suspension for telling other students about her sexual orientation.
As for the criminal justice system, he said LGBTQ youth make up 5 to 7 percent of the national youth population, yet account for 13 to 15 percent of youth in juvenile detention.
While acceptance of LGBTQ youth is on the rise, the issue continues to be a controversial one.
One of the latest political battlegrounds centers on a new law that gives transgender students the right to choose sports teams, bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identities.
Supporters say it protects transgender children from bullying, while opponents say it violates the privacy of other students.
Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton) was the only Orange County legislator to support the bill, a vote that has sparked criticism from Republican challenger Young Kim.
Aside from political debates, Saturday’s event highlighted the challenges parents confront when their child starts to express a different gender preference.
The keynote address was given by Lori Duron, an Orange County mother who has gained a national following for her blog and book about raising a gender non-conforming son.
CJ, who is now seven years old, has had a strong interest in traditionally-female activities for years, Duron said.
When he was two and a half years old, CJ discovered a Barbie doll in his mother’s closet.
“We say that’s the day that he came alive,” Duron said.
At first, she said, she and her husband thought it was just a phase.
Then, by the time CJ was three years old, he could name every Disney princess. When he was three and a half, he started cross dressing at home.
Duron had encountered similar circumstances before; she grew up with an effeminate brother who ultimately came out as gay in his 20s.
While Duron’s brother was growing up, his father constantly told him to “be a man” and not be a sissy, she said.
Duron and her husband decided to take a different approach.
“We vowed that we would not be our son’s first bully, because my dad was my brother’s first bully,” she said, prompting the couple to advocate for their son.
The statistics are stark, Duron added, with LGBTQ youth facing high rates of suicide attempts and being many times more likely to abuse drugs and have unsafe sex.
“I don’t want my son to be a statistic,” she said.
Two elected officials also showed their support for the LGBTQ students at the event.
Quirk-Silva sent a representative who provided official certificates of recognition for LGBTQ youth groups.
And Huntington Beach Mayor Pro Tem Joe Shaw spoke about his experience as Orange County’s only openly-gay city council member, as well as his experience coming out.
When he was growing up in the Midwest, Shaw said, going public with his orientation wasn’t really an option.
“In Oklahoma I felt repressed,” he said. “I felt like I couldn’t be myself. I couldn’t go into a public place and be myself without someone ridiculing me.”
“I had a deep dark secret. And that deep dark secret was that I was gay,” Shaw added. “That individual was squashed deep down inside.”
When he was 19 years old, Shaw said, he married a woman who had been his childhood best friend.
Then, a friend of his wife noticed he was gay.
When Shaw’s wife confronted him about it, she reassured him that she would accept him either way.
She told Shaw: “If you’re gay, it’s alright. I don’t care,” he said.
“No one ever said that to me,” Shaw said.
So he replied that he is, in fact, gay.
Shaw eventually moved to California, where he became active in confronting the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s.
When he arrived in 1988, Shaw said, “there was no one politically that was helping us. No one.”
“Being part of the gay community back then was scary,” he added. “We thought we were going to die” from the disease.
But after countless protests, marches and organizing efforts, the political outlook eventually shifted, Shaw noted.
In Huntington Beach, Shaw said his 2010 election victory was a sign of major progress in a city with a long history of white supremacy groups.
“We’ve shown that Huntington Beach is different than it used to be,” Shaw said, noting that the city has a human relations task force that reviews hate crimes and looks at diversity issues.
He had high hopes for the students who gathered on Saturday.
“I know that many of you in this room right now will change the world,” said Shaw.
“Just you being who you are and speaking out, and saying what you need to say to the people around you – that’s how you make a difference.”