Editor's note: As a part of the 2012 Fullerton High School "Mr. Fullerton" pageant, senior Kearian Giertz was asked, "Where do you see yourself in 10 years?" Kearian responded that he hoped that in 10 years marriage equality would be legal so that he could marry the man of his dreams. As a result of his answer, a school administrator disqualified him from the competition. Immediately after the incident took place, Kearian's classmates, seniors Blake Danford and Katy Hall, started a letter-writing campaign, asking the question, "Where do you see yourself in 10 years?" They added their vision of what is needed to create safe and supportive schools. Blake and Katy teamed up with the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center of Orange County and Youth Empowered to Act (YETA). The campaign became the foundation for YETA's comprehensive, student-led program to inform students, faculty, and administrators about California's school laws, provide support and advocacy for students, and create safe schools in Orange County and beyond.
The Huffington Post is sharing the stories of several youth involved in the campaign responding to Seth's Law, which was enacted last week. For more information, and to participate in the campaign, visit Youth Empowered to Act.
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I have always been the kind of person who thinks ridiculously long-term. Every decision I make is always preceded with the question, "What effect is this going to have in the long run?" It's a little obsessive, I will admit, but without that trait, I highly doubt I would have helped make the waves that I did in high school.
As a recent graduate of Fullerton Union High School (FUHS), located in Fullerton, Calif., I have definitely gone the extra mile to make a difference. As an openly gay student, I have faced adversity in many forms, from students and school administrators alike. Bullying from students is common, but when it comes from the administration, it becomes downright dangerous.
I was aware of my sexuality from a very young age, and, for many years, grew up thinking the whole world hated me. Homophobia was a constant presence in my life, whether it was from my family or the world around me. I remember learning sometime around fifth grade that gay marriage was in fact not legal. I had never assumed it was legal; it just had never crossed my mind, seeing as I was about 10 years old. I remember that absolutely crushing me. At that moment I realized that not only was I not accepted by my family and the people in my environment but I was not supported by the government of the country that I call home. To me, saying that gay people weren't allowed to marry was saying that we didn't "deserve" that opportunity. It was saying that we weren't equal to the rest of the population.
When I finally got to high school, I was very afraid. I was only out to a few people and generally shied away from anything that would put me in the spotlight. I dressed plainly, walked quietly, and did what I could to avoid calling attention to myself. I would hear the weekly announcements for Gay-Straight Alliance and wish more than anything that I had the courage to go to those meetings and hopefully be in a positive, stimulating environment where I could be myself and not hide any longer. I didn't possess that courage, however, until I got to my junior year. Finally, one day, I got up the courage to walk into a GSA meeting, only to be disappointed with what I found. It wasn't a club full of like-minded individuals working toward equality, as the mission statement suggested; instead, it was a room full of cliques sitting around and eating. It was a true disappointment to me, and I wanted things to be different, so I took things into my own hands.
FUHS's campus has a serious bullying problem. From my first days on that campus, students would always make snide remarks at me in the halls. Having words like "f*ggot" and "queer" thrown my direction became an almost daily occurrence for me, and I was sick of it. My junior year, at the height of the gay-youth suicides in the media, I decided that I was taking action. I sat at my computer one night and wrote a rather lengthy email to the principal of my school asking if I could be afforded the opportunity to speak at an assembly or some other public forum on campus on the topic of anti-gay bullying. I wanted to show the effects that it has, such as the gay-youth suicide rate, and let my fellow students know that it must be stopped.
Instead of responding to my email, the principal forwarded it to my assistant principal, who called me into his office the next day. Rather than discussing what I wanted done regarding the issues on campus, he instead asked me what was wrong and suggested that I look into professional therapy for my issues. I was furious. I was then handed off to one of the counselors of my school, who also informed me that the GSA had certain restrictions placed upon it; for example, it would not be allowed to observe the National Day of Silence, which was "a day of action in which students across the country vow to take a form of silence to call attention to the silencing effect of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools." When asked why observing the National Day of Silence was forbidden, the only answer the assistant principal offered was comparable to "because I said so."
At that point it really hit me. Now my peers, my government, and the administration of my school were not supporting me, and something needed to happen to change that. Through a string of events, I was put in contact with the Anti-Defamation League, which prompted the district to hold an investigation of the unfair practices occurring on campus. That investigation yielded results all in my favor. It was proven that all the aforementioned situations had been handled incorrectly, and that the GSA was treated unequally on campus. The GSA was allowed to participate in the National Day of Silence. It was a small change but an important one.
Senior year rolled around, and with senior year comes the "I'm almost out of high school" frivolity, which includes the "Mr. Fullerton" contest that FUHS holds every year. It is basically a beauty, talent, and popularity pageant for senior boys. Through a ballot that is sent out to every classroom, students choose the boys who will compete. I was not nominated, but a fellow openly gay student was. He was ecstatic to be a part of this competition. He went through the standard portions of the competitions without a hitch. The introduction, talent, swimsuit, and group portions all went off without a hitch. It wasn't until the question-and-answer portion that a "problem" arose.
During his question-and-answer segment, he was asked the question, "Where do you see yourself in 10 years?" He replied jokingly at first, listing the awards that he hopes to win (an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony). He then took his answer in a more serious direction, stating that all he wants in 10 years is to be able to sit on the couch next to the man that he loves and happily say that they are married, and that hopefully gay marriage would be legal so that that can be possible. As he was bringing his statement to a close, the assistant principal took the stage and gestured for the student's microphone to be cut off. Once the student was offstage, the assistant principal disqualified him from the competition. This was an opportunity to make change.
After the competition I called my friend Katy on the phone, and we both agreed that something had to be done. With the disqualified student, Kearian, at our side, we launched a letter-writing campaign simply titled, "Where do you see yourself in 10 years?" The letters were meant to be a vehicle to show the assistant principal that the students of FUHS wanted to live in a world free of hatred and bullying, including the type of bullying that he had displayed onstage that night.
We soon realized that this could be much bigger. We teamed up with youth from Youth Empowered to Act (YETA), at the Orange County Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, and all kinds of wonderful things began to take place. We got to meet the mayor of Los Angeles and go to the GLAAD Media Awards in Los Angeles and San Francisco. With YETA we expanded our campaign to see that changes are made in all California schools. This includes policy changes being put into place specifically protecting LGBT students due to the new California school laws. These laws, A.B. 9 ("Seth's Law") and A.B. 1156, make it mandatory for schools to protect students from bullying. If a student's school fails to properly deal with bullying, that student has the right to transfer to a new school district. The campaign is now running at full force and shows no sign of stopping until change is made.
As I did all this, I never saw myself as any sort of hero. I was just somebody who didn't want other people to go through what I had to go through in high school. I was simply being myself and working for a better future. It turns out, however, that we all became heroes for doing what we do.
After the GLAAD Media Awards in Los Angeles, where we were given the opportunity to present our campaign, a young girl who couldn't have been any older than 11 or 12 walked up to me with tears in her eyes. "Thank you for everything you all have done for people like me... thank you so much," she managed to say. Her voice was small and shaky, wrought with emotion. She took another step toward me and put her arms out, asking for a hug. I pulled her into my arms, with tears welling up in my eyes. At that moment I realized we really had done something to be proud of.
That girl reminded me a great deal of a boy I had befriended during my senior year. Three months into the school year, I was walking through the halls during a class-free period when I ran across this boy, who looked lost beyond help. He had this terrified look in his eyes, was clutching his class schedule to his chest, and was essentially walking in circles. I walked up to him, introduced myself, and asked if he was OK. It turned out that it was his first day on campus, as he had transferred from another school. He was lost trying to get to his next class, so I took the liberty of walking him there. He was very shy, but I managed to strike up a small conversation with him. The only thing I learned about him was that he was a freshman who was partial to backpacks with cartoon characters on them.
After that, I could tell from our occasional conversations that he was gay or at least had questions about his sexuality. One day I approached him and extended and invitation for him to come to GSA, just to see what it was about. It seemed like my invitation almost scared him, and he declined, but we still spoke whenever we saw each other. He began to trust me more and more, and he would come to me when he needed someone to talk to. I was his "big brother" on campus, which was a position that I was thankful to be in. I wish that I had had someone like that when I was a freshman, and I was beyond glad that I had the opportunity to help someone through all the nonsense of high school. It turned out that he felt the same way. After graduation he sent me a text: "You're my inspiration for being who I am." When I read that, I was blown away. I had never seen myself as any sort of role model, and to think that I had affected someone in that way absolutely floored me.
I'm truly honored to be working for a change with local students and YETA. As much of a cliché as this may be, I just wanted to help. I wanted no one to have to go through what I went through, and I am enthralled to have had the opportunity to make it so that at least one student is better off than I was when I was in school. Moments like that are what keep me pushing forward, and I will never stop.
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