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Youths from Mt. Si and Mt. Vernon receive ACLU award - by ACLU Staff
Youths from Mt. Si and Mt. Vernon receive ACLU award - by ACLU Staff
Two young people who stood up for the rights of Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender students have received the 2008 Youth Activist Award given by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. Mt. Vernon High School graduate Ian Feis and Mt. Si High School student Caitlin Donnelly accepted the award at the ACLU's annual Bill of Rights Celebration Dinner in Seattle on November 15.

The Youth Activist Award is presented to young people whose activism exemplifies work to defend and extend liberty and justice for all. This year the ACLU is honoring Feis and Donnelly for courageously promoting fair treatment for LGBT students in their schools.

Ian Feis learned firsthand about the indignities that are all too common for Gay students - or students simply perceived as Gay - in towns across America. Even though he was not openly Gay while in middle school, he was pushed, shoved, and tripped on the school bus and in the halls. His backpack was stolen, his house was egged, and his mailbox was burned to the ground. When he complained, the principal suggested to his parents that he should change schools - even though his grade-point average was 4.0 and he was the associated student body president.

Feis's experiences were a springboard to activism when he moved on to high school. In the spring of 2006, with the help of school librarian Cathy Pfahl, Feis and two other students started a Gay/Straight Alliance club - a GSA - at Mt. Vernon High School. The goals of the club were to combat homophobia and other bigotry on campus, educate the school community about LGBT issues, put on fun events, and foster a supportive environment. Feis served as the club's president for the next two years.

The school administration didn't always welcome the club's efforts. This year, when the GSA wanted to sponsor a two-day festival and educational event in February called "Over the Rainbow," Feis ran into opposition from both the principal and superintendent. Even with the help of the ACLU, the GSA couldn't get permission for the festival to be designated a school-sponsored event. Nonetheless, Feis and the others made Over the Rainbow a huge success, attracting overflow audiences. The festival included a job fair; workshops by professors, attorneys, and doctors; a documentary; and variety show performances from students, alumni, and community members.

Ingrained attitudes change slowly. The threatening anti-Gay graffiti in the school's restrooms following Over the Rainbow is evidence of that. Despite sporadic incidents, however, the school's GSA has flourished, and more students seem to accept the group as well as the individuals who belong to it. Feis's efforts not only helped provide a supportive environment while he was a student but have also laid the groundwork for a better climate for students yet to arrive.

As an officer of Mt. Si's Gay/Straight Alliance, Caitlin Donnelly was the lead organizer for the club's national Day of Silence observation last year. The Day of Silence began in 1996 at the University of Virginia: Students around the country remain mute to call attention to harassment of LGBT students. But Mt. Si's Day of Silence became a lot more complicated.

The conflicts began when the school invited Reverend Ken Hutcherson to speak at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day assembly. He was expected to talk about his experiences as a black man growing up in Alabama and about King's legacy. However, Hutcherson is also a prominent activist against Gay rights. At the assembly, one teacher asked him if it wasn't hypocritical for him to support civil rights for African Americans but not for Gays and Lesbians. Another teacher booed him.

As a result of what was perceived as a public embarrassment, Hutcherson threatened to bring a thousand "prayer warriors" to protest the school's third annual observation of the Day of Silence.

Donnelly was under intense pressure to cancel it. She rejected that idea, pointing out that in the previous two years at Mt. Si, Day of Silence participants had been shoved into lockers and called anti-Gay names; the event, she believed, was necessary. She urged students to "respond with dignity and maturity" if and when they were challenged by any of the protestors. She added that anyone threatened or assaulted would document incidents and report them to administrators.

On April 25, a hundred of Hutcherson's protestors and a corresponding group of counter-protestors who gathered near the high school's tennis courts were anything but silent. Inside, Donnelly and several hundred students wore tie-dyed bracelets and spoke only if a teacher called on them. The district's public information officer said, "We were very proud of the students inside the school. It was a quiet, productive day."

For her part, Donnelly observed, "None of those disruptions were caused by GSA. Hopefully, in years to come, it will happen with less controversy and less opposition."

The ACLU cited Donnelly's demonstration of both resolve and forbearance - resolve in continuing with plans to observe the Day of Silence, and forbearance in refusing to be goaded by her opponents to respond in kind. As a result of her leadership during a potential crisis, GSA enrollment increased, and Donnelly was elected to lead the club in 2008-2009.

"Through their actions under pressure, these two young people have sown the seeds of tolerance and understanding," said ACLU-WA Board President Jesse Wing.

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