Southwest High School is viewed traditionally as a bastion of liberalism, where Republican students are oddities, impassioned classroom debates are encouraged, and discrimination is simply not a problem. In my high school experience, I have found these assumptions to be mostly true—in the Unhinged theatre program, the most controversial plays are often the most successful; in sports, all players are welcome. Thus, when I set out last spring to produce a documentary about the reality for gay adolescents in this day and age, I assumed that Southwest would commend my efforts. What I found instead was an undercurrent of unresolved feelings about a controversial social issue.
That is certainly not to say that Southwest is bigoted. I love attending a high school where I can exercise freedom of speech without reluctance in classroom discussions, the only risk being that I may tick off a few of my peers. Compared to other area high schools and practically every suburban high school, I have not a single complaint about the level of tolerance at Southwest. Yet herein is the root of the problem. It is time that I stop looking at the level of open-mindedness at Southwest relative to other schools, and start looking at how I can improve the situation right here.
It was during softball season at Southwest that I found out that I would receive a grant to make my documentary. At the time, I was excited and proud, but for some reason, incredibly reluctant to share the news with my teammates. When I finally spilled the beans, I was congratulated, yet it was the follow-up question that always made me wring my hands and kick up dirt: “What is your film going to be about?” In about half of the older girls on my team—as well as a few parents on the sidelines and coaches—my answer elicited an ever-so-subtle change in facial expression (like a raised eyebrow) or caused speaking voices to jump an octave.
Perhaps I just was being paranoid, but I could not help but wonder what judgment had crossed their minds at the moment that I professed my interest in gay rights. It was not unlikely, I thought, that they had jumped to the conclusion that I myself might be a lesbian, and if so, that they had better keep their distance. For the rest of the season, I avoided discussion of my film at all costs.
To harp any more on intolerance at my high school would not only be insolent but also misleading. Had I not received support from a handful of Southwest teachers and peers, I never would have captured some of the most vital footage in my film, taken right here in the halls and classrooms. In the process, however, I certainly discovered some of Southwest’s less liberal-minded niches. To iterate my point, it is not as though there are more than a few openly gay students in our entire high school of over two thousand students.
The good thing is that I cannot think of any topics that stir up awkward reactions at Southwest besides homosexuality (although I am sure that there are a few). Even so, at a time when the number of gay teenaged suicides is increasing steadily, my observations have unsettling implications about how liberal Southwest really is. If we want to maintain our pride in being open-minded, we cannot continue to overlook the unwelcoming aspects of life at Southwest for gay and lesbian students.
The first step toward change is to stop measuring tolerance in what does not happen—e.g., bullying, censorship, suicide—and to start thinking about taking the initiative. As far as how that can be done, I leave that up to you. Open discussion is always a good start.
To view Morgan’s completed documentary, “This Gay & Age,” click here.