For teen-agers who are gay, bisexual or questioning their sexual identity, high school life can be painful. More than 60 percent surveyed recently reported being harassed or assaulted. Other studies have found gay teens at greater risk of drug and alcohol abuse, dropping out of school and suicide.
In the past decade, though, school- or community-based support groups for gay teens and their allies have emerged across the country — most known as gay-straight alliances. The first in its region, and still a leader in the student-led campaign for acceptance and tolerance, is the Cambridge, Mass.-based, Project 10 East.
“It’s just a great group of kids,” said Julianne, 17, a senior at nearby Somerville High School, who came to the Project 10 East drop-in center in Harvard Square one recent afternoon. “We have meetings once a week. We come in and do check-in and say what we’re doing. We are each other’s support.”
In the wake of an incident in which a group of Boston high school girls recently faced charges for assaulting another female student because the victim was rumored to be a lesbian, that kind of peer support and tolerance may be especially welcome.
Project 10 East Director Christine Markowski said, “We make kids feel they are a part of the world — not on the outside.”
Operation of the drop-in center and support group for Cambridge area youth is only part of what Project 10 East does today. The organization also runs an ambitious outreach program for gay teens and their allies in Massachusetts and across the country.
By providing advice and support to individuals and communities, Project 10 East has helped to organize dozens of gay-straight alliances. Operating out of a church basement, the program also runs training and education programs for students, teachers and community leaders.
“Our role is to hold hands with the communities that are struggling with these issues,” said Markowski, the only paid staff member.
Much of what the group does is refer people who contact the organization — usually troubled teens or their parents — to other groups that provide services.
“We function in some ways as a clearinghouse,” said Markowski. “There are so many other organizations out there now— especially in Massachusetts — we can refer about 90 percent of our inquiries out.”
But Project 10 East has had to overcome misconceptions about its intentions. Markowski stresses that the organization does not encourage students to have sex.
“We are talking about sexual orientation — not sex,” she said. “I acknowledge and respect adolescent development, which includes thinking about sexuality. What we promote is safe and healthy relationships.”
This kind of help for teens exploring their sexual identity was not always so available. When Project 10 East was founded 12 years ago, gay and lesbian young people had virtually nowhere to turn.
Al Ferreira, a photography teacher at Cambridge’s Rindge and Latin public high school, started the organization with two students in 1988.
The students met with Ferreira after school in a classroom and shared experiences. The organization grew slowly but steadily and by 1995 had 40 members — a mix of gays, straights and individuals unsure of their sexual identity.
As the first gay-straight alliance in the Northeast, the organization received considerable media attention — first in local newspapers, then in national outlets. Ferreira, one of the few openly gay teachers in the country, appeared on the Larry King and Maury Povich national television programs.
The publicity demonstrated the need felt by many teens, since it brought a flood of inquiries from individuals and groups looking for advice on how to launch programs of their own. “It became like a fishbowl,” said Markowski. “Everyone was calling looking for help.”
In 1995, Markowski, then a writer and editor living in Cambridge, contacted Ferreira and offered to help. She soon was providing the skills and energy the organization needed to broaden its mission from supporting local youth to reaching out to communities across Massachusetts and the country.
Ferreira has since stepped down from an official role in the organization.
Now 34, Markowski remembers being beaten her first day of high school in Bayonne, N.J. She learned to cope by hiding her sexual identity, though she said she knew she was gay by the time she was 3 years old.
She became senior class president, editor of the school newspaper and president of the honor society. “The only thing I didn’t do was sports because I knew I would be seen as a lesbian,” she said.
Today, Project 10 East receives a steady stream of requests for help setting up gay-straight alliances. “Usually it’s one or two kids who talk to a teacher or guidance counselor. Sometimes its the parents who call,” Markowski said.
Some school officials welcome the initiatives and provide classroom space and even special school assemblies. Others have opposed the efforts.
“Schools have told us to get lost, but there is usually a church or library where we can meet,” Markowski said.
Today more than half of the 300 high schools in Massachusetts have gay-straight alliances. Richard, 17, a Somerville High School senior, said Project 10 East has helped him stay in school. “There are many days I would find some reason to stay home. This is a reason I go to school because I know I can come to the meetings afterward,” he said.