Same-sex marriage may be a hot-button topic in the country, but it's not necessarily the most important issue in the gay and lesbian community, said a panel of six high school and college students yesterday at the Equality Forum, the largest national and international GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender) civil-rights gathering.
"The fight for marriage equality overshadows other issues affecting the GLBT community," said Alex Morse, 20, a sophomore at Brown University and a native of Holyoke, Mass., where he founded his high school's Gay-Straight Alliance. An urban planning major, he hopes to go to law school and enter politics.
A bigger concern is apathy, even when it comes to gays and lesbians who may not get involved in causes that don't personally affect them, said the students, all youth leaders at their schools and active in equality issues. They spoke before an audience of about 60 people at the Prince Music Theater in Center City.
"That is the number-one enemy of our movement," said Alyssa Hargrove, 18, a documentary-photography major at the University of the Arts from Somerset, N.J.
"A lack of knowledge is plaguing the entire community. A lot of people don't care. And because they don't care, they hinder us," she said.
Moderated by Craig Richie, 18, a senior at Jenkintown High School and the first openly gay student body president, the panel touched on how to start youth groups for gay, lesbian, and transgender students and how to influence school policy.
For instance, to combat the use of homophobic language at his high school, Morse helped plan a schoolwide assembly, including training for teachers on how to stamp out offensive speech.
Schools can be hostile places for gay and lesbian students. The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network last month released a report that said schools in Pennsylvania "are unsafe places for LGBT youth."
The report, "Inside Pennsylvania Schools: The Experience of LGBT Students," was based on findings from 242 Pennsylvania students in the network's 2007 National School Climate Survey.
Pennsylvania is one of 43 states that do not explicitly protect students from bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression, the organization said.
Not every consciousness-raising project goes smoothly. To mark GLBT History Month at his school in October, Richie said, the Gay-Straight Alliance announced the names of notable homosexuals over the loudspeaker every day. When two popes were mentioned, "it caused some uproar, and we weren't allowed to continue," said Richie, whose group instead stood across the street from the school with names written on posters.
At Mainland Regional High School in Linwood, N.J., the Gay-Straight Alliance put on a play, The Laramie Project, with the help of the performing arts department, said senior David Ojserkis, 17. The show, about Matthew Shepard, a gay man who was killed in Wyoming, "was one of our biggest fund-raisers, and it raised awareness," he said.
Justin Roman, 18, a senior at W.B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences in Philadelphia, works with young people at the Attic Youth Center.
"It's a good place to spend time. You don't have to go there and worry about people judging you," he said.
Sara Puffer, 16, a sophomore and Gay-Straight Alliance president at Linn-Mar High School in Marion, Iowa, was invited to the conference after her school won a contest for GLBT History Month with a display that showed a time line in gay history.
That kind of knowledge "is really, really important. It's so crucial to know the past and where you've been because otherwise you can't go forward," she said.