By Alex Medina
Edward Fette remembers what things were like when he first came out in the 1990s.
As a teacher at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School, he faced resentment, threats and prejudice.
“One teacher, in particular, who was very hostile toward me threatened to bring a lawsuit against me for being an ‘out’ teacher. She said I had an agenda” to convert others to be gay, he said.
But Fette also received support from other teachers. “I got calls saying, ‘Hang in there, Mr. Fette, we’re with you. Don’t let this teacher intimidate you. We’ve got your back.’”
Today, Fette says support for people who are lesbian gay bisexual or transgender (LGBT) has increased. Yet unresolved tensions remain.
LGBT students in Boyle Heights say they live in a time when many classmates are either indifferent to or accepting of their sexual orientations. Yet, some LGBT youth are still afraid of what might happen if they come out to certain people, such as family members.
As just one example of the complex, evolving dynamic, one local high school student praised how far things have come, while insisting that she be called Eve to protect her identity. “The LGBT community has changed a lot; more people are coming out, and more people are open minded,” said the girl, a sophomore at Bravo who is out at school, but not at home.
“I feel mostly accepted at school,” she said. “I’m currently dating a girl, and while we get the odd stare occasionally, most people don’t seem to care. I come from a very conservative background, which frowns upon homosexuality, so I’ve definitely felt repressed before from my own culture.”
Various high schools throughout Boyle Heights, including Bravo, Oscar De La Hoya Animo Charter and Theodore Roosevelt, have clubs for LGBT students and supporters. But some have low attendance and haven’t been popular in recent years. That’s the case at Bravo, where weekly meetings usually attract nobody. In the past, an average of 18 to 20 people participated in the club, according to Fette, the school’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) sponsor.
“My theory is that it’s not a big deal any more, so students lose interest in it,” he said. “There aren’t any really big causes to take on anymore like there used to be.”
But one student also says the club isn’t very successful because it’s not being run correctly. “GSA is a nice concept, but it’s poorly executed,” the student said.
In the past, the GSA club at Bravo participated in the annual AIDS Walk, put up a display for LGBT Pride Month and invited the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles to the school to perform. Because of lack of participation, however, none of these events have taken place recently, and that may be the reason why some LGBT students still feel isolated.
Rose Biswas, 15, a transgender girl and sophomore at Bravo, says that most people at her school are indifferent toward the LGBT community, though she has also experienced some hostility. “I saw many online posts about me using my dead name (birth name), saying that I need to ‘man up’ or that my identity isn’t valid.”
Even so, Biswas says that most classmates support her identification as a female. She said there was support for LGBT students, but “it isn’t active support.”
Without an active LGBT club or support group, some LGBT youth may have trouble getting the services they need or finding someone to talk to.
Mi Centro, an LGBT center on Clarence Street in Boyle Heights, was created last year to offer services to people who identify as LGBT, such as referrals to medical services, coming out support, social events and a safe place to talk.
A collaboration between the Latino Equality Alliance (LEA) and the Los Angeles LGBT Center in Hollywood, its mission is to “promote liberty, equality and justice” for Latinos who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, according to the LEA’s website.
A first in East L.A.
“It’s the first center of its kind here in the East L.A. area,” said Juan Castillo-Alvarado, the group’s director of education programming.
The LGBTQA Youth Council at Mi Centro holds monthly meetings where community members socialize and discuss different topics. The alliance also offers workshops at local high schools, including Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Felicitas & Gonzalo Mendez.
Castillo-Alvarado says that LEA has been focusing on educating students at schools in Boyle Heights “on being respectful of each other regarding the person’s gender and sexuality.” The workshops focus on homophobia, bullying and policies that will create safer environments for students at schools and in the community, he said.
It’s about “creating leadership among themselves, as well as letting them know that they have the ability to be who they are regarding their sexual orientation and being able to advocate for themselves,” he said.
Guadalupe Sanchez, an LEA intern and member of the LGBTQA Youth Council, said she “felt really supported” when she came out. “I had the Latino Equality Alliance help me out throughout the way.”
Homophobia still present
Even with Mi Centro, some youth say it’s still tough to be LGBT in Boyle Heights.
Charlie Ruiz Vazquez, an openly pansexual member of the LGBTQA Youth Council, says that people aren’t always accepting of her sexuality. People who identify as pansexual do not limit their choices in sexual partners based on biological sex, gender or gender identity.
“There’s been a couple of times when I’ve been confronted by people. If I’m holding hands (with) or kissing my girlfriend, they’ll tell me to stop, (or) they just tell me to leave,” the 20-year-old said. “Within the LGBTQ community, it’s mostly comments like, ‘Oh, your sexuality doesn’t exist, you’re just the hipster version of being bisexual.’”
“Progress has definitely been made, though there’s still so much that we haven’t accomplished yet,” said a high school junior who also wanted to remain anonymous. “Until there is virtually no prejudice against LGBT people, I feel like there is still much to do.”
“If we chose to be open and public about our relations, we are not flaunting it. We’re just not suppressing ourselves to make certain people feel comfortable,” Eve said. “You wouldn’t say that to a straight couple, so end the double standards.”