Reflections on West Bend High School in the DeVos Era

This post originally appeared on The Radical Notion.

As a middle schooler, when you pictured your upcoming years of high school, did you ever imagine suing your administration for discriminating against you and your friends?

The West Bend High School Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) existed for years, but was unrecognized by their school. They had an advisor and regular meetings, but official recognition from administration would allow them to advertise their events around campus, have a photo in the yearbook, and request funding if they ever needed it (they didn’t, they just wanted to hang posters).

Samlin Miller, former president of the West Bend High School GSA, explained that having a visible school-sponsored GSA would help educate and acclimate the school’s LGBTQ students. Without spaces like these clubs, students struggling to understand their identities may have nowhere to turn. 

“You can be queer and not realize that you don’t have that language; you can be trans and not really know because you don’t have that knowledge,” they said. “Having access to this information is vital for these kids who are going through things that they may not understand, things that they may not be getting help with. Having organizations like GSA have a place to go to get their questions answered and people they can talk to about what they’re going through and these uniquely LGBTQ problems.”

Miller—now 22 and living in California—and their fellow GSA members submitted their application for administrative recognition and were called to a School Board meeting for a public hearing. Normally, these hearings are just a way to formalize the process. But even though they met all the requirements for official recognition, they were denied official recognition by the Board.

Samlin, a sophomore at the time, said they had never heard of this happening before.

“There was a man named [name redacted for legal purposes]*,” they recalled. “He was essentially the head homophobe of the School Board. He looked me straight in the face and told me he could recommend a good therapist to fix us.”

The students’ lawyer took the floor that evening and told the board directly that charges would be filed if they denied the students their right to assemble. The school’s attorney even stood up and told them they would lose. Nevertheless, the board stood by their decision.

But the students of the West Bend GSA and their allies from neighboring towns called the Board’s bluff and filed a lawsuit against them. The Board reconvened, and in a 4-3 vote, they granted the GSA recognition by administration. It was clear, however, that they were motivated by the cost of the trial rather than the humanity of their queer students.

For Miller, the appointment of Betsy DeVos to Secretary of Education evokes an ominous uncertainty.

“I feel like the people that ran my high school probably jumped for joy when they heard that,” they said, reflecting on DeVos’ wishy-washy—at best—statements on protecting LGBTQ youth in schools. “I feel really bad, honestly, for the kids that are in my hometown.”

It’s been months since DeVos’ appointment, but the consequences of her leadership in the Department of Education will truly begin to take form as we approach her first full school-year in office. For one, she called federal law unclear regarding protections of LGBTQ students from discrimination, and specifically said she had no plans to issue any guidelines to clarify and defend students.

“On areas where the law is unsettled, this department is not going to be issuing decrees,” she told Democratic senators at a congressional hearing. “That is a matter for Congress and the courts to settle.”

DeVos even suggested that privately funded schools should not be required to abide by anti-discrimination laws, and declined to comment on whether or not the Department of Education would withdraw funding from federally-funded schools who discriminate against LGBTQ students in their admissions process.

On top of her refusal to publicly commit to protecting LGBTQ students from discrimination, she also refused to agree to uphold Obama-era guidelines for colleges to document and respond to cases of sexual violence in a timely manner. Statistically, LGBTQ-identifying folks are roughly twice as likely to experience some form of sexual violence before graduating high school.

Specifically, DeVos told Pennsylvania Senator Robert P. Casey Jr. during her confirmation hearing that while she agrees sexual assault is a problem, “it would be premature” for her to commit to enforcing the Title IX guidelines.

In the DeVos era of education, mass demonstrations of queer visibility—like those throughout Pride Month this June—are more important than ever. Miller explains that although they were able to transform their experience with their School Board into a positive reinforcement of their identity, not everyone will have the established community they had with their GSA.

“It honestly just comes down to helping the kids that might not receive help otherwise,” Miller said. “You don’t turn somebody gay. You don’t turn somebody trans. You don’t turn somebody anything, they just are. So, there’s going to be queer and trans kids in high schools no matter what. That’s a fact of life. Those kids exist. The issue of visibility comes in when those kids don’t necessarily get the help they need.”

It all comes down to the fact that without institutionally recognized visibility of queer folks, young people in any community—whether it’s school, church, social circles, family, clubs, sports, government, media, you name it—kids will never know they’re not alone.

“That’s what leads these kids down to this depressive road that leads to all these teenage suicides,” Miller elaborates. Suicide is already the second leading cause of death among kids ages 10 to 24, but the suicide rate for cisgender queer kids is 4 times higher. Over 90% of trans folks report having attempted suicide before reaching 25 years old. And according to The Trevor Project, every instance of bullying or abuse on the basis of queer identity increases an individual’s chances of self-harm by 2.5 times.

“I know so many people and so many friends of friends who have either attempted or succeeded in killing themselves because of the bullying the depression that comes along with being an LGBTQ kid in this world,” Miller said. “It’s so sad because these kids deserve better, and knowing there’s someone out there that can be there for you and understand you is so important.”

At the end of the day, though, Miller sees the bipartisan mobilization around resisting DeVos’ agenda as secretary of education as a glimmer of hope that someday, LGBTQ protections and human rights won’t be such a polarized, partisan issue.

“Even though we’re kind of in this scary ambiguous time with this administration, I will say that one thing that this administration has been really good for is uniting both parties against common enemies,” they said. “I definitely think that having voters on both sides of the aisle coming together against this evil force is good, and hopefully it will show people that both parties can work together in the future to have a common goal.”

Hopefully that common goal can be humane treatment and equal opportunity for all of this country’s youth.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s