By Rene Franco, 17, Providence HS (Burbank)
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Rene encourages all teens to fight homophobia.

A few weeks before the November election I was in the school library working on an essay when I overheard one of my classmates, Robert, who was gay, telling his friends why he thought people should vote against Proposition 8, which would ban same-sex marriage in California. His friends were listing reasons from the Bible why they thought gay marriage was wrong. Robert began to tear up. “I wouldn’t be gay if I had a choice,” he said. He told them that when he was in grade school, the Catholic Church had made him feel as if there was something wrong with him because he was gay.

I knew that by stepping into this discussion, my classmates would assume I was gay, which I am not. Why else would I be defending gay marriage? But I didn’t care. I had stopped worrying about how people saw me because I believed in the importance of this issue. By being afraid of the word gay, I would have been promoting a false view of homosexuality. And I wasn’t afraid of a word anymore. “It doesn’t make any sense why the church should still continue to see the so-called homosexual lifestyle as sinful when there are dozens of things in the Bible that by modern standards aren’t seen as immoral or sinful,” I said. “It’s an old argument that has no value in the real world.”
The group became silent. I realized afterwards that I may not have gotten them to change their opinions, but I did get them thinking that perhaps their own views were flawed. As a straight student who attends a Catholic high school, I may not seem like the type of person who would speak out in support of gay marriage. I would not have been able to before last summer. But working on a documentary for school about the history of gay rights, I saw how important the right to marry the person you love is to the gay community.
Having gone to private Catholic schools all my life and attending church every weekend, I never learned about homosexuality growing up. But my parents urged me to treat everyone equally. Because they both had close gay friends, I think their goal was for me to see that there was nothing wrong with someone who is gay.
My friends in grade school had a much bigger influence on me. I was a bookworm and would constantly hear jokes about me being gay. I started doing the same thing to other guys when they would do something that wasn’t particularly “manly.” The worst part was that I continued to do it in high school, even though I was aware of how bad being called gay could make you feel. I had nothing against anyone who was gay, but being around someone who was flamboyant did seem strange to me. Two years ago during the AIDS Walk, my friends and I laughed and stared at a man dressed in drag. I knew this was wrong. I knew that even if it was a joke, I was hurting someone. But I didn’t do anything because I was more afraid of standing out by defending someone who was gay.
Then last summer, my friend Amanda and I were discussing potential topics for our documentary project for our media class. She mentioned gay rights because most of her closest friends outside of school were gay. I agreed right away. I was hoping we could find a controversial topic that could challenge people’s beliefs at our conservative Christian school. We decided the documentary would trace the history of the gay rights movement from the 1960s to the current conflict over gay marriage here in California. Until this point I had not been following the media coverage over Proposition 8. I didn’t have any close gay friends and didn’t see how the issue affected me.

Illustration by Terrenz Vong, Nogales HS
(L.A. Youth archives)

I began doing research on Prop 8 as well as the history of the gay rights movement. Before I began filming I talked to my parents about Proposition 8. I was surprised that my parents did not side with the church on this issue. My dad, who at one point was going to be a priest, said church officials were butting into the private lives of other people by saying that they shouldn’t be allowed to get married because the church would never allow them to marry in the first place. I didn’t like how the Catholic Church was treating the issue of gay marriage either. I didn’t see how it could pose a threat to society as the Yes on 8 campaign claimed it would. Same-sex marriage was starting to make more sense to me. However, I hadn’t gained the confidence yet to speak up in support of it.
In October we conducted our first interviews while at Disneyland for its unofficial gay pride day. The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization for gay teens, hosted a party for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth at the Disneyland Hotel.
I asked several people if they felt religious groups such as the Catholic Church and the Mormons who preach that homosexuality was a sin, were a roadblock in the gay community’s struggle for equal rights. "There are many things in the Bible that we don’t practice anymore,” said Joe, one of the teens we interviewed. “It doesn’t make sense why being opposed to homosexuality still stands. Love doesn’t hurt the economy, doesn’t kill anyone. It affects no one but the two people involved."
We met a guy named Kyle, who said the teachers at his school had sent him to counseling when they found out he liked boys. He said it hadn’t mattered to him though, because he was into guys and that was that. I had never met someone so comfortable in his own skin.
Kyle, Joe and the other teens we interviewed told us how important it was to them that gay marriage be legalized. I could tell by how articulate their responses were that they had been following the media coverage. They seemed ready to debate opponents of gay marriage who posed a threat to their civil rights.
As we left the party that night, I realized there was nothing strange or abnormal about gay teenagers. If anything, they were more friendly and inviting than many of the teenagers I know who tend to stick to their close-knit group of friends. My group and I were the outsiders coming into this event, but perhaps because most of these gay teens were used to being left out, they were not threatened by our presence and opened up to us. They seemed to be no different from any straight teen I knew. They enjoyed joking around and loved being with their friends, two things I can relate to. I realized that no matter what the Yes on 8 campaign tried to call their crusade against gay marriage, it was simply discrimination. There is no other reason to deny someone the right to marry the person he or she loves.

The legalizing of same-sex unions could help eliminate the stigma attached to the word "gay." Allowing gay couples to marry also would reassure gay teens that there is a place for them in our society.

Over the next few weeks, a series of heated discussions about Proposition 8 began at my school. The Yes on 8 campaign had been arguing that legalizing gay marriage would lead to homosexuality being taught in schools, which would contradict the values of many parents. My U.S. history teacher told us that being taught about gay marriage could "confuse children," making many of them think they are gay because most kids growing up are affected mainly by their environment. My classmates just sat there and nodded their heads. I realized they didn’t understand that this was an issue about civil rights. The ironic thing was, my teacher was standing there preaching to us about the potentially negative effects imposing someone else’s values could have on children still developing their opinions about themselves, and she was doing the same exact thing!
There was no opposition to what she was saying. Despite being a little scared of being put on the spot in front of the whole class, I raised my hand. "Children won’t be learning anything that they don’t already know if gay marriage were to be taught in school," I said. "I’m sure that no one in this classroom learned what the word gay meant in school. We learned it from television and movies. Therefore, it’s stupid to keep the truth away from children any longer." The reaction from the class was the same as the group in the library: silence. Because this was not an opinion that was widely held at school, I know that I managed to show them that there was a different side to this issue. I felt I had done the right thing because it would have been much worse for me to remain silent and allow the discussion to be one-sided.
The biggest problem I see among male teenagers is the fear of being ridiculed for not conforming to a specific guy attitude. They carry that fear around like I did, watching every word and gesture to avoid the dreaded word “gay.” But it’s stupid to think that in order to be considered “one of the guys” you have to act a certain way or be interested in the things that typical boys are into. Guys can still support gay marriage without having to worry about being labeled gay, because ultimately it is a human issue. In fighting homophobia they are supporting the greater cause of equality for all.
In California, 52 percent voted for Proposition 8 and 47 percent were against. The 10,000 people I marched with in Silver Lake in protest of the gay-marriage ban four days after the election provided a sense of comfort and hope to me.

The documentary that launched this whole journey ended up being less than stellar. Instead of focusing on the LGBT community’s battle for civil rights, it became a back and forth between those in support of same-sex marriage and those against it. We rushed to squeeze in as many issues as we could in a six-minute film. Even though the narrative was hard to follow, my class did say they felt moved by it. John-Luke, who comes from a conservative family, told me how much he liked it.
This was the kind of reaction I was hoping for. It made me feel good knowing that we had succeeded in opening the mind of at least one person. The most important thing about this documentary was that it opened my mind. I saw how crucial the struggle was not only for gay teens, but for all young people who dream about living in a world that looks beyond labels and stereotypes. In the 1960s, when the Supreme Court overturned the ban on interracial marriage, Americans agreed that love doesn’t have a skin color. It is only a matter of time before people realize it doesn’t have a gender either.
Since all of this I’ve become a part of a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). I was recruited by a GSA member after a discussion at one of L.A. Youth’s staff meetings about the passing of Proposition 8. I’ve met amazing people who have helped reinforce my idea that there is no difference between someone who is gay and someone who is not. But most importantly, I have become much more comfortable confronting this issue at school, where homophobia and stereotypes persist. I now explain to my friends why this issue is important and why they should try to regulate how often they make jokes about gay people. I typically launch into a broad explanation that scares people away from using the word while they are around me.
I still can’t fully understand why I’m so passionate about this issue. Maybe it’s because I now have gay friends whom I feel obligated to defend. Or it could be that I understand that as a straight guy I have an equal amount of responsibility to fight homophobia because it remains rampant among straight people. What worries me is that there aren’t enough people willing to look past what they already think they know about gay people. I’ve gone to Catholic schools all my life, and the most important value I’ve learned is to treat others the way you would want to be treated. I say take it a step further. Look at someone you don’t understand or even want to understand and ask yourself how you would want them to look at you.

For more on this topic …

"It’s about marriage, not hatred." In this story Elliot, 16, says he
feels like he was unfairly attacked for his views opposing marriage for same-sex couples.

"Gay couples should be allowed to marry." At first it wasn’t important to Stephany, 14, but she came to see this as a civil rights issue.

Click here to read what teens had to say last spring when California first allowed marriages for same-sex couples.