When Katy Burkhart started teaching at San Gabriel High School nearly 15 years ago, a colleague informed her that several students were wondering if she was gay. “I was stereotypically lesbian looking,” Burkhart, who had come out four years earlier as a college student, said. “I had short, spiky hair and dressed in a masculine way.”
Her colleague, who was also openly gay, said that it was not his place to answer the students. Instead, he recommended that Burkhart talk about her sexuality and open up about being “out” to her students.
She followed his advice and has come out to her students every year on National Coming Out Day, both as a way to educate and foster an honest dialogue at school. Then came a flurry of gay suicides nationwide in the fall of 2010. For Burkhart that marked a turning point from sharing her personal story to organizing others into a network of gay and lesbian educators and supporters to make Alhambra Unified School District a comfortable place for students and teachers alike.
“I remember how there were over 10 suicides in the month of September. It brought visibility to the plight that gay youth faced and I started thinking, ‘we can’t just sit back and allow this to happen,’” said Burkhart. “It’s time to take action.”
Even though Burkhart is not aware of official anti-gay hate crimes at AUSD, she said bullying based on sexual orientation is common. "Much of the peer-to-peer harassment comes in the form of 'That's so gay!' or 'So-and-so's a fag,'" she said. “Having a visible gay adult presence on campus is so important for both gay and straight students."
Teachers, as well as students, have been at fault in an often subtle form of prejudice. Some teachers, students told her, refused to read announcements for the student club for gay students and supporters. Another, she was told, singled out a student and told him he needed to listen to the announcement about the “gay club.” And students reported that some coaches would “use anti-gay slurs to motivate athletes.”
“Gay kids are up against crippling isolation and shame. Many of them cannot speak to their parents about their struggle, so school must be a safe place. Too often it isn't," Burkhart said
In the fall of 2010, after the series of nationwide suicides, Burkhart took action. With her twin sister Dottie — who is an English teacher at Alhambra High — and several other faculty members, she launched Alhambra Network of Gay and Lesbian Educators and Supporters (ANGLES), to create a space where “out” faculty members and straight allies from the Alhambra Unified School District can support one another and provide students with positive role models.
For the past two years, ANGLES has raised funds to launch two unique programs: a writing contest titled “Love Equally” and a scholarship which recognizes a graduating senior who has worked on behalf of LGBTQ rights during high school. The organization is supported entirely by private donations and fundraisers.
The challenges facing the students are familiar to Bukhart: She only came out after she had completed high school, as an undergraduate at the University of California, Los Angeles. Many people, including her parents, remain skeptical about her sexuality because her twin sister identifies as a straight woman. “When it comes to the twin thing, that’s been one of the reasons my parents don’t take me as seriously. Maybe it’s because they do look at that and wonder, ‘how can that be if they are identical and have the same genes?’”
For the students, ANGLES members are trying to show them “they aren’t alone and that there is nothing to be ashamed of.” Burkhart recalls a powerful moment during her teaching career when a student researched Cherrie Moraga, a poet who identifies as a Chicana lesbian. During the middle of the student’s presentation, tears rolled down her cheeks while she “came out” to the class and said, “Having read Cherrie Moraga, I’m proud and less ashamed of who I am. I’m more comfortable in telling my friends.”
In the next few years, Burkhart hopes to quadruple the organization’s membership and encourage members from different levels of schools in the AUSD to participate. Burkhart, along with other faculty members, would like to focus on discussing issues like coming out in the classroom, health care and domestic partnership benefits, and most importantly, the need to focus on district wide training for teachers and ways in which teachers can confront anti-gay bullying in classrooms.
“For every kid we do know about,” she said, “there are at least a few more who are sitting silently in class, contemplating whether to come out.”
—ANGLES meetings for faculty are held every second Wednesday of each month at San Gabriel High School. For more information about ANGLES, its mission and ways to donate or contribute, check out https://www.facebook.com/ANGLES.AUSD.