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Trying to bring tolerance to Terryville

TERRYVILLE, Connecticut, U.S.A. — Amnesty International on a mission to spread the word that gays are people, too, and its student chapter at Terryville High School is launching a controversial tolerance campaign to crush discrimination.
“This is our initial campaign, and it’s the first attempt at making gay issues known and to confront fears,” said Robert Nave, the school’s Amnesty International faculty advisor.
The campaign includes several factual morning announcements about bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender people and signs posted throughout the school advocating equality among people of all sexual preferences.
Laura Kwasniewski, the school’s Amnesty International chapter president, said the campaign is aimed at encouraging tolerance and respect towards people of differing sexual orientations and making people aware that hate and prejudice still exist.
But not everyone is tolerating the campaign.

Robert Nave

The response so far, according to Nave, is “very broad, very diverse.”
“Some don’t understand and leave it at that,” said Nave. “Others don’t understand why and why it’s being made into a big deal. Very few people don’t care. Then there are some people that are fiercely protective.”
Many of the signs posted around the school before the end of the year were torn down within a week, only to be replaced by more signs created by Amnesty International students..
Students and teachers are polarized on the issue.
“The signs are making the issue worse,” said junior Seth Greenlees.
Junior Robert Skoczylas agreed.
“They [Amnesty International] made an issue out of something that was not an issue,” said Skoczylas.
Biology teacher Phil Lyga said, “I don’t think there’s harassment. In my personal opinion, I think the student body is very caring about feelings of other students.”
As for his students’ reaction, Lyga said, “I think they think of it from a comical viewpoint. They don’t see it as a problem. They see it as a waste of time.”
One of the key signs in the campaign is a multi-colored triangle, with the colors red, orange, yellow, and green descending from top to bottom representing bi, gays, lesbians, and transgender people, respectively.
The sign reads, “This is a bi, gay, lesbian, transgender safe zone.”
Student members of Amnesty International approached many of the teachers in the school and asked permission to post the signs in their rooms.
Kwasniewski said most of the faculty were supportive.
“They hang our signs in their rooms, support the cause and even lend us their tape,” Kwasniewski said. “We started this, of course, with the agreement of the principal, Mrs. Lavery, and support of some key faculty members. Although some teachers disagree with the commotion and discussion raised over the issue and feel that maybe school is not the place for such a campaign, the reactions overall have been good.”
Principal Andrea Lavery declined to be interviewed on the subject, but Plymouth Superintendent of Schools Anthony Distasio said, “I know this is a campaign for tolerance, which is something we promote. We believe in tolerance of all people, regardless of sexual preference, race, or gender.”
Other colorfully decorated signs, crafted on construction paper and posted in the school’s hallways and stairways, featured various slogans including, “Let’s get together and feel alright,” “Stop the Hate, Spread the Love,” and, “What’s wrong with being gay?”
“We tried to make them as informative, politically correct, and kind as we could,” said Kwasniewski.
Some people opposed to the campaign question whether the discussion is appropriate for school.
“I think people are aware of it in the media,” said Lyga. “I don’t think it belongs in a public school.”
Others, such as Spanish teacher Maria Pomianowski, say it’s an important subject to bring up.
“I think it’s good,” said Pomianowski. “Maybe some people feel uncomfortable, but that’s important too. It’s part of the process.”
“If not in school, then where?” asked Kwasniewski.
Kwasniewski said her group believed that they needed to bring issues “to the surface” so they could be addressed.
The campaign had its beginnings with people she knew at school, Kwasniewski said.
“I have some gay friends and I just kept coming face to face with very negative comments,” Kwasniewski said. “We realized we could really use some more tolerance right here in our own school.”
Another issue is to what extent the campaign infringes on people’s religious beliefs.
“Some people feel that it’s an attack on them and their beliefs,” said Skoczylas.
Lyga also shares this concern.
“I believe that it can turn into a religious issue,” the biology teacher said. “Maybe it’s interfering with some people’s religious beliefs in this school.”
Some students took offense to an Amnesty International sign that said “Love Thy Neighbor,” and with another sign – now removed – that supported the cause with a Bible quote from the Book of Matthew.
The strong reaction to the triangular “safe zone” signs led the Amnesty International chapter to reprint them with the word “straight” on the list of sexual preferences.
Kwasniewski said the campaign and the reaction to the signs opened her eyes to tolerance levels in the school.
“I used to think we were all right, somewhere in the middle, but now that I see the reactions that some simple signs have brought about, I think that we could be a lot more tolerant,” said Kwasniewski.
The campaign wasn’t started in response to any particular incident of discrimination or harassment at the school or in the community, Nave said, adding that to his knowledge, there haven’t been any incidents.
“There seems to be an undercurrent of respect” among students, Nave said. But he said the movement’s “time has come.”
The effort will be much more successful now than it would’ve been years ago, Nave said, because “a lot of people know a gay person and are much more accepting … What I hate is when people say, ‘That’s gay,’ or, ‘That’s retarded.’ I want to see it obliterated.”
Kwasniewski said, “I know that this is not an example of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. I know that the leaders of all other civil rights movements had the same doubts and problems we’re facing today, but just look at the progress we’ve made for equality of race, sex and religion.”
The effects of the tolerance campaign on the gay student body at Terryville High School are unclear.
Nave estimates that statistically speaking, the Terryville student body likely includes about 10 percent, or about 50 to 60 bisexual, gay, lesbian or transgender people.
The Amnesty International campaign isn’t in conjunction with any other gay rights organizations, or with counsel from the gay student body.
Asked what the impact of the tolerance campaign has been on gay students at the school, Nave admitted, “I have no clue.”
According to Kwasniewski, the gay student body has had mixed reactions.
“Some feel it was better the way things were because at least for the most part they were left alone,” Kwasniewski said. “Others feel that this was a needed confrontation in order to bring total acceptance.”
Kwasniewski said it’s sad that the campaign brought “occasionally unwelcome attention” to openly gay students, but said there was also welcome support.
At the school this fall, Amnesty International plans to form a Gay-Straight Alliance at the school, Kwasniewski said, with open discussions, speakers and movie nights.
Nave remains optimistic that, despite the harsh initial reaction from a lot of students, the campaign will be successful.
“The initial reaction to it is as bad as it’s going to get. This school is fairly tolerant,” Nave said, adding, “It’s going to take weeks for it to settle in. Next year is when you’re going to see the results of it.”
Kwasniewski is also confident that the effects over time will be positive.
“I must say that a lot of the reactions saddened me,” Kwasniewski said, “but Amnesty International and our soon-to-be Gay-Straight Alliance will not be easy to discourage.”
Pomianowski said the campaign is good “as long as people don’t misinterpret it.”
“It’s just being kind to everybody,” Pomianowski said. “Don’t make anybody suffer.”
Some are skeptical whether the campaign will change public opinion.
“This is a small town – people have their views set,” said Greenlees.
Of the disapproving backlash, junior Neil Patel said, “Hopefully it’ll change, but so far I haven’t seen any.”
Nave doesn’t mind the disagreements so long as the subject is being talked about.
Dialogue, Nave said, will be key to bringing change.
“I’d like to welcome people into the discussion of this topic. The topic is on tolerance, not homosexuality,” said Nave.
Pomianowski concurred.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion,” she said. “This is America.”

Stefan Koski is a Reporter for Youth Journalism International.

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