In eighth grade, Lexi Jackman-Wheitner frequently witnessed students cornering her friends and verbally abusing them for being gay.
That abuse affected her friends’ social lives, home life and scholastic achievement, said Lexi, now a 15-year-old sophomore.
“They were terrified of coming to school ... being out in the community alone,” she said. “They just kind of closed off from people. They felt alienated.”
She could not understand why people would harass others just because they feel romantically attracted to members of the same gender.
“I just thought it was absolutely cruel and horrible,” Lexi said.
Once she got to East High School, she told herself she was going to try to stop the bullying.
After securing support from East Guidance Counselor Monica Anderson, English teacher Genevra Dewhirst and Principal Mark Newell, Lexi this year formed East’s first ever gay-straight alliance. That’s so her gay friends — and straight friends who support them — can have a place where they can share their problems in an environment that feels comfortable.
Dewhirst and Anderson said they have long hoped a student would step forward to lead such an alliance. For years, they have seen students struggle with bullying related to sexual orientation.
After-school clubs must be initiated by students, who are required to find a faculty sponsor and seek approval from school leaders.
Dewhirst remembered an instance a couple of years ago when a student thought he had made some friends, only to find out via social media that they were saying hurtful things about his sexual orientation. And at that point, the student was not certain about his sexual orientation, she said. He was afraid to talk to his parents because of his family’s religious beliefs. Due to the pressure, he dropped out of school for a while, Dewhirst said.
Another student broke down and cried in her office after telling her that she had a crush on a girl. She was scared and thought there was something wrong with her, Dewhirst said.
Bullying about sexual orientation often can create tougher problems than traditional bullying, Anderson and Dewhirst said, because students hesitate much more to discuss their problems, especially with parents. They fear being rejected because of their sexual orientation.
The effects of such bullying can linger for years.
While Lexi wants to protect her friends, school officials see the Gay-Straight Alliance as another arrow in their quiver to combat bullying.
Prompted by state legislation, the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. created a bullying prevention task force about seven years ago to adopt rules to prevent bullying.
The schools have done great work in making sure that they value diversity and make different student populations feel welcome, Dewhirst said. However, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning community still often feel marginalized and are more likely to drop out of school.
“We don’t want any of our kids to feel that way,” Anderson said.
“We have to address it. We have to stop it,” Dewhirst said.
The school district has to remove barriers that make it more difficult for students to get an education, Dewhirst said.
As she sat in Dewhirst’s office this past week, Lexi peered through her wire-rimmed glasses and said for as long as she can remember, she has seen disapproval expressed toward others who are different.
Her mother, Leah Jackman-Wheitner, said she had conversations with Lexi in kindergarten and first grade to talk about the differences. She said she wanted to “inoculate” her daughter against negative attitudes. When Lexi was 3, her mother took her to a lesbian commitment ceremony.
So when Lexi approached her mom about forming a GSA, she received support — although her mom has concerns about potential backlash.
“I’m a worrier,” Jackman-Wheitner said, “(but) nothing was going to stop her.”
Mom insisted, however, that Lexi take a self-defense class.
Lexi has not yet had to use her new skills, as she has almost exclusively received support for her initiative.
Athough some of her organization’s fliers were ripped off the school’s pin boards or defaced, attendance at the three GSA meetings so far has steadily increased, Lexi said. About 20 attended the most recent meeting.
Anderson said the group focuses on building an alliance among gay kids and their straight friends, so that all students feel welcomed and supported.
Lexi, who likes playing soccer, reading, interacting on Facebook and watching “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” said the GSA members are brainstorming ideas about events including ice cream parties and watching movies to discuss their problems in a safe environment.
She said she hopes the group eventually can make presentations in classes to openly address the issues her gay friends are facing.
“I just really want to bring people together ... to have a safe place, to feel welcome, to talk about anything they want without facing ridicule.”