Rainbow Week at Torrey Pines High focuses on LGBT acceptance

Torrey Pines students in the Gay-Straight Alliance planned Rainbow Week. Back row: Lior Troianovski, Jason Hsu and guest speaker Susan Guinn. Front row: Mai Saito, Haley Browning, Emily Zhi, Milena Chakraverti-Wuerthwein, Amal Gebara-Lamb and guest speaker Dr. Amy Parish. Photo by Don Collins

At lunchtime on Friday, April 17, a large group of students at Torrey Pines High School were uncharacteristically quiet. As part of the school’s Rainbow Week, planned by the Gay-Straight Alliance, students were participating in the national Day of Silence, vowing to remain silent for all or part of the day to raise awareness about anti-LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) behavior.

Staying quiet illustrated the silencing effect of bullying and harassment on LGBT students. Milena Chakraverti-Wuerthwein, a member of the GSA who spoke the day before, said students could opt to participate just at lunchtime, but others like herself planned to stay silent all day.

“It’s to show solidarity, to show people who are bullied that they do have a voice and they do matter, and that we won’t tolerate any kind of bullying on campus,” said Milena.

“In the past, GSA hasn’t had much of a presence on campus,” said Amal Gebara-Lamb, club president. “It was important to have a week to show that people who are questioning their identity feel like they have someone they can talk to.”

Principal David Jaffe honored the leadership of the GSA, including Amal, Milena, Emily Zhi and Haley Browning, for taking the initiative to plan the week of awareness and activity for the students.

“This is an example of the power you all have,” Jaffe told students in an April 16 assembly. “It wasn’t on my radar to have a Rainbow Week, but it is such an important issue — it’s really about acceptance for us all.”

One of the Rainbow Week speakers, Matt Stephens, talked about two transgender teenagers who committed suicide in the past month as a result of being bullied.

“The message is that you have the power to save lives simply by being kind and listening and accepting someone for who they are,” Jaffe said. “On this campus, what I’ve seen is generally supportive — but I’ve also seen some elements of homophobia and racism, and that doesn’t stop until you make it stop.”

He encouraged students not to participate in that kind of bullying behavior, both at school and on social media.

As part of Rainbow Week, the GSA invited a panel of guest speakers including Stephens, a UC San Diego lecturer on sexuality, gender and law; Susan Guinn, a lawyer and community leader who has championed LGBT rights around the world; and Dr. Amy Parish, a biological anthropologist and primatologist who has taught at University of Southern California in the gender studies and anthropology departments.

Parish spoke about diversity in sex and sexuality in the animal kingdom, such as the same-sex pairings observed in dolphins, penguins, bonobos and seagulls.

Parish said there is all kinds of fluidity in the animal kingdom, such as with Goby fish, who arrange themselves in a social situation of one male in a harem of females. When the male dies, the most dominant female changes into a male.

When asked by Principal Jaffe whether any of the animal species harasses its members because of their sexual preferences, Parish said there were none she could think of.

“It’s a good reason for us to aspire to be like other animals,” she said.

Guinn recalled her youth growing up as a lesbian is a small Colorado town. She said they would have to run to their cars from the gay clubs, because people would be waiting in the parking lots to hurt them.

She said while the situation has certainly improved, there is still intolerance in the world.

Guinn helped start the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which is focused on human rights, health and faith, and helps provide resources for grass-roots organizations to advocate for inclusiveness for marginalized groups of people around the world.

One of St. Paul’s efforts was in Uganda, where they had a “Kill the Gays” law. In Uganda, if a person knew someone was gay and didn’t turn them in, they got five years in prison. If a gay person was caught, they got 14 years in prison, and “repeat offenders” faced a lifetime in prison — or execution.

To help repeal the discriminatory law, the organization worked with churches, the United Nations and the World Bank, which postponed aid to the country unless the law was removed. The law was ruled invalid in 2014.

“In the U.S., we don’t kill people for being gay, right?” asked Guinn, and the answer wasn’t as clear-cut as one would assume.

Guinn referenced the ballot initiative started by a Huntington Beach lawyer this year calling for gay people to be killed by a “bullet to the head” or “any other convenient method.” The lawyer would need to collect 365,000 signatures in 180 days to put it on the November 2016 ballot.

Guinn said she was saddened that he felt the climate was appropriate to bring the initiative forward.

Recently, Indiana was in the news for a “religious freedom” law that would allow businesses to deny services to gay people. Guinn said all states that have marriage equality have a religious exemption, meaning a church can’t be forced to marry gay people; but the difference with the Indiana law was that it broadly allowed businesses to decide who they did and did not want to serve.

“That kind of stuff is still here in the United States, so we still need to be talking about LGBT issues, racial equality and all of the issues of our time,” Guinn said. “Your generation will decide what’s OK moving forward … the people who decide what kind of world you would like to live in are you guys. Make it better day to day, decide whether you want to be a person of action, who will stand up for personal values and will stand up to protect others.”

She spoke about a Panama City, Fla., gang rape that happened on a beach full of people over spring break, captured by video that went viral. Hundreds of people saw what was happening to the young woman in broad daylight — and nobody did anything to stop it.

Guinn said that is an example of the troubling “mob mentality,” in which everyone assumes somebody else will do something — but no one does. She encouraged the students to be individually responsible and stand up for those who are bullied — because by being silent, they become part of the problem.

Accepting those who are different and making Torrey Pines a safe place for people of all genders and sexualities was what Rainbow Week was all about.

“You have a wonderful opportunity at Torrey Pines to work on your skills as leaders and to find your voice,” Guinn said. “Whatever your voice is, find it and start using it here in high school.”