By Jill Tucker, San Francisco Chronicle
It took just a single word for Marcel Brown to make up his mind to join his school’s Gay Straight Alliance.
“I was walking down the hallway with my little brother, and he was messing around with his friends and they called him a ‘faggot,’ ” said Marcel, an eighth-grader at San Francisco’s Everett Middle School. “And I thought, ‘That’s messed up.’ My older brother is gay.”
Since that day a couple of months ago, he has spent lunchtime each Tuesday in Room 107 with a dozen or so members of the middle school club.
While common in high schools across the country, chapters of the Gay Straight Alliance with the younger school set have been slower to gain a foothold, in some cases because of the controversy the clubs stir up.
But there are signs of increasing acceptance.
There are now 500 middle school Gay Straight Alliance chapters nationwide, up from a couple dozen three years ago, according to the national Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
Many of the clubs formed after publicized suicides of middle school children such as 13-year-old Seth Walsh of Tehachapi (Kern County) in 2010 and 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover of Springfield, Mass., in 2009. Both were bullied because they were believed to be gay.
Realities of middle school
At Everett, where the club started about five years ago, students talk about bullying and slurs associated with sexual orientation and brainstorm ways to address it.
While critics might argue middle school students are too young to tackle such topics, supporters disagree.
“Thinking it’s too early is really blind to what it’s like in middle school,” said Eliza Byard, the educational network’s executive director. “Anyone who walks through the halls of a middle school knows what it’s like. The words ‘faggot’ and ‘dyke’ are weapons of choice.”
Marcel, 14, hears those words all the time.
“It just makes me mad because they’re using it in the wrong way,” he said.
Studies consistently show that bullying, assault and harassment – including incidents related to gender or sexual orientation – are more common in middle school than other grades.
In San Francisco, a 2009 survey found that almost 60 percent of middle school students who identified themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual, or were questioning their sexual orientation, had seriously considered suicide because of bullying, compared with 21 percent of heterosexual students.
District officials started addressing the issue of such harassment 20 years ago, offering counseling and other support for gay and lesbian students.
The program has grown and now includes a range of policies to protect students, including one that offers students the right to use the restroom associated with their gender identity.
In addition, the district pays a staff member at each of its 13 middle schools a $700 stipend annually to be the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender support liaison.
Several of the schools have a Gay Straight Alliance chapter, while others have diversity clubs or similarly named groups, said Ilsa Bertolini, district school climate coordinator.
The clubs are not about sex or even sexual orientation, she said.
“Many of these GSAs are around making sure everyone is safe at the school, trying to curtail the name-calling that is happening,” Bertolini said. “For the most part, the kids are well-meaning straight kids. There aren’t a lot of kids out in middle school.”
Power in numbers
Xenia De Feminis, 12, joined the Everett Gay Straight Alliance last year, after she watched a friend repeatedly being taunted because her parents are gay.
The seventh-grader said she found it hard to stand up to the bullies alone.
“They would end up teasing me too because I would try to protect” friends, she said.
In the club, she found power in numbers.
On Tuesday, eight members of the group gathered around a table at lunch to work on a video project to support Jonah Mowry, a 14-year-old boy who recently posted a YouTube video about the bullying he suffered everyday because of his sexual orientation.
Jonah told viewers he had thought about ending his life.
“I feel sad because I could never imagine one of my friends killing themselves,” Xenia said. “But it happens.”