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TRANSCRIPT FROM CHAT WITH PAUL SWANSON (5.16.01)


american_high_host:: Hi everyone! Welcome to our American High chat. This week our guest is Highland Park teacher Paul Swanson. He'll join us in about 20 minutes...So stay tuned! And keep sending in your questions....for the leader of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance, Paul Swanson.Walk the halls with pride. Get support and resources for gay, lesbian and bi-sexual youth from Highland Park teacher and leader of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance, Paul Swanson.

Wonder how gay teens live life at Highland Park High? Now's your chance to ask. Just a few more minutes...

american_high_host:: Just a few more minutes til you can chat with teacher Paul Swanson from PBS' American High.

american_high_host:: After the chat, Visit the American High website at www.pbs.org/americanhigh and check out Brad's video diary where he talks about life as a gay teen.

american_high_host:: Send in your questions now! Wanna get advice for teens on how to come out to their friends and family? What do some teens have to go through after coming out to their friends? What can schools do to help gay, lesbian and bisexual students? Should they? Should schools be proactive about bullying when it involves gay, lesbian and bisexual teens? Just ask whatever's on your mind...

Paul:: Thanks for joining us tonight. I'm an English teacher and was Brad's teacher. I ran a gay support group that Brad was a part of and that you'll see in upcoming episodes. I can address questions about Brad or about what schools can do for lesbian, gay, and bisexual students.

neverland48: I think that the schools should stay out of the students personal lives.

Paul:: I agree. It's that usually students bring their needs to the school and then sometimes harassment can interfere with learning. So it's not just an issue limited to gay and lesbian students, it's an all-school issue.

einstien992: i feel that high school can be the best and worse time for L/G/B teens

Paul:: I agree. All students need a safe environment to learn. Students cannot learn if they are afraid. Frankly, socialization is a big part of high school. Prom. Homecoming. Sports. Activities. It's very difficult to draw the line where learning stops at the classroom door and where it takes place in the hallways, lunchroom, etc. Schools need to teach acceptance and make it the very best place for gay and lesbian and bisexual students ... or for any students.

taf44442000:What percentage of gay kids do you think stay in the closet because of fear?

Paul:: Ooh. I think probably a significant portion. It can range from students afraid of parental disapproval and thinking this is something they will explore in college when they are away and can start anew. That's a kid's personal decision. I don't think all kids need to come out in high school. That's up to him or her and his or her emotional well-being. That's not one of my school goals. But if students wish to do that, they should have access to everything that every other student has ... in a supporting environment.

american_high_host:: We're here chatting with teacher Paul Swanson, from the show "American High" on PBS! Paul is the leader of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance, working to support gay, lesbian and bi-sexual youth.

jujygum1: why do gay people feel they have to show it off to everyone?

Paul:: Why do heterosexual people have to show it off to all people? I think that any human being needs to be loved and show love and affection. And have relationships and friendships. And have opportunities for honesty and acceptance.

davidgerm: In your school, how many students are "out"? What is the proportion of gay students?

Paul:: I would say probably about 21 students out of 1500 are out. We have about 41 students in the support group. We always have at least a few same-sex couples at the dances.

artzbrie2003: do you find that schools tend to turn a blind eye to the harrassment of gay and lesbian teens?

Paul:: I think that's been the history. I don't think it's the truth at Highland Park High School because it's very supportive and gay teachers can come out and be themselves. If the teachers are modelling that kind of behavior, it sends a strong message. I know a number of teachers who bring their same-sex partners to school events. Just like anyone has family pictures on their desks, so do gay and lesbian teachers. But I work with other schools and I hear things about tax dollars should not be used for things that are against people's faith. And I don't see that this is a question of religion. There's no research that suggests being supportive of gay and lesbian students is going to increase the number of them. It may increase the level of comfort. Of those students. And I think that in terms of their education, that's extremely important.

cberator: Hi! I am HPHS class of '93. I have a question for Mr. Swanson....when I was at HPHS I don't remember anyone being openly gay at the school. The show paints a picture of tolerance and acceptance for Brad. Is this really the case? If so, it makes me happy to hear that things have changed so much.

Paul:: It is! I don't remember it as a homophobic school in 1993. I've been there since 1990. IT's been my extracurricular activity and my mission. I've done lots of faculty in-service work. Maybe things have gotten better. I don't remember them being bad. As a gay teacher, I've never been harassed. We also have a service organization for gay and lesbian issues that's separate from the support group that's just for education purposes. We do things for gay/lesbian history month. Put things on the announcements. We're part of the culture there. I think we're getting better. It's not just me. It's lots of other teachers as well. Social studies teachers. English teachers. Every teacher doing some little thing. It's a foreign language teacher who says, "This woman and her PARTNER," not assuming that everyone in the world is heterosexual. You'd be amazed at what kind of powerful statement that can send.

american_high_host:: Welcome to our American High chat. This week our guest is Highland Park teacher Paul Swanson. Keep sending in your questions....for the leader of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance, Paul Swanson.

musicman2410: Are you gay Paul?

Paul:: Yes.

princej10: i think there is two ways to come out, one is to be cool with people and come out, and the other is come out and be angry with people because they think that people wont except them

Paul:: I think that's a good reason for support groups in schools. Because coming out is a process. It involves family and friends as well as the person. And there are lots of stages, and lots of unique individuals. And every kind of kid goes through very similar stages. Stages of their emotional development. And schools need to support them through those individual journeys.

toddsy15: Being myself and being who I am truely has had a big impact. I have made many friends from being myself. I get respect for being an open gay teen in high school. Do any of you others have the same feeling?

Paul:: Yes. Like Brad. There are other students in the documentary, such as John, who are gay. Brad's not the only one, but the one the documentary focuses on. You'll see them on the episode that shows the support group.

jujygum1: why shoulf society accept homosexuals, huh?

Paul:: LOL! Why should you not? Why would you not want to accept a large segment of your population and your history and your culture? Very great minds and creativity have been brought to society by gay and lesbian and bisexual people.

ugadawg18: Was there parent/community opposition to the formation of a gay/lesbian club and how did the student body react?

Paul:: We've not had parent opposition. We've had parental support. There are, for example, lesbian parents. We have male/male parents who come to the school, for example, for their straight children. They want to know what we will do for their children, what the school culture is. So, again, we're not just talking about gay and lesbian students. We're talking about gay and lesbian parents. And teachers. And brothers. Sisters. It affects a large number of people.

davidgerm: What are the main goals or motivation for straight students to be in the Alliance? Are they friends with gay kids, are they questionning their sexuality? Neither?

Paul:: Mostly, we've had brothers and sisters. We do have some friends. But it's mostly that. We haven't really had people come into it saying that they're straight but questioning. That would probably go on outside the group. That might be one on one situation with a guidance counselor or a school psychologist.

qwerty87654321: If I dont want my SON/Daughter in a class with a homosexual teacher, shouldnt i have the right to complain and/or pull them out of the class/school?\

Paul:: Well, no ... I wouldn't think you have that right. I'm not sure what my sexuality would have to do with my Teaching. And there are many heterosexual teachers who teach gay history, gay literature, etc.

fl_college_girl03: I'm not asking you to explain...but I just dont' understand why people have to "come out" in high school. It's school...it's where you go to learn.

Paul:: It IS where you go to learn, but it is a place of socialization. We have dances. We have extracurricular activities. Those things are about becoming part of society. And if you don't have a supportive environment, you're sending a message in high school, that gay and lesbian students don't have a place. And developmentally, many gay and lesbian students know by the time they're in high school, what their sexuality is. The same is true for heterosexuals.

neverland48: what advice would you have for a person who is still in the closet, wanting to came out?

Paul:: Talk to a teacher, an ally, a counselor ... whom you feel comfortable with. Also, I have some phone numbers. Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. It's a national phone number. (212) 727-0135. So if there is not a person in the school that you feel comfortable with, perhaps a phone call will help you. One other is Student Pride U.S.A. (212) 727-0135. Oh, wait that 's the same number. Extension 109.

american_high_host:: Walk the halls with pride. Get support and resources for gay, lesbian and bi-sexual youth from Highland Park teacher and leader of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance, Paul Swanson.

einstien992: what does it take to get a GSA started?

Paul:: It helped in my situation that students started it. I feel that schools are more likely to be responsive when it becomes student-initiated. Also, I do think teachers and principals need to start these kinds of programs as well. In my situation, 3 students approached me saying that they would like to start a group, a gay/straight alliance ... and would I be their sponsor? And my activities director gave it the go-ahead. It was one of those thresholds that I thought ..... well, these opportunities don't come by often. So I felt compelled to say yes. And 4 other teachers signed up also and we did it all together. The only thing that was easy about it was ... we did not have parents who tried to impart their particular political or religious views on a public school ... and that we were doing things that were simply supportive of the notion of acceptance and ending harassment and recognizing human beings.

blinki219: what do you suggest for gay teenagers in smaller towns where there may not be a support group in their school?

Paul:: What I have heard, that rural organizations call one of the numbers I gave. I've heard that they can network. Say, three schools form some sort of an alliance that networks. You have more students. You may be even outside of the school. And I think this phone number I mentioned earlier of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Network can assist that.

ukadam21: Coming out isn't always the best option. Students need to be aware that it can be very dangerous and it can change their lives for the worse.

Paul:: I agree. It is a personal, unique, individual choice. To be made with great care and reflection and support. I do not want to try and misrepresent that it IS a very significant step. Especially depending on where you are at emotionally and physically located, in terms of support. However, schools need to support those students who choose to. They need to be proactive. And intervene if it is interfering with learning or social development. For every Chicago teacher in the public school system, there is mandatory training -- a 2 day seminar -- in the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual students.

american_high_host:: We're chatting with teacher Paul Swanson from American High, leader of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance. Watch American High on your local PBS station. Keep those questions coming in!

fbrannon00: Do male students feel as comfortable around you as other heterosexaul teachers?

Paul:: Great question! Because I've never heard. I think I would be naive to assume something that I have not heard directly, but I can tell you that no one has ever said anything. Do I wonder if people avoid me? I have no idea. I don't see it. I've never had a student ask to be transferred out of my class, for goodness sake.

grimreaper513: Why is sexual preference something that needs to have a club?

Paul:: I think that any group of students who feel that they have unique needs, needs a club.

ugadawg18: I just wanted to say that my being a part of the jock-"in crowd" in high school kept me from coming out, but looking back I wish I had because it's so important to stay true to yourself and show people that a lot of gays don't fit the traditional stereotype

Paul:: Thank YOU! I agree. There are a number of "jock" gay teachers at my school who say the same thing. And perhaps that's why they entered the teaching profession.

middleman201: has there been any public display of affection between gay couples at all during school, if so what is the reaction?

Paul:: There has. I don't think there's been any harassment. If there was any, it would be dealt with by the dean's office. I know there's handholding and at the dances, there's always slow dances. So I would just assume that gay couples do the same things that heterosexual couples do. Though, frankly, public displays of affection on the school grounds during school hours is really frowned upon. And we have a 5 minute passing period, so there's not much you can do!

riles_007: How many members are in your group at HP High?

Paul:: There are about 41 in the Alliance group. And then there's a service organization called the Student Coalition for Awareness. That's the gay/straight alliance for organization. That has 15-20 members. Alliance is a confidential support group. Student Coalition for Awareness is a service/education organization. If you can't find support at your school, try one of these following national organizations. Gay, Lesbian and Straight Network. (212) 727-0135. And their website is www.glsen.org

The other organization is Student Pride U.S.A. (212) 727-0135, extension 109

chgoboatr:I just want to complement you. I graduated from a northshore HS some time ago and I wish I had somewhere to turn for support during that time. It made understanding and accepting my sexual preference much harder to deal with.

Paul:: I'm sorry to hear that. Things are changing. Newtrier High School (our sister school) has become very proactive. They sponsor dances just for gay and lesbian students in the area. They bring the Windy City Chorus in. So do we. We brought them in for our focus on the arts. And there's a Chicago Gay & Lesbian Theatre organization called "About Face Theatre Company" and they visit Highland Park High School with a play every year.

unlhusker23: in the club were there any tensions, come on that is a good question

Paul:: Sure there are tensions! Do you mean romantic tensions or people getting on each other's nerves? Certainly! Every club has that.

bigtrucks_drivemenutts: Is life more challenging with more people knowing your gay (like in my town people discriminate against them by putting fag on their car).

Paul:: Well, that hasn't happened to me. No, life is infinitely easier. I'm 44 years old. I think I'm a little old to be pretending I'm someone I'm not.. So it's much more productive to be honest about who I am. I wouldn't want to have to make up names when students ask me, "Where are you going on vacation, Mr. Swanson?"

baja48734: Do you not feel that a large percentage of teens don't really know what their sexual preferance is and adults today are pushing them in the gay direction?

Paul:: Oh, I don't think adults are pushing them anywhere. I think that students are confused about acknowledging what they think about themselves. But I have never said to a student, "I think you're gay" or "I think you should join this organization or attend this meeting." No. And I'm not a counselor. I'm not a therapist. I'm an advocate. And those kinds of diagnostic or suggestive types of comments would be something for a therapist or a counselor. I don't think creating a safe school is pushing students into making a choice. There's no place on any student information form that asks for sexual orientation. It's always a conversation that a student initiated.

citystoic57: what can we do to better inform peolpe that gay people are people too?

Paul:: Anna Quinlan, the writer, said, "If people can just try to get to know gay and lesbians and bisexual people, they will see the same humanity." I think it's also acknowledging your sons and daughters and parents who may be gay. Your best friend. Your cousins. Your aunts and uncles. It's very difficult to live a life where someone close to you is not gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Chances are, if you think that, someone is hiding. And a welcoming acceptance is a step towards growth and love.

american_high_host:: Thanks for all these great questions! Keep 'em coming! Yahoo chatters - What's on your mind about gay, lesbian and bisexual teens? What do you think about having a Gay-Straight Alliance in YOUR school?

chewy1kev: Do u feel that a GSA is an inportant part of a schools duty to the students to make the students feel comfortable in a society that is very diverse in many aspects?

Paul:: I do. And I think that schools should be proactive to recognize as many parts of our diverse global society, to prepare all students for global citizenship. So, yes. It is one of many initiatives schools should maintain.

khatnyp: Were you in high school when you came out?

Paul:: No. No, my high school .... I was in high school in the early 70's. Not a supportive environment. No harassments, just invisibility. Didn't think I was gay, necessarily, just didn't think I was ANYTHING. Sort-of feel that there are lost years there. Played the "straight game". Dated lots of girls. Thankfully, did not marry and cause unhappiness. Unhappiness to a wife and potential children.

HighRiseDreamer: but what if some people just don't want to get to know GLBT people?

Paul:: You know, I don't think you have to get to know anybody. But I think you're going to have to work really hard to avoid it! And I hate to think that anyone would dismiss another person because of sexual orientation. I don't believe it's a choice, so you're dismissing another human being for reasons that deny the person's humanity. Also, as with myself, a human being is more than his or her sexuality. First and foremost, I'm a teacher, rather than a gay teacher. I won a teaching award. Not because I'm a gay teacher, but because of how I teach English. I don't mean that to be cocky.

american_high_host:: We're here chatting with teacher Paul Swanson, from the show "American High" on PBS! Paul is the leader of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance, working to support gay, lesbian and bi-sexual youth.

khatnyp: Do you think American High was a genuine representation of your students?

Paul:: I think it's a very limited view of the high school. It is. And certain students wanted to do this for a year. And for me, the program is really about students and their relationships with parents and friends, set against the backdrop of a school. You don't see teachers very much. You only see them in the context of one particular student. You only see 14-16 students. We have 1500 in our student body. So I think it shows those individuals rather well. To say they're emblematic of the entire school population? Nah. And I don't think that it tries to.

rosebud1606: well my best guy friend is gay and it does not bother me but i dont think it is right

Paul:: I'm not sure what "right" means. Ethically? Biologically? Morally? Psychologically? Religiously? I don't have an answer to that.

grimreaper513: What makes a school with GSA any "safer" than any other school?

Paul:: Great question! No safer. It's something that is an issue every day at any high school. The only thing with the GSA is that there's recognition and there's a lack of invisibility. For example, on the daily announcements, you may hear a student reading the announcements say, " The next meeting of the Gay/Straight Alliance". And just by doing that, you've take a step towards acceptance and safety. I believe invisibility is what empowers harassment and ignorance. So a Gay/Straight Alliance is a step towards visibility.

baja48734: It is my opinion that most males are bisexual. We adults should not meddle with their choices

Paul:: I have no idea about most males.I have no idea.

grimreaper513: Is being gay a conscious choice?

Paul:: Nah. There's no research that says that it is a choice. It's simply a developmental awareness. There's much strong evidence that suggests that it is a biological phenomenon. Is being straight a conscious choice?

chewy1kev: Did the words Queer or Fag ever get spoken of much? Were any teacher homophobic?

Paul:: We, this year, had a teacher in-service that addressed homophobia. Ultimately, it's a private issue. But we wanted to start talking about it. We have a lot of new faculty. "Queer" and "fag" ... not so much. But the term, "That's so gay" is very casually bantered about. And sometimes people don't mean it in a derogatory or a negative way. And yet, I do believe teachers have to intervene with language. There are lots of words regarding race and religion that are highly inflammatory that we would never allow in the halls or classrooms. "Fag" ..... "Queer" ... must be part of that list. And the use of the word "gay" as part of a put-down or something like that.

american_high_host:: Great questions for our teacher, Paul Swanson. Check out the American High Web site at www.pbs.org/ Tune in every Wednesday at 10 pm ET for a new episode of American High

chewy1kev: Have u heard from Brad? hows he doing at NYU? And Robby?

Paul:: I saw Brad at Prom. He came this year to a prom. He's doing wonderfully. He loves New York. He loves his classes. Seems like he's having just a wonderful time.

Robby ... I don't know. I never knew Robby too well. But Brad and I have kept in phone contact all year long. In a school, all of these issues should be talked about with freedom. I don't expect that everyone should necessarily accept my point of view, but I hope that schools would feel free to talk about it. To avoid it is to lead to insidious prejudices.

Paul:: Good-bye, everyone. Thank you for your very intelligent questions.

american_high_host:: That wraps it up for the American High chat this week! Thanks so much for coming! Check out the American High Web site at www.pbs.org/americanhigh! Then join us next week for another American High chat. And tune in every Wednesday at 10 pm ET for a new episode of American High! See you next week!