"It's not right to be this way"

Lesbian teen takes on the public school that tried to change her sexual orientation

Published May 21, 2009 8:22PM (EDT)

As if high school weren't hard enough, imagine the teachers, counselors and staffers informing you that your sexual orientation was wrong, that it would make you unemployable, and that you were going to hell when you die.

Rochelle Hamilton of Vallejo, Calif., was only 13 when she came out of the closet as a lesbian. But it was the outrageous harassment by teachers and staff at Jesse Bethel High School that turned the Bay Area teen into an activist. She sued her school district for discrimination with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, and the case has now been settled.

Here's a sample of what she experienced: When Hamilton hugged her girlfriend, a teacher said: "This is ungodly, and you're going to hell. This is a sin." Another teacher asked her: "What's wrong with you? Are you a man or a woman?" And a staffer at school told her simply, "It's not right to be this way." She was also forbidden from using the girls' locker room on several occasions.

But that's not the worst of it. A school counselor required Hamilton to attend a special weekly "support" group for gay students, which consisted of trying to persuade the students to stop "choosing" to be gay by telling them, among other things, that it is "hard to get a job if you're gay." Yes, this "counseling" took place fewer than 40 miles from San Francisco.

Hamilton said that she became so depressed she considered quitting school altogether and had suicidal thoughts. Her mother spent three months having meetings at the school and the district about the harassment, but getting nowhere. "All I ever wanted was to be able to go to school and just be myself," said Hamilton in a statement. But I couldn't do that when the people I was supposed to be learning from were judging me and telling me something was wrong with me. How was I supposed to learn when I was constantly scared?" As a sophomore, Hamilton transferred out of the school to another high school in the district.

Elizabeth Gill, an ACLU attorney, said that Hamilton's case was pretty clear-cut: "California school districts are required by state law to protect students from harassment and discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity." Now, Hamilton has reached a settlement with the district, which will put $25,000 in a trust fund for her. But more significantly, the settlement requires the district to adopt anti-harassment policies and procedures, including training all teachers, students and staffers on how to prevent such discrimination.

As for Hamilton, when she grows up, she wants to be a gay-rights activist and have her own TV show and help other students. We think she's already on her way.

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By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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