Two teenagers enter a high school class during the change of period. As the teacher yells at them, they tear a pride flag from a wall and then sprint into a crowded room.
They pass the professor and disappear. Shortly after, several students film themselves rushing into a school toilet as they try to flush the toilet. When they fail, one of them drops his pants, crouches and defecates on the flag while the others laugh and shout homophobic / transphobic slurs.
It happened in September at Paso Robles High School outside of San Luis Obispo in central California, which calls itself “America’s happiest city.” Soon the whole student body was buzzing. Most of them watched the video, which was posted on TikTok, but admins did not respond for two weeks, saying they were unaware.
The incident did not surprise anyone.
LGBTQ students at Paso High say the region’s famous happiness doesn’t include them, writing in an op-ed that they feel constantly targeted and harassed at school. They told a reporter from the San Luis Obispo Tribune that they did not feel safe, that they were bullied and hateful on a daily basis. Sophomore Eve Barajas, president of the school’s Equity Club, says âmicro-attacksâ are common but physical violence is a real problem.
When the administration finally responded, LGBTQ students, allies and teachers gasped in collective shock
They didn’t expect leadership to validate the bullying, but that is what happened. In an interview, Paso High teacher Geoffrey Land called the defecation video an “act of hate directed at the LGBTQ community,” adding, “And a lot of students felt it, you know, have felt this attack very acutely “. He expected administrators to take the strongest possible stand against bullying.
Defending on a symbol of inclusion is an act of hatred. Symbol is not the problem, hate is. The prohibition of the symbol confirms hatred.
Science teacher and swimming coach Evan Holtz, the man who chased the bullies down the hall. He told reporters he wanted LGBTQ students to know that they are safe with him and that they can ask him for help. This is why he and a few other teachers used to display pride flags in their classrooms, a popular custom in schools across the United States, where more than half of all LGBTQ students report having been bullied, according to a new investigation by queer youth advocacy organization The Trevor Project.
They report that contrary to the popular narrative, anti-LGBTQ bullying in college and high schools in America has worsened rather than improved in recent years, and that bullying often amounts to acts of physical violence.
In a very recent example, Ian Ring, a 13-year-old transgender student, was severely beaten by bullies at his school in Spokane, Wash., As a crowd of students watched, laughed and filmed. Local police have charged a student with the offense of assault, but Ian’s mother says she doesn’t know how to keep him safe. She is considering homeschooling.
Back at Paso High, Coach Holtz says he’s happy that three students have brought him replacements for the stolen Pride Flag. He hung one on his classroom wall, but that’s when the other shoe fell off. District Superintendent Curt Dubost banned the flag, not bullying.
Dubost sent a letter to teachers saying he opposes bullying and then ordered them to remove any LGBTQ Pride flags larger than 2 feet by 2 feet, which students say is an effective ban, noting that almost all commercially available flags are larger than this.
The ban is the ONLY action announced by Dubost. He has not announced any comprehensive anti-bullying program or plan to improve the lives of gay children in the schools he runs.
In a later interview, he claimed that the rainbow flags are partisan like the “Blue Lives Matter” flags supporting the police. He did not cite any incidents where teenage police officers have been bullied at school or need to know where they can find support from teachers. The mouths of homosexual students fell at the inanity of his message.
Jaws fell harder on Dubost’s statement that LGBTQ Pride flags âmean different things to different people,â which students and teachers say they received as clear endorsement of anti-LGBTQ hatred. In what world, they ask, should a symbol of love, security and inclusion mean something different? To add insult to injury, the students say the bullies who stole the flag and posted the TikTok received only “minor discipline.”
The result was that the anti-LGBTQ bullies sent a hate message, received a slap on the wrist, and then had their message validated and actively enforced by the school district.
Paso High Senior Danny Perez reacted this way: âMy identity has been politicized. Someone defecated on a Pride Flag. So the school is removing the flag of pride, not homophobia?
LGBTQ student Ava Hughes added: “We are minors, and they force us to hide or protest.”
Superintendent Dubost ruined a fantastic teaching opportunity, but students don’t let it pass
The students announced that in cooperation with the Performing Arts Department at Paso High, they would host a âComing Out Against Hateâ community forum in the high school auditorium. Local news media cooperated with a free publicity blitz.
LGBTQ students will âshare their experiences and visions for a more welcoming and inclusive educational environmentâ, in person and via a self-produced short film. They say they will focus on personal stories about the bullying they face in school. Superintendent Dubost did not immediately respond to an email asking if he would be present. No student is required to attend the forum, which takes place after school hours and is not an official assembly.
Meanwhile, LGBTQ students and allies lined the school walls with rainbow-themed posters and designs filled with messages of love and support.
LGBTQ students, especially transgender students, face a growing wave of bullying and violence in American schools. Even on the coasts, gay children struggle. San Luis Obispo and Spokane are not as politically liberal as Los Angeles or San Francisco, but they are still âleft coastâ communities known for their tolerance and acceptance.
These are not the kind of places where we expect trans 13-year-olds to be beaten up or principals to endorse anti-LGBTQ hatred. These are not the kind of places where we would expect gay students to write that they feel physically unsafe in school every day. But you know what? It’s real. It happens. Right now.
Nothing will improve if we don’t work together against the insidious idea that LGBTQ identity is or should be controversial. The Paso Robles High School community does a great job educating students and parents by sending their principal a strong message that they need to do better.
What about you and your community? What can you do to stem a rising tide of hate?
James finn is a former Air Force intelligence analyst, longtime LGBTQ activist, Queer Nation and Act Up NY alumnus, regular columnist for queer media, and “agent” but unpublished novelist. Send questions, comments and story ideas to [emailÂ protected].