BY STEVE ROTHAUS
Jhon Barrera, a junior at Homestead Senior High, describes life at the school before students there began a gay-straight alliance club:
"A lot more hidden homophobia," said Barrera, 18, who has been out of the closet since middle school.
"Two years ago there were a few incidents. The typical hate crimes. Derogatory words: 'Faggots.' Throwing it out there and being pretty rude about it," Barrera said. "There were openly gay students who were victimized. A lot of people, including teachers, would try to speak up but didn’t know how to handle it."
Then, Aaron Bos-Lun joined the staff at Homestead High. Not much older than his students, he made the decision to be honest with them about his personal life.
"The highest role of a teacher is the personal model they provide," said Bos-Lun, 25. "For pretty much all the gay and lesbian students, I’m the only openly gay teacher they’ve ever known. It’s good for the straight students to see. Any student, anywhere, should see examples of people being proud of who they are. The kids have responded really well to that."
This week, Homestead High's new gay-straight alliance club hosted Springtime Freedom, a speak-out featuring educator and author Erin Gruwell of Los Angeles, whose life became the basis for the 2007 film, Freedom Writers.
"About 15 or 20 of my students are gay, lesbian or transgender. I was really blessed that I would say for the majority of my students, I was the first person they came out to. I’ve had my students since they were 14 and they’ve been in my life for the last 20 years," said Gruwell, portrayed in Freedom Writers by two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank.
"I’ve been blessed to be a part of them discovering themselves, being comfortable with who they are, finding relationships, getting married and actualizing their dreams," Gruwell said of her LGBT students.
Bos-Lun, along with Miami-Dade gay-rights group SAVE, helped raise $10,000 to bring Gruwell to South Florida.
There are about two-dozen GSAs throughout Miami-Dade County, including two middle schools, according to Robert Loupo, executive director of Safe Schools South Florida.
About 400 students, educators and parents filled Homestead High's gymnasium on Wednesday for Springtime Freedom, including teens from gay-straight alliances at Northwestern, Central and Edison high schools.
The Northwestern, Central and Edison GSAs all began this school year.
"This night was a celebration of that collaboration and the foundation to build more GSAs next year," said Bos-Lun, who teaches world literature and reading enrichment.
Odelia Younge and several other Northwestern teachers launched that school's GSA "to show students that the teachers are behind you and we’re going to make it only acceptable to be accepted in our space and classrooms."
"At Northwestern, we have such vibrant students. In order to capitalize on that vibrancy, we need to make it a space all students feel welcome, in a welcome environment," Younge said.
The Northwestern GSA began with about 15 students.
"We’re setting that trend for people who are on the fence about revealing their true selves to everyone else," Younge said. "Once we start garnering that kind of support, the GSA is going to take off."
Bos-Lun, who is studying for a master's degree in education and social change at University of Miami, said he didn't come out until his junior year at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.
"I certainly wasn’t going to be involved in a [high school] GSA," he said. "I didn’t say a word about being gay until I was 20."
After he began teaching at Homestead, Bos-Lun cautiously began to reveal his sexual orientation to students.
"I came out fully by the end of first quarter this year. It shows I have skin in the game. Independent of sexuality, it’s made my classroom a safer space for everyone," he said. "I am a gay man and nothing’s going to change that. Do I hide that from the kids and send a message it's something to be ashamed of? Or do we more on with life by addressing it? There’s power in that that works for anyone."
Soon, several boys and girls came out to Bos-Lun. One student sent him three letters.
"She wrote, 'I’m a lesbian. I've never been able to talk about it. I can’t come to the GSA because my mom won’t allow it. When I heard about what you did, it was the first time in my life anyone has ever stood up for me. I feel safer just knowing there's a GSA and that you’re doing what you’re doing.'"
About 50 students participate in the school's GSA.
"It opened up a forum for me to bring up things that I want to talk about. I love gay culture. Obviously, it’s not taught in the curriculum," Jhon Barrera said.
About 15 LGBT students are out at Homestead High, Barrera said.
"There aren’t a lot of openly gay kids in our GSA. There are a lot of straight allies. That is something I wasn’t expecting," he said.
Freshman Bertin Balan, 15, joined the GSA with his girlfriend.
"At first, people were telling me, why go? I was like why not go? GSA isn’t just a gay alliance. It’s gay-straight alliance," he said.
Bertin said he immediately connected with other GSA members.
"They felt like they were alive and felt like being family. I started to like it a bit more. They were saying everything they say in there stays there. We tell each other secrets," he said. "They would just open up to people and people would cry. We just show love to them and make them like our own family."
Bertin said being a GSA member has helped enrich his relationship with his own brother, who is gay.
"I feel good about myself," Bertin said. "Before, I never used to hang with gay people that much in school or out of school. When I just started to get to know everybody in GSA, I realized everybody is just the same. Under everybody’s skin, our blood is red."
He recommends other straight students join their high school's GSA. "It’s great. You’ll love it. It’s like everybody’s family and you’ll get to know people. You won’t judge people by the way they are."