Twenty-four hours before the Gayest Valentine's Dance was scheduled to take place at Ferris High School in Spokane, Wash., district officials said it would have to be moved because of safety and security concerns. The dance, considered one of the most important social events of the year for the city's gay and lesbian students, was held Friday evening as scheduled, but in the cafeteria of Spokane Falls Community College.
District superintendent Brian Benzel said the decision to move the event from Ferris was made because guests up to age 22 were to be allowed. He said the district discovered only Thursday that arrangements had not been made to provide security for an event scheduled for people beyond school age. "It is not about who the event was for," Benzel said. "That is not our issue. We have liability concerns when an event crosses over to adults." He apologized for the timing. "We deal with mistakes when we make them, and we do, but we still have an obligation to protect students," he said.
Laurel Kelly, executive director of Odyssey Youth Center, a sponsor of the dance, called the district's last-minute decision "institutionalized oppression." Kelly said district officials had known for three weeks that the age range was 14 to 22 years old. The same age range was used for last year's dance at
Ferris and for the 2003 dance at North Central High School. Gay youth advocates contend the district caved in to complaints from conservative parents. "Whatever reasons the district chose, they are sending the message that Spokane Public Schools is not a safe place for gay students to be," Kelly said. Kelly and about 20 students and adult supporters gathered outside the school district's downtown offices Friday to express their frustration with a decision they believe to be based on "homophobic" complaints.
The annual midwinter event "provides an opportunity for kids who can't be themselves at other public venues without fear of reprisal," said Khalil Islam-Zwart, an Odyssey board member. Anthony Spencer, a 16-year-old Ferris student, said the event "allows me to dance with whom I want without getting ridiculed." Supporting him at the downtown protest was his mother, Jennifer Johnson. She said her son came out to her when he was 14. "He said, 'Mom, we need to talk. I'm gay,' " Johnson said. "What can you do? He's my baby." She worries about the safety of her son, who she said has suffered verbal
abuse from other children.
Friday's dance looked like most high school happenings, with chaperones, a soda-pop bar, pink and red balloons on the ceiling, and construction-paper hearts littering the floor. Some of those present were unhappy about the change of venue. "I want people to be aware of what's going on and not just blow it off as 'one of those things,"' said Anne Pew, a Ferris senior and member of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance. "I don't want it to happen again." (AP)
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