Riverside High School students Evan Menchini (left) and Laura Jackman talk during a meeting Wednesday of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. (The Herald-Sun/Walt Unks)

Some nice news about tolerance here in Durham, NC, as opposed to the backward, redneck homophobe news from Alabama. A world of difference in this part of a red state. (Herald-Sun): Gays, straights allies at Riverside.

Walking the hallways of Riverside High School hasn’t always been the easiest of journeys for Laura Jackman.

“I was very alone when I was a freshman here,” said Jackman, now a 16-year-old junior. “I was different. I had a shaved head. People would make comments like, ‘Are you a guy or a girl?’ I’ve been constantly harassed in the halls, been knocked into and been cursed at.”

Upset at the lack of tolerance for gay, lesbian and bisexual students, Jackman and some of her friends worked to start a Gay-Straight Alliance at Riverside last year.

The club now has 30 active members and aims to provide a zone of comfort for students who may be questioning their sexuality or want to support gay and lesbian friends and family members.

Riverside’s club, which formed as a social and support group, does not try to push an activist agenda, members say. Members and Riverside Principal James Key said the group — and the school as a whole — does not promote sexual activity of any kind.

“We work to promote awareness and tolerance,” sophomore Evan Menchini said. “We are not doing anything that’s weird. There is nothing inappropriate happening at our meetings.”

Riverside isn’t the only high school where a GSA club is flourishing.

There are now 13 such clubs at high schools across the Triangle, up from four groups only two years ago. In addition to Riverside’s group, clubs have formed at Jordan High School, Durham Academy, the Durham School of the Arts, the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics and Carolina Friends School in Durham.

In addition, both East Chapel Hill and Chapel Hill high schools offer GSA groups, as do five schools in Wake County.

…But not all Triangle school principals have welcomed the groups, Weiss said. When one Wake County student wanted to start a GSA at her school, the principal refused to meet with her, she said.

“She couldn’t find a single teacher that would agree to be an adviser,” Weiss said.

…Key said he also had received a “minimal” number of phone calls from parents who wanted the school to stop the group from meeting. Key said that when the parents call, he tries to explain the GSA’s purpose to them.

“I’m proud anytime we can promote tolerance and respect for different ideas, cultures and philosophies, and I know the GSA here is seeking to do that in a positive way,” Key said. “We will never support any student being bullied or harassed. I’m aware there are a lot of students who do feel isolated and lonely, and I hope this club can provide support for that.”

Riverside’s club, which meets on Wednesdays, discusses everything from the history of the gay rights movement to depression rates among gay teenagers. The group also has marched in Durham’s Gay Pride Parade and has distributed Hate-Free Zone signs to any teacher at the school who wanted to hang them in the classroom.

Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding