On the night of the election, upper school science teacher Nate Cardin and his husband looked solemnly at each other. Their searching eyes asked each other the same question: “Will we be able to stay married?”
After finding out that the new government housed leaders who had rescinding marriage equality on their agendas, to Cardin, the question had no immediate answer. They would have to wait and see.
“When I told that to my students, it was overwhelmingly heartwarming to see their response,” Cardin said.
His students reassured their chemistry teacher that the answer to the question was: “Yes. Of course you’ll be able to stay married. They can’t do that.” He shared his skepticism: “They might.”
The following day, his students came into class armed with research they had done on the Internet the night before.
They listed all the reasons why they thought it wouldn’t be possible to rescind gay marriage. They told their chemistry teacher all the reasons why his love would still be legal.
“The fact that they cared enough even though it didn’t apply to them, that it was meaningful to me so it was meaningful to them, is something that I don’t think my 15 year old self would have ever believed, so I think that’s just one example of why Harvard-Westlake’s been such a great environment,” Cardin said.
Along with teaching science, Cardin heads the Gender-Sexuality Awareness Club on campus, a group dedicated to discussing issues nationally and in the school community regarding the LGBT community and organizing events to raise awareness for specific issues. Cardin said that he grew up in an environment that wasn’t accepting of the LGBT community, so he decided to lead GSA to ensure that students at Harvard-Westlake would have a place where they could feel accepted during high school.
“For me, it’s something I wish that I had when I was younger,” Cardin said. “It would have helped me out tremendously. Even though I know times have changed, and we’re in the Los Angeles bubble where people are generally more accepting of people who aren’t straight, I think it can still be really scary, really confusing and really isolating, as a kid and as a person, trying to figure yourself out in a society that might not accept you for who you are. Just having that community there, I know, is really helpful and valuable to the kids, but it’s also really helpful and valuable to me because it’s a place where I feel like I can be accepted as well.”
Another group dedicated to helping LGBT students is Project 10, a confidential support group for LGBT students, where students can share personal experiences and give advice to each other. Unlike GSA, P10 is only open to students who identify on the LGBT spectrum in order to allow students who are not completely out of the closet to talk about their own issues without fear of being outed to the rest of the school.
“P10 has helped many people at the school realize that they are not alone,” P10 member Frank Wells ’17 said. “It gives them the opportunity to say things about themselves that they may not be comfortable telling everyone, and it makes it possible for them to get advice from people who are going through similar experiences.”
Upper School Visual Arts Department Head Cheri Gaulke started both GSA and P10 in 1993, a time when, Gaulke said, the environment was much more homophobic and potentially dangerous to LGBT students. Gaulke consulted a lawyer before coming out as a lesbian to the school earlier that year. She then founded both groups and made herself a mentor to LGBT students.
Despite the availability of these groups, Axel Rivera de León ’18, who identifies as gay and is a leader of GSA, said that there is still work to be done to make LGBT students feel more accepted. Rivera de León said that the recent social media post that used homophobic and racist language which circulated on social media brought to light the insensitivity that still exists in the community towards LGBT students.
“Up until this point I really thought that Harvard-Westlake as a community was such a great place for LGBT people,” Rivera de León siad. “And it still is. I’m not saying that this is a terrible place to be. I’m just saying that it’s a reminder that we still have moves to make and work we have to do.”
Cardin said that he encourages students to see the social media scandal as an opportunity to learn about the effect that words can have on others instead of avoiding certain words without fully knowing why.
“I would hope that the result of this isn’t that people just get blacklisted from saying any words,” Cardin said. “We don’t want word policing. We want education. We want people to know that you can say whatever you want but there are consequences to certain things that you say.”
Some students are concerned that the school has been heavily focused on the racist slur, and as a result, there has been less discussion about the homophobic slur used in the post.
“I think, frankly, more people were more offended by [the racist slur],” Harper*, who identifies as female and has a girlfriend, said. “However, I do think that the homophobic [slur], maybe it shouldn’t be addressed to the same degree, but it should be addressed more than it has been because it really hasn’t been that much at all, and I think the weight of the homophobic slur that was used is heavy. People can say homophobic things that aren’t so heavy like ‘that’s so gay,’ which is still offensive, but the word that was used is a charged word.”
Cardin said that he believes that the discussion has been geared more toward addressing the racial slur because Black Leadership, Awareness and Culture Club and students of color were able to organize and engage in conversation with the administration more quickly, not because the school values certain groups more than others.
“I don’t think the administration is necessarily saying that one is more important than the other,” Cardin said. “I think it’s just how it all unfolded. Certain conversations happened before other conversations, but all of the conversations will happen. I will make sure of it because I want everyone to feel safe, to feel like they belong, to feel like they’re a part of the community.”
Rivera de León urges students to not let the effects of this event dissipate.
“There’s probably the strongest community reaction that I’ve ever seen at Harvard-Westlake, and I think it’s important to keep that going and to couple that with making a change,” Rivera de León said.
Another issue that GSA has been discussing which affected the LGBT community on a national level is the Trump Administration’s withdrawal of the protection of transgender students’ right to use the bathroom corresponding to their identity in public schools.
“The message right now that’s being sent is that by taking away their right to use the bathroom they identify with, you’re really saying that they’re not welcome to these public spaces, and that’s the bigger issue at hand, rather than just bathrooms,” Izzy Reiff ’18, who identifies as bisexual, said.
The government order has made some students feel rejected by their government. Harper said that her face was wet with tears after she found out about Trump’s action and started talking about it with her father.
“I was just frustrated that their priorities right now are removing the rights from transgender kids,” Harper said. “That just is absurd to me that that is what’s on their list of things to do in the first couple months.”
Cardin said that there is more work the school can do to make transgender kids feel comfortable on campus. Although GSA created a gender-neutral bathroom on campus two years ago, Cardin said that it is oftentimes inaccessible or transgender students don’t feel comfortable using it.
“I know that we have many trans students on campus who don’t feel comfortable coming out,” Cardin said. “We have one gender-neutral bathroom, but it’s often closed or under repair or locked on purpose so that people can’t use it. It’s also in a very public area where people feel self conscious going to use it.”
Cardin said that he encourages the administration to release a statement that clarifies that students on campus can safely use the bathroom that they are comfortable using. Crossroads school released a statement of the sort following Trump’s action that reaffirmed their school’s commitment to transgender students.
Although Cardin said that there is still work to be done to make LGBT students feel more welcome, many students, like Rivera de León, affirm that overall they have had positive experiences coming out on campus. Rivera de León said that between his friends and teachers, specifically Bek and Cardin constantly checking up on him and outlets such as Peer Support, he felt supported in his coming out experience.
“I’ve never explicitly made a huge coming out announcement on social media or anything, but I think at this point, everyone knows,” Rivera de León said. “I think it’s really cool that even if it was spread, it was spread more in a ‘Woah, I didn’t know that’ way as opposed to a in a derogatory way. That’s why I felt really good about the community. I still do. My friends and the teachers, I forgot to mention the teachers, are all so incredibly supportive.”