Ex-student returns to Mount Si to support controversial gay-rights Day of Silence
Ex-Mount Si High School student Neil Lequia joined the school's first Day of Silence in 2006. He'll play a key role today in this year's highly charged observance supporting gay students.
Seattle Times Eastside bureau
Neil Lequia will be watching the protests and counter-protests at Mount Si High School today with more than a little emotion.
As a gay-rights activist, he's helping to organize a news conference in support of students participating in the national Day of Silence, an event meant to highlight the silence gay students say they often must maintain at school.
As a gay teenager growing up in the Snoqualmie Valley, he remembers "the bullies," popular, athletic boys vamping in the hall and pretending to flirt with him. He was part of the school's first Day of Silence in 2006, in part to call attention to the harassment.
Nineteen now, and two years out of high school, Lequia said, "Even being in the closet was hard there."
While the Day of Silence will be observed at more than 200 high schools around the state, Mount Si is expected to be the flash point for protests and counterprotests.
Late last week, the Rev. Ken Hutcherson, an outspoken anti-gay-rights pastor, called for 1,000 "prayer warriors" to peacefully march outside the high school.
In an interview, he repeated his view that homosexuality is a sin. "God hates it," he said.
Some parents and community members who support the Day of Silence say they'll gather before school and stand quietly as students arrive.
A coalition of gay-rights groups, including the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, for which Lequia works, and the Safe Schools Coalition, have organized the news conference later in the morning across town to talk about the need for respect and a safe environment for gay students.
Inside the school, about 200 students have taken the training administrators required to ensure the Day of Silence doesn't disrupt classes or coerce anyone into participating, as critics charge happened in the first two years the event was held here.
As a Mount Si student, Lequia resisted involvement with the school's Gay Straight Alliance (GSA). He recalls that there was "one out lesbian" and he didn't want to be the "only out gay male." A group of straight girls dragged him to an inaugural planning meeting and he was stunned by the turnout — about 40 or 50 students.
The club organized the school's first Day of Silence in April 2006. Tables were set up in the hall in advance of the event to sign up students and explain the purpose. Participants wore neon duct tape in rainbow colors with the date 4-16 written in marker. They carried cards that explained the reason for their silence.
"A lot of faculty were not supportive," he said. The role of faculty in the Day of Silence at Mount Si is again contentious. The district administration has insisted that teachers teach and students participate in class if called upon. A parents group that formed earlier this spring asked the GSA to voluntarily cancel the event, saying it disrupted learning and made some teachers advocates for a controversial issue.
The parents group, the Coalition to Defend Education (CoDE), cited the Day of Silence as one of many examples in which teachers were using their classrooms to promote personal political agendas.
"There've been a number of incidents over the years of teachers putting their personal opinions into the classroom," said Phil Garding, vice president of CoDE.
The GSA's cards for this year's event say that "the purpose ... is not to promote any particular agenda or lifestyle, but rather to encourage acceptance, promote safety, and foster community for all of Mount Si's student body."
Lequia, who now lives in Seattle, says insisting that students and teachers talk on the Day of Silence defeats the purpose. He tells the story of a friend from Seattle's private Lakeside Academy whose Spanish teacher on the Day of Silence started a movie about violence against gays in Mexico — and then left the room.
"These are the experiences you take away from high school. They stay with you more than any one exercise in class," Lequia said.
As a devout Mormon from an extended Snoqualmie Valley family, Lequia resisted his own sexual identity. He fasted and prayed for his homosexuality to be removed from his body, he said. By the time he was a sophomore in high school, he said, he was eating about four meals a week.
After Hutcherson was invited to speak at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally and was booed by one teacher at the high school and questioned about hypocrisy by another, scores of people turned out at School Board meetings to denounce his treatment or to protest his being invited in the first place.
CoDE called for cancellation of the Day of Silence and Hutcherson, pastor of Antioch Bible Church in Redmond, denounced the Gay Straight Alliance as a "sex club."
Lequia was in the audience at one of the School Board meetings when an uncle questioned why an entire day was devoted to gays. A cousin said he'd left Mount Si "because of gays." Neither acknowledged him.
"We need this controversy to show we need a change," Lequia said. "As much hurt and damage this has caused me, it's for the better of Mount Si."
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or email@example.com
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