"When I realized my stuff had been rummaged through, defaced and stolen, my knees felt weak, my heart was heavy, I had a lump in my throat. I was in shock," she added. "I guess I was a little naÔve. ... I did not think that would happen to me."
On Jan. 6, a person, or persons, went into Chesson's gym locker during fifth period, defaced one of her notebooks and stole two other notebooks, as well as an iPod Mini and a Casio digital camera - a Christmas present that held photos from her family's recent trip to London.
A few days before, Chesson had participated on a panel of Gay-Straight Alliance students in Paly teacher Letitia Burton's living-skills classes. Chesson spoke to three classes of students. The panels are held once a semester as a way for Gay-Straight Alliance members to share their experiences, provide information, and maybe open a few minds.
Chesson met with Paly's Dean of Students Doug Walker who notified police. Palo Alto Juvenile Detective Mariana Villaescusa said no suspects have been identified, but the incident is being investigated as a hate crime.
"This is not something we stand for at our schools. We don't care if they're joking around or not," Villaescusa said last week.
Chesson and Burton say the incident reflects a larger undercurrent of intolerance toward gay and lesbian students and their supporters at Paly. Some of the students have reported being harassed by their peers, and in certain cases, the discrimination has manifested in unsettling ways.
"This undercurrent is really quiet," Burton said. "But it feels really angry."
As more students report incidents, the issue is coming to the forefront. And it couldn't be more timely: Last week, the two men convicted of killing transgender teen Gwen Araujo in October 2002 were sentenced to prison. Michael Magidson, 25, and Jose Merel, 26, received 15 years to life for second-degree murder. Jason Cazares, 26, pleaded no contest to manslaughter and got six years.
Burton is considering canceling the Gay-Straight Alliance panels or inviting older GSA members from Foothill College or students from a distant high school to speak, who would not be at risk of discrimination or harassment.
While the incident marked the first time Chesson was the target of what could be a violation of the California Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act of 2000 - which protects students and school employees against discrimination or harassment based on their perceived sexual orientation and gender identity - she said other students have been victimized before.
An openly gay boy at Paly has been harassed in his physical education and dance classes by other boys who would ask him out on dates "just to make fun of him," Chesson said. Earlier this school year, someone carved an obscenely derogatory message into the classroom door of Magdalena Rivera, a Paly Spanish and living-skills teacher who is also the GSA advisor. Gay-Straight Alliance posters have been torn down from campus buildings. Members routinely hear students spout the words "faggot," "dike," and "queer," Rivera said, and sometimes it's in the presence of teachers.
"These little things add up to really big things," Chesson said. "There is a (group) now of people saying our school is not safe for certain people."
This type of harassment is being played out across the state and in other Palo Alto schools. On the National Day of Silence last year in April - in which thousands of Gay-Straight Alliance members took a vow of silence to protest the harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens and their allies - Gunn High School students arrived to find their campus splattered with homophobic graffiti.
A report in 2004 by the California Safe Schools Coalition found that 7.5 percent of middle and high school students statewide report being harassed on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation each year. That translates to more than 200,000 students, or enough to fill San Francisco's SBC Park four times, said Shannon Turk, director of the Outlet Program at the Community Health Awareness Council in Mountain View, which aims to empower lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQQ) youth ages 13 to 18.
"That's just too many," Turk said. "What a lot of parents don't realize is this kind of harassment isn't just limited to students who identify as lesbian, gay and transgender. It's harassment toward students who simply live their lives outside of gender norms, by not being feminine enough or masculine enough by America's standards."
That kind of discrimination and harassment can have dire effects. Nationally, 30 percent of all youth suicides each year are students who identified as LGBTQQ, said Turk.
According to the same report, harassed students are three times more likely than their peers to carry a weapon to school, seriously consider suicide, and miss school because they do not feel safe. They are two times more likely to report depression and use methamphetamines and inhalants.
More often than not, Turk said, the harassment happens outside the view or earshot of teachers and administrators. That makes it all the more taxing on the victims to continuously report incidents to officials.
Paly's Gay-Straight Alliance students have decided to take a stand. On Thursday, they will give a presentation to the school's faculty and staff, explaining the realities of their life on the Embarcadero Road campus.
Monte Emmer, a junior at Paly and this year's Gay-Straight Alliance president, has experienced harassment and discrimination firsthand. It started in middle school, but got worse when he entered high school and became even more intense his sophomore year when he started to come out.
He is now openly gay.
"I've been called every epithet in the book. I've had candy thrown at my head. People have made faces and sounds of disgust in my presence. People have jokingly asked me out on dates," he said.
In dance class last year at Paly, Emmer said another student would "vaguely ask him to do sexual activity with him" and back away physically when Emmer entered the boys' locker room. This went on for about six months before Emmer reported it to school administration.
A separate incident during Emmer's freshman year is disturbing on a different level. One day after his physical education class, Emmer couldn't open his locker. He didn't know if the lock had been tampered with or changed, but he had to get a new locker and new P.E. clothes.
A few months later, he found his old T-shirt hanging in the boys' bathroom with blood splattered on it.
"It made it difficult for me to go into the locker room every day," he said. "It's really discouraging because our campus is seen as very open."
Naomi Shiffman, a Paly senior who is a straight member of GSA, has seen students spit on messages Gay-Straight Alliance students have written in chalk on Paly's blacktop.
"There is a whole lot of work to be done," Shiffman said. "There are so many hate crimes and just hatred that goes on."
Numbers are hard to come by, but experts say more youth are coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender than any other teenaged generation. Turk said no one really knows why.
"The students are now, from an earlier age, exposed to the language or exposed to examples of gay and lesbian people on TV and in music. In some ways that's a good thing because it means they can embrace their own identity earlier," Turk said.
The media's coverage of gay marriage has also brought the issue to the fore. Last October, Time magazine featured a cover story entitled, "The Battle Over Gay Teens," which explored the theories behind today's youth coming out in larger numbers.
Unfortunately, Turk said, the increased awareness "hasn't reduced the feelings of isolation that our youth feel."
Turk tells a story about a gay boy who spotted the Time article on the magazine rack while grocery shopping with his dad. The boy desperately wanted to read it, but he had not come out and didn't want his father to associate an interest in the article with being gay.
"We have a long way to go," Turk said.
Fortunately, however, as more teens decide to come out, the services have emerged to support them.
Since 1997, the Outlet Program in Mountain View has offered support services, leadership training, community education and advocacy opportunities to LGBTQQ youth. The number of students seeking the program's core services has risen by about 25 percent in that time. Confidentiality is paramount.
According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network based in New York, the number of Gay-Straight Alliances at schools has grown from 100 to 3,000 since '97. As of 2005 in California, there were about 330 GSAs and about 190 schools with students participating in the National Day of Silence.
Rivera said Paly's GSA membership has also grown over the years. The alliance, in fact, held its first ever "coming-out day" last fall. Students on campus were encouraged to come out about anything, not just sexuality. For example, Rivera said teens could proclaim their hidden obsessions with sci-fi or line dancing.
For many students, the Gay-Straight Alliance is simply a safe and fun group in which to hang out. Chesson heard about GSA in eighth grade and joined her first day as a Paly freshman last school year.
"We don't have definitions when we meet. We're just who we are," she said.
This story contains 1640 words.
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