Carlyn Erion looked at sophomore Dan Frazier last year and saw someone who didn't want to be seen.
"He wanted to be invisible and as silent as possible," said the Coon Rapids High School English teacher.
A more confident junior is emerging, in part because of his involvement in the school's Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) club, both say.
The club is one of 11 in the Anoka-Hennepin District, where adults on the school board, in administrative offices and in the community have agonized for more than a decade over how -- or whether -- to broach issues of sexual orientation at school. The question has taken them from the board room to the courtroom and led to a federal civil rights investigation as the issue has become intertwined with allegations of bullying and harassment tied to sexual orientation.
Meanwhile, student-led GSA clubs in each of the district's middle and high schools have informally given students a venue to work things out.
The clubs are a place where youth can be themselves when schools and families sometimes may want them to be someone else. In the classrooms of mentor teachers, the students share stories, offer support and plan how to transform their world to a place where all people are accepted just as they are.
As the name suggests, not all members are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (GLBT). For that matter, they're not asked to identify themselves by their sexual orientation. Some have been bullied; others have not. The groups are popular not only with GLBT students and their allies, but others who just want a place to fit in, said Barry Scanlan, the district's prevention coordinator.
There are about 4,000 GSA clubs at schools around the country. Research by the Gay-Lesbian-Straight Education Network found that GLBT students in schools with such clubs were less likely to hear slurs daily, more likely to feel safe, to have identified allies among peers and teachers and to feel a sense of belonging at school.
All the Anoka-Hennepin GSAs were student-initiated, Scanlan said. But when a call has gone out, multiple teachers have offered support.
"We had to turn people away," he said. "And people still show up to help."
Not that the GSAs have operated problem-free.
Martha Pedersen, a family and consumer sciences teacher, has mentored the Champlin Park High School GSA -- the district's longest-running -- since it started 14 years ago.
It ran smoothly at first. Then some parents protested because she kicked off the year with an ice cream social, she said.
"My theory was, if they were nervous about going, they could say, 'I'm just going for the ice cream,'" she explained. But "they were saying I was using ice cream to entice the children to be gay."
She was reprimanded, and told not to offer food. About that time, GSA groups were told they couldn't advertise. They were assigned a school counselor. Neither directive lasted long, but Pedersen still doesn't initiate snacks.
Nowadays, the district's controversial neutrality policy -- which allows teachers to discuss issues related to sexual orientation but requires them to remain neutral -- puts her and other advisers at the edge of a thin line in guiding students, but she said it's not difficult when members lead the discussions.
Despite the squall of attention GLBT issues have drawn, it seems as if people are slowly starting to get what they're about, she said. A notable point, she said, occurred during last year's kerfuffle over a lesbian couple -- GSA members -- elected as Snow Daze royalty at Champlin Park, because students didn't understand the fuss over letting them attend events as a couple.
"It made you feel like we were in a school that can see past issues like that and be supportive of our classmates, no matter who they are," she said.
Big change, smaller change
At Anoka High School, nine members of the GSA group advised by teacher Paul Kelley talked recently about their group and some of its activities. Fall: Ally Week. Winter: No Name Calling Week. Spring: Day of Silence. For the winter event they collaborate with Student Council, National Honor Society, Key Club, Young Democrats, Young Republicans and Broken, the school's Christian club.
Junior Kira Martin was one of several to recall previous generations' work in the civil rights movement. "I feel like we're in the middle of changing history," she said.
Sometimes, the transformation involves one person.
In Coon Rapids, Dan Frazier had come out to a few friends before joining GSA, and had begun a dialogue with his parents but felt deeply that being gay was enough reason for others to despise him.
Acting on intuition, Erion, the English teacher, let him know about the GSA, which she mentors.
It was a few meetings before Frazier shared that he had known he was gay since sixth grade. He's still quiet, but that's just him, he said. Life is better.
His former teacher can see it. "He stands up straight, his chin is up and he looks people in the eye when he talks," she said. "He is confident and strong. That was not his voice last year."
Frazier agrees. "I became friends with people I knew I could trust," he said. "It helps me to help myself to be who I want to be, and being here does not give you a template. It's open to anything you want to be."
Becky Marshall is a first-year GSA adviser at Anoka Middle School for the Arts. She said it's been hard to see her district through its growing pains, but she sees progress in some of the recent directives from the district, including an increased focus on safety for all students.
"All of those things give me a lot of hope," she said, adding that her high point was walking with GSA students in last month's Anoka Halloween Parade. "It really made me feel empowered because of how many cheers we got from the crowd. ... There's a little wedge there that we're chipping away."
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409