"My Facebook status is, 'Going to see all my besties!'" says a girl with long blond hair.
They are a typical group of teens — their conversations bounce between who's dating whom, why they're annoyed with their parents, and the food at Taco Bell. Some are outgoing and loud, others sweet and thoughtful.
The students who attend the weekly Outlet group meetings at the Community Health Awareness Council, or CHAC, in Mountain View have one more thing in common: They all identify as being a part of the "LGBTQQ community" — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning.
This is a poignant time for gays in California, as nearly a year has passed since voters approved Proposition 8, overturning a state Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex couples to marry. Earlier this month, many tens of thousands of protesters — some reports put the number at 150,000 — marched in Washington, D.C. in the largest demonstration for gay rights in a decade.
Here at home, only days before the national march, students in Mountain View High School's Gay-Straight Alliance, or GSA, walked through the homecoming parade, carrying a large rainbow sign and smiling and waving to friends. They later described their walk as a celebration of solidarity.
"I'm not really into the whole advocacy thing," said Jessica Tatarsky, the GSA president and a junior at Mountain View High. "For me it's not as important as just finding community."
"Freshman year I came out to my family and friends, and I decided I needed a place for support," she said. After only a year in the group, she stepped up as vice president, and now she leads her peers, both gay and straight, in organizing activities throughout the year.
For example, Thursday, Oct. 22 is "Ally Pledge Day," where fellow students sign posters displayed around the campus. The signatures represent allies for the gay community, and come with a promise that students will intervene if they hear an anti-gay slur. The event coincided with Tatarsky's 16th birthday.
The next day, she said, the group would be celebrating their own "Coming Out Day" (the national Coming Out Day took place on a Sunday earlier this month). She said they were encouraging teachers to come out, either as homosexual or as an ally, and for students to come out too, if they wanted.
Tatarsky has become a leader for younger students, including freshman Anna Livia Chen, 14, who does consider herself an activist.
Chen came out to her family and friends about a year ago. After Prop. 8 was passed, she and some friends organized a silent protest at Graham Middle School, with students wearing black to represent the "death of equality." After that she lead an effort to start a GSA club there, but met resistance from school administrators because they were afraid of bullying, Chen said.
Though an official group never got going, Chen said she thought her efforts did make some impact.
"One of the important things it did was it started to bring up the issue," she said, adding that it's comforting today to see teachers showing solidarity by displaying stickers or signs in their classrooms.
"You don't see any of that in middle school," she said. "It's like in the middle school environment people don't know that exists except things like, 'That's so gay' or 'You're such a fag.'"
"I never felt like someone was going to come beat me up in middle school," she added, "but it's nice to have other people you know are gay and are out in high school and you know are allies."
Chen, who also plays clarinet in the marching band and serves on the Mountain View Youth Advisory Committee, hopes this is just the beginning of her advocacy work. Her next plan is to start a National Marriage Boycott branch at school.
An open city
"Mountain View is a fairly open, accepting area for LGBT youth and adults," said Eileen Ross, director of CHAC's focused youth group, Outlet, in an interview with the Voice earlier this month. "There's still just a lot of misinformation and stereotypes that end up being harmful to the youth and to the community."
Of the students, teachers and community leaders the Voice talked to, it was generally agreed that though there isn't rampant homophobia in the area, there is a general lack of sensitivity and understanding for gay issues.
"There's a lot of people not being aware," Tatarsky said. "Really macho guys call their friends 'faggot.' ... But they don't really get it and I don't think they're really homophobic, they just don't know that it's wrong."
"Sometimes when I'm walking through the quad I'll hear something and I'll always make it a point to stop even when I don't know them," said Heather Boyle, a GSA adviser and health teacher at Mountain View High. She said the group is considering doing a campaign this year called "Think B4 You Speak."
Ross said there is a "complacency" to gay issues in the area, perhaps because of its vicinity to San Francisco and the strong sense of pride that comes out of that city.
There's an "everything's fine" attitude, she said, but "You have to talk about homophobia. People don't like going there — so we're still not getting to the root."
Ross said her group does educational programming in many schools, though more conservative areas, like Los Altos, have not been welcoming.
Outlet at the hub
One of the central resources for LGBTQQ youth in the area is the Outlet program, which runs weekly meetings and provides counseling services to parents and youth.
The meetings are meant to provide a safe place for Peninsula youth to talk about their thoughts without judgment. Though some Outlet programming is welcoming of both gay and straight youth, the meetings are reserved only for those who identify as LGBTQQ.
The meetings' organizers take pains to be sensitive in ways other youth groups are not. For example, during check in, students are asked to specify their "PNP" — preferred gender pronoun.
While discussion focuses mainly on everyday teen stuff (What's your costume for the Halloween dance?), the topics can change in a heartbeat to something more serious.
"I came out to my dad last week," said one dark-haired girl, a junior at an area high school, to the group. "He was OK with it, surprisingly."
A younger blond boy talked about how a discussion in theology class at his school turned very personal — a classmate was suggesting that a gay person could turn straight if they wanted to.
"It was bad," he said.
Ross estimates that around 40 students are participating in the Outlet program in some way at a given time. Though there are students who are very comfortable attending Outlet sessions, she said, others don't feel like they need it.
But maybe, Ross said, "they don't know how good support can be."