It was not as if Luis Martinez hadn’t worn high heels before.
But for Luis, 11, there was something special about these black pumps, the pointy pair with the impossibly steep heel.
His mother, Maria, recalls how her boyfriend admonished Luis. Pumps are for women, he said. If you want sneakers, we’ll buy you sneakers. But no pumps.
An hour later, with the shopping nearly done, Maria changed her mind. Luis needs his own pair of pumps, she thought. His growing feet were too big for her heels, the pair he had paraded about their home since he was little.
Three years later, Maria is glad she bought the shoes. She sits at a table in her small kitchen, which is busy but neat. It’s lorded over by a painted Virgin Mary figurine. Next to it: a small, white vial labeled “holy water.” An honor roll certificate is taped to the fridge.
“Luis is just a woman. His body is a man, but he is a woman,” she says.
Across the table, Angie Martinez, formerly Luis, listens with a shy smile. She wears a tight-fitting black shirt, skinny blue jeans and a teal necklace. Her long fingernails are striped blue and pink and her long black hair falls to her shoulders.
Angie says those pumps were the start of something new.
“I always just wanted to be a girl,” she says. “A normal girl.”
Marooned on a dead end off N.C. 86 in Hillsborough, A.L. Stanback Middle School is as traditional as most schools: buzzing fluorescent lights, waxed halls, a high-windowed lobby, yawning parking lot and sun-baked basketball courts.
In the lobby, a poster proclaims the school’s mantra, dubbed the “Bulldog bark matrix”: “Believe in yourself, actively learn, respect self and others, keep order.”
Order is important here for Principal Gloria Jones, a well-educated Orange County resident who gives off a polite, if academic, air, her co-workers say. But order was lost here on May 16.
In the cafeteria, while their classmates ate barbecue chicken sandwiches, beans and fruit, 14-year-old Alexis Dumain and several friends stood silently, holding handmade signs.
“Gay is not an insult,” read one.
“Stop the bullying,” read another.
Other students sneered. Some created their own signs, proclaiming “gay is not ok.” Someone shouted a curse word and, moments later, Jones seized the signs. Following a lengthy “interrogation” in Jones’ office, Dumain said she and her friends were told not to do it again.
“We expected this,” Dumain says. “It’s a controversial thing.”
Dumain, a lanky volleyball player with long brown hair, is straight. She’s a member of the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes. But on that day in mid-May, she represented the school’s new Gay-Straight Alliance, a 13-member club that’s the first of its kind at the middle school level in Orange County Schools.
“I think it’s more important to love your neighbor than to condemn someone,” she says.
GSAs are nationally backed school clubs that offer support and counseling for LGBT students. Federal law requires public schools to allow students to form GSAs, but, without explanation, administrators at A.L. Stanback prevented the group from forming for more than two years.
“I’m kind of stunned, I don’t understand what the hesitation would be,” says Stephen Halkiotis, vice chairman of the Orange County Board of Education and a longtime principal. “If it’s legal and it’s responsible to do it, you’ve got to do it.”
The federal Equal Access Act orders school leaders to treat all clubs equally provided they are not a “disturbance.” Originally crafted in 1984 to ensure inclusion for Christian-based clubs in public schools, the law is most commonly used today to protect GSAs from discrimination by social conservatives, many of whom label the group a “sex-based club.”
Jones did not respond to an INDY request for interview, so it’s unclear why the principal reversed course on the GSA at a school staff meeting in April. But sources at the school, some of whom spoke to the INDY on the condition of confidentiality, say administrators opposed the group because they feared backlash from parents, even though there was no evidence of outright opposition. They also worried students were too young or were being pressured by activist teachers to start the group.
“We can think for ourselves,” Dumain counters. “And anyway, we have a social studies class. If we can discuss the Holocaust, I’m pretty sure we can talk about gay rights.”
One morning in the fall of 2013, Luis awoke with a plan. Days ago, he had come out to friends and family as gay, most of whom were supportive and unsurprised. But Luis still felt incomplete.
“I never thought I could have a voice,” he says. “Every one has a voice, but I just felt so alone.”
Stealing into his mother’s room, Luis lifted a sleeveless, Bebe brand T-shirt encrusted with gleaming rhinestones. He pulled on a tight pair of blue jeans and blended his black crew cut with a dark ponytail wig bought for a Halloween costume. Last came the pumps.
Today, A.L. Stanback would meet Natasha, the “sexy” name Luis says he chose at random.
It didn’t make him any more popular, but Luis felt a little more himself. Every day, he donned his heels, skin-tight clothes and extravagant makeup, perhaps a little too extravagant. “I was such a hooch,” he says, grinning.
“The girls told me I made such a pretty girl,” he says. “But the boys, oh they hated me.”
They sneered behind his back and scowled to his face. Some told him he was wrong to wear girl’s clothes. Others simply avoided him. “They thought that if they touched me they would contract something,” he says.
One day, a boy named Jeffrey tripped him in the hall. Furious, Luis retreated to his laptop, where he wrote a blistering, profanity-laced email to Jeffrey. Within hours, Luis was called to the assistant principal’s office, where he was told he would be suspended for three days over the diatribe. Seventh grade was a catastrophe.
“The first thing I thought was there is nobody else like me,” he says. “I felt like I was moving too fast.”
Down the street from Stanback, a 6-foot Confederate flag hangs over the doorway of a home. Liberal Chapel Hill and Carrboro seem distant. Elizabeth Vallero, an A.L. Stanback guidance counselor and GSA supporter, knows the residents of these rural fringes of Orange County are more conservative than their neighbors , and so do administrators, she says. “Change is difficult in public schools,” she says. “There’s a fear of doing something different.”
The administration’s fears pale compared to those of LGBT students. A 2011 report by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network noted middle school students fared worse on all indicators of school environment compared to high school students.
Nearly 70 percent of middle school students reported the use of the word “gay” in a negative way, compared to roughly 60 percent of high school students. And more than half of middle schoolers reported other homophobic remarks, compared to about 44 percent of high schoolers.
Nevertheless, just 6 percent of middle school age children nationwide have access to a GSA, compared with about 53 percent of high school students. In schools with a GSA, students miss class less often and make better grades. Other students are less hostile, too, the report stated. In the Triangle, five known GSAs serve middle school kids: Two in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, one in Wake County schools and one at Carolina Friends School, a private Quaker school in Durham.
A 2008 report from the American Psychological Association urged educators nationwide to promote a more tolerant environment in schools, particularly at the middle school level, pointing out higher rates of suicide attempts, emotional distress and drug abuse among LGBT youth.
“When students experience less victimization, they feel more connected to their community,” says Maddy Boesen, a researcher with the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. “(GSAs are) a really critical resource for kids.”
Nevertheless, the group can incite opposition from parents and educators. In May, school board members in Rowan County, a suburban county northeast of Charlotte, quietly voted to amend a 2006 policy banning GSAs in local schools.
When the rule was passed in August 2006, the policybizarrelystated it was intended to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted teen pregnancy and child abuse. Facing the likelihood of a lawsuit from groups such as the ACLU of N.C., the board backed down.
Christopher Brook, ACLU legal director, says his organization would have fought the policy whether it targeted LGBT youth or Christian clubs. “Their legal obligations are very, very clear,” he says.
Amy Glaser is the executive director of Outside In 180, a Triangle nonprofit that offers support services and guidance for GSAs. She says opponents often need to be pressured into complying with the law.
“It’s not uncommon for the struggle to be slow and painful,” Glaser says. “The youth are so transient, moving in and out of the school every few years. (Opponents) just try to stall them.”
Once established, GSAs may still be treated differently than other clubs, Glaser says, primarily because some opponents believe the groups operate as open sex forums. “Which is not an accurate understanding of what the groups are for,” she says. “Middle-school age students need homophobia-free places just as much if not more so at the middle school than at the high school level.”
The name Natasha just would not do. Maria thought it seemed wrong. So did her boyfriend, who used the starlet name to mock Luis at home. But Luis did not fit, either. A family friend suggested a compromise.
“Why don’t you just call her Angie?” the friend said. “Since Luis’ middle name is Angel.”
Luis says the name immediately felt right. When Angie returned to A.L. Stanback for her eighth grade year, teachers had prepared for her arrival. Classmates and staff called her by her new name.
Her grades improved and she made friends. Bullies, including Jeffrey, eased off. School administrators were distant but courteous. The English teacher, Meredith Newlin, encouraged her to be herself. So did Elizabeth Vallero, Angie says.
This year, she ditched the pumps and tight jeans, replacing them with flats, colorful tops and comfortable girls’ jeans.
“I just felt really normal,” she says. “I knew eighth grade was going to be a good year.”
Angie joined the newly formed Equity Club because, she said, equity seemed good. Classmates talked sometimes about starting a Gay Straight Alliance.
But when she asked Assistant Principal Jason Burt about the GSA, Angie said he dismissed her. “Nobody would join that club,” he scoffed. Angie felt confused.
“Middle school is so strange, but we’re in a new era,” she says. “They just assumed how parents would react. It was just a mirage.”
As a child, Colleen Brennan dreamed of becoming an ACLU lawyer. Her favorite movie was The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a campy 1970s musical about a cross-dressing mad scientist.
“I never thought homosexuality was weird,” she says. “I never thought transexuality was weird. When I got older and found out it was considered weird, I thought that was weird.”
Until she graduated this month, Brennan, now 18, was GSA president at Cedar Ridge High School; Stanback is a feeder school for Cedar Ridge.
This spring, Brennan peppered Jones’ email account with strident reminders of the school’s legal duty to accept a GSA. “Your students deserve and have the right to have representation and support within the school community,” wrote Brennan on March 26.
Jones thanked her for writing, but promised nothing. Weeks before, Brennan and several of Jones’ former students went to Stanback to demand a meeting with Jones.
Spying Jones slipping into her office, Brennan called out for the principal. When Jones tried to close her door, Brennan stopped it with her foot. Jones asked Brennan to leave the school grounds, and she did.
“We made our case in the emails,” Brennan says. “And if she threw them away, it’s OK, we have copies. We’re not going away.”
School officials later accused Brennan of harassing Jones, she says, but something needed to be done at A.L. Stanback. It had been more than two years since students and staff first approached school administration about forming a GSA, and the group seemed no closer to formation today than it did then.
Instead, Jones and administrators offered new groups called the Diversity Club and then the Equity Club, vague new organizations that lacked the national support and clear message of the GSA.
“I felt like these were temporary pacifiers to stall the inevitable,” says Vallero.
One teacher, who requested confidentiality, said these clubs seemed to slight the LGBT community. “Why don’t we as a community stand up to people who say ‘gay is not ok?’” the teacher said. “Why do we act with fear? Why don’t we act with courage?”
Vallero says no one openly opposed the GSA, but school leaders allowed it to founder anyway. “If the kids express a need, they’re thinking about it,” she says. “They’re obviously not too young. And, besides, when is too young to give a kid a safe place to be honest?”
Since Jones did not respond to INDY questions, it’s unclear what changed her mind in late April, when she abruptly announced at a staff meeting that the GSA would start and Vallero would lead it.
Members of the Orange County Schools Board of Education can’t explain the delay. They say school administrators never discussed the GSA with the board, and decisions about school clubs are typically handled by the school’s principal.
Halkiotis, vice chairman of the school board, says the group is just another counseling tool for an often-overlooked group of students. “As a principal at the school, you have to be respectful of the needs of all your kids, not just the 98 percent majority,” he said. “You’re responsible for the 2 percent too.”
Donna Coffey, chairwoman of the school board, says the system needs a clear policy on club formation in schools; one does not exist now, she says.
“There should be equal opportunity for all people, regardless of their sexual orientation,” Coffey says. “I can understand parental concern at the middle school level, but that shouldn’t keep it from going through the process. If the club was treated differently, that shouldn’t have happened.”
But, even now, that appears to be the case at Stanback. Since the GSA’s first meeting on April 25, students and teachers say administrators rejected all but a few of the club’s proposed membership posters.
“Gay is OK” was rejected, students say. More vague pronouncements such as “stop the bullying” were approved. Other clubs, such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, appear to face fewer restrictions when they post Biblical references around the school, Vallero says.
“In our school’s vision statement, it says that we are preparing students for success in a ‘diverse’ world,” Vallero says. “If we truly believe that, we need to make sure that we are practicing it.”
It’s Friday, April 25, weekly club day at Stanback, and Vallero is nervously waiting alone in an office. A few days prior, Principal Jones tapped the friendly, sandy-haired counselor from Chapel Hill with advising the new GSA. Today, however, it appeared Vallero would have no students to advise.
Minutes passed. Shortly before the bell rang, two students stepped into the classroom. Then two more. And three more.
“It was just so overwhelming,” says Vallero. “My heart broke in the best way. Every kid that walked in looked so happy. They waited three years for this.”
Twelve students filed in, every member of the Equity Club save Angie Martinez, who had spent the morning thinking about anything but the GSA.
That morning, Angie’s dog, a snarling Chihuahua named Nanu, had peed in Angie’s black laptop bag. Angie begged her mom to stay home from school. The bag reeked of urine. Her mother refused.
Crying and embarrassed, she decided to visit Vallero’s office when she arrived at school, but Vallero, it seemed, was in a meeting. With all of Angie’s friends.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” she says. “So I waited.”
When Vallero’s meeting finished, they found Angie waiting outside the door. Where were you? they asked. How could you have missed the first GSA meeting?
Angie was stunned. Weeks away from graduation and looming high school, Angie had assumed she would never see a GSA at A.L. Stanback Middle School. She promised to be at the next meeting.
“It felt like a new beginning,” she says. “It felt like something big.”
The small group held four meetings before school finished last week. Angie says she’ll join the GSA when she moves to Cedar Ridge High School this August. Vallero, meanwhile, says the GSA, like every other club at Stanback, will be back next year.
“These kids, they’re empathic,” she says. “And they’re passionate. They think for themselves.”
And these days at A.L. Stanback, that’s a bit more normal. Just like Angie.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Gay is OK.”