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Students at Paso Robles High School create signs promoting love and inclusion after an incident in which an LGBTQ Pride flag was stolen from a classroom and defecated.

October 11 is National Coming Out Day, when lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and queer people can celebrate their support for LGBTQ equality. But in Paso Robles, where we go to high school, we can’t celebrate. Too often, LGBTQ students feel unwelcome, unsafe, and targeted by hatred.

Recently, a rainbow flag was stolen from a PRHS classroom, taken to the bathroom and defecated on it. A video of the hateful act was posted on Tik Tok and was widely shared on social media.

For decades, the pride flag has symbolized inclusion, diversity and beauty for LGBTQ people. The attack on the flag was an attack on our safety as students and deserved strong condemnation. Instead, for nearly two weeks, school officials remained largely silent on the issue. The hate crime was ignored and homosexual PRHS students were led to believe that school officials condone this blatant act of homophobia. The silence was heartbreaking and frightening. The school should have immediately denounced the flag attack and let us know that hatred and bigotry towards LGBTQ students is not acceptable at PRHS.

Eventually, the school imposed minor discipline on violators and, almost two weeks later, issued a policy statement that includes a ban on rainbow flags larger than 2ft x 2ft. As the standard flag size is 3 ‘x 5’, the school has deliberately banned the very flag that has been desecrated. What message does this send to students? The flag ban means the school allowed enemies to win, while LGBTQ students feel punished for wanting to be seen and supported.

When you’re a high school student in the LGBTQ community, you walk into every classroom and bathroom without knowing if you’ve entered a safe space. You endure glares, hurtful comments, and relentless onslaught of micro-aggressions that erode our sanity and self-confidence. It’s exhausting. It is oppressive. It is unacceptable. And so we come out against hate.

A 2017 county-wide study of high school students (California Healthy Kids Survey) found alarming rates of bullying against LGBTQ youth in SLO County, as well as increasing rates of bullying. suicidal ideation. A recent national study found that 40% of LGBTQ youth had “seriously considered” suicide in the past year. We are struggling and school leaders must recognize that this is a matter of life and death.

A 2018 oral history project at PRHS interviewed students from Templeton, Atascadero, and Paso Robles high schools. They found that offensive slurs and open hostility towards LGBTQ + people were rife in classrooms. LGBTQ + students said they did not feel included in their school culture. Students interviewed reported that teachers who wore rainbow-colored pins or displayed supportive flags or posters on their classroom walls helped create welcoming and safe spaces.

Over the years, PRHS has witnessed loss of life, violence and intimidation, all in the name of anti-LGBTQ hatred. Enough is enough.

How many more students will be traumatized by systems and people who fail to embrace the beauty and diversity of their students? The school’s response is a collective slap in the face of all the LBGTQ students of PRHS. From our perspective, the school flag ban means they are more interested in appeasing bullies than in protecting the safety of victims of hate. We are looking for a school that allows LGBTQ students to learn without fear. We breathe a sigh of relief with every “I Am an Ally” poster and rainbow flag we see. But for now, all we feel is punishment for the acts of hate against us.

That’s why we’re coming together to host a community forum on October 20 called “Coming Out Against Hate,” 6-8pm at the Performing Arts Center at Paso Robles High School. We will join with others in telling our stories, challenging acts of hate, and calling on our leaders to do better. We invite other teachers, students, relatives and friends to join us in this important work.

We choose to respond to hate with courage, love, community and truth. We hope others will take this opportunity to come out and come together to face the hate.

Ava Hughes, Genevieve Grimes, Danny Perez, Eve Barajas and Ella Mitchell are students at PRHS and participants of the “Coming Out Against Hate” forum on October 20 at PRHS. Eve Barajas is president of the PRHS Equity Club.

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