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Lesbian in the Locker Room 

To be young, gay and outcast in Banning

Thursday, Jan 9 2003
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Photo by Debra DiPaolo

Last month, 15-year-old Ashly Massey became an avatar of gay teens’ rights when, through her lawyer at the ACLU, Martha Matthews, she and her mother initiated a landmark suit in the U.S. District Court in Riverside against the Banning Unified School District for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It would be the first such suit since California passed the Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act of 2000, extending civil rights protection to gays and lesbians in public schools. An eighth-grader at Susan B. Coombs Middle School until last May, Ashly had been banned from gym class by a teacher, Karen Gill, who initially sent her to sit in the principal’s office during gym class without explanation, and later claimed that the presence of a lesbian made the other girls "uncomfortable." (Gill is included as a defendant in the lawsuit, as are Coombs’ Principal Manuel Peredia and Vice Principal Kirby Dabney.)

When I arrived at the Masseys’ newly built home in a nondescript subdivision in Beaumont, California, Ashly answered the door wearing bagging athletic shorts, a T-shirt and a Wolverines baseball cap. Her little brother, Elijah, 7, was running around in the house, and her mom was still out on nursing duty. When we sat down to talk, she seemed less shy than guileless, candid and tired. A bad cough caused by breathing in her cousins’ secondhand smoke at a family party interrupted her frequently. Her family has moved a few miles west since the incident last spring, and she now attends a "much more laid-back" high school in Beaumont. Her mom, Amelia, arrived a few minutes into the conversation.

Coombs Middle School and the Banning Unified School District have officially declined to comment.

L.A. WEEKLY: How many kids in your school knew you were a lesbian when this happened?

ASHLY MASSEY: Just one, a girl who was a friend of mine.

So how did it get out?

We were in the locker room in gym class, and somebody else asked me if I was gay. And this friend of mine heard that, and she shouted, "Yeah, she’s gay!" So then everyone knew.

And this was your friend?

She’s bisexual, and I thought because of that I could trust her, but I guess I didn’t judge her right.

How long have you known you were a lesbian?

I knew when I was 12. I always had a feeling that I was different, but then one day I knew that I had an attraction to girls, and it stuck, and guys were out of the picture. I have an aunt who says she knew when I was 7, though. She told me I was always dressing like a guy, and I never wanted to be out there with the girls. I’ve always been a tomboy.

And you came out then, too?

No, I waited a year. I was 13. We lived in Palm Desert then and I already knew a lot of gay kids, and they were out. They have a gay and lesbian youth group there. So I came out then to some of my friends, and then also to my family.

My mom didn’t really believe me at first. I had hinted at it before, but at first she didn’t think I was serious. But when she understood that I meant it, she was really cool about it. I give my mom a lot of props.

But when you moved to Banning, you didn’t tell the other students you were gay.

No. I knew it wasn’t the same.

And then somebody told your gym teacher, Karen Gill.

Right. After class she came up to me and said, "That’s nobody’s business, keep it to yourself." Then the next day I showed up for gym class, and she said, "Don’t dress up. The principal wants to see you." So I went to the principal’s office.

But no one knew why I was there. I told them that Miss Gill had sent me, but nobody talked to me about anything. So I sat there for a week and a half while the principal walked in and out of his office. He’d look at me sometimes, and he knew I was there, but he never said anything to me. I’d have the clerks ask to make sure he knew about me, and they’d come back and say, "Yeah, he knows you’re here." But he’d give me no response.

So when did the principal finally acknowledge you?

When my mom came to school and noticed it.

AMELIA MASSEY: I went in there to talk to the vice principal about shortening her day because we had some medical appointments. I said, "And by the way, why is Ashly out of gym class today?" He said, "I had nothing to do with that. The principal did it." And he kind of shrugged. I asked to talk to the principal, but he wasn’t in that day.

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