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 principals 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, shes gay!" So then everyone knew.
And this was your friend?
Shes bisexual, and I thought because of that I could trust her, but I guess I didnt 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. Ive 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 didnt really believe me at first. I had hinted at it before, but at first she didnt 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 didnt tell the other students you were gay.
No. I knew it wasnt the same.
And then somebody told your gym teacher, Karen Gill.
Right. After class she came up to me and said, "Thats nobodys business, keep it to yourself." Then the next day I showed up for gym class, and she said, "Dont dress up. The principal wants to see you." So I went to the principals 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. Hed look at me sometimes, and he knew I was there, but he never said anything to me. Id have the clerks ask to make sure he knew about me, and theyd come back and say, "Yeah, he knows youre here." But hed 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 wasnt in that day.
Later on, the gym instructor called me. I said, "Is she doing what shes supposed to do in class? Is she behaving in any way thats inappropriate?" She said, "No, shes just making the other girls uncomfortable." I said, "If thats the case, you need to talk to your administration about it; thats an administrative issue."
Ashly didnt talk to me about it, because she didnt know quite what to say to me. I said, "What? What do you mean youre sitting in the office every day?" She said, "I dont know. I dont know what its about."
In the Riverside paper they quoted someone from the community saying, "It would be like having a boy in the locker room." How do you respond to something like that?
ASHLY: If thats what they think, thats what they think. Im not looking at other girls. Im not disrespecting them in any way. Im still female. But everyones entitled to their own opinion.
Except when it interferes with your right to go to gym class.
ASHLY: Yeah, well, they broke the law with that, didnt they? The school, in their student handbook, didnt even have anything about not discriminating against students because of sexual orientation. They have race, religion, ability to speak English, everything, but not sexual orientation. And theyre supposed to have that in there, by law.
How did you find that out?
ASHLY: My mom wrote to Courtney Joslin at the National Center for Lesbian Rights and told her the story. She told us to look in the handbook, and we did. And then she took it to the ACLU. Thats how the lawsuit got started.
This happened at Coombs Middle School, but you were already at your new high school in a different part of town when it hit the newspapers. How did people react?
ASHLY: I stayed home from school. But it was really great, what happened then, because all my friends from the new school were calling me and leaving messages on the answering machine saying, "Come back to school, Ashly, we miss you. We still love you." It made it a lot easier.
Has this experience turned you into a more political person?
ASHLY: Id say so. I used to be kind of quiet and keep to myself. Now that I have news cameras in my face asking what I think, I have to have something to say.
But you have a lot of anxiety about it.
ASHLY: Yeah, I havent been able to sleep much since this happened. I lost a lot of self-confidence and self-esteem over this. Because the teachers got out of control, that made the kids in junior high, where theyre really immature, go around calling me names, and writing stuff on the walls and tables about me.
What kind of things?
ASHLY: Oh, you can imagine. Things like "Ashlys a big fat dyke." That was on one table I sat down at one day. I mean, you can think about the things they wrote; I dont really need to repeat them all. Theyd call me "faggot" right to my face.
AMELIA: At the beginning, when all of this happened, Ashly packed her bags and she was going to take off. We had just started the lawsuit, but there really wasnt much anybody could do.
Where were you going to go, Ashly?
ASHLY: Up north, to San Francisco.
AMELIA: I called the Sheriffs Department and asked them, "What can I do if my kid runs away?"
ASHLY: Did you really?
AMELIA: Yeah, I did! Dont you remember when I said if you walk out that door that I was going to be calling the sheriff, or the police? Because I was really afraid for her. We were living with my mom and dad in Banning, all crammed together, and that was stressful enough. I found the screen off the window a couple of times, and I said, "Youd better not crawl out that window."
What made you decide to stay?
ASHLY: I dont know. It was the end of the year and we had just got this house.
Would you have changed schools even if you hadnt moved?
AMELIA: Yeah, there was no way I would have sent her back there. She would have been going on to high school, but it would have been with the same kids. I was looking into using a work address in Loma Linda as my residence to get her into another school. I would have done anything to get her out of there, because nothing clears up with the kids overnight.
ASHLY: I still dont like to go to school. I didnt go for the first two weeks of this year. I had to talk myself into going to school. There are still days when I wake up and cant get out of bed because I have so much anxiety about what people will think or say to me at school.
Are people ridiculing you in school now?
ASHLY: Not so much now, because Im in high school, and its more mature; you can go to school dressed in whatever and nobody cares. But I always have my guard up.
Do you go to school dances or anything like that?
ASHLY: No. Never.
AMELIA: They dont have any, do they?
ASHLY: Yes, they do, but I never go. The gay and lesbian student association in Palm Desert is trying to raise money to have a prom so girls can just dance with girls and boys can dance with boys and gay kids can relax and enjoy themselves and not feel ashamed of it.
What is the goal of this lawsuit?
ASHLY: We want for them to change their policy so if it happens again they deal with it differently.
AMELIA: We want to send a message to the other schools out there, saying, "Hey, wake up." A lot of school districts have gotten by with a lot of things. There are kids who arent going to be strong enough to fight it, and we dont want to have to see other kids go through what Ashly did.
Will you get money from the lawsuit?
AMELIA: Theres going to be some monetary damages, because you cant just walk away from something theres got to be something to forfeit thats got some sort of a bite to it. Thats just the way it is, or else what have people learned? But mostly we just want the law enforced.
These laws are put in place for a reason so that these policies mean something. Sensitivity training should be part of education. They should have policies and procedures that are set up so that if you have a problem you do A, B or C. You dont take a child and throw her out and then sit there and watch her. She shouldnt have been an experiment in anything.
ASHLY: Especially because I didnt do anything!
Are you aware of anybody else in your school whos gay or lesbian?
ASHLY: I know bi people. But I dont know of anyone whos just gay or just lesbian, except for me.
AMELIA: Sometimes I wonder if those bi girls are really lesbians, and theyre just sitting on the fence because its more acceptable.
ASHLY: Yeah, but some of those girls have boyfriends, too.
AMELIA: I know, but thats just my opinion.
ASHLY: Yeah, maybe. I told people for a while that I was bi for that same reason. One guy in school said to me, "Well, at least you got it half right." I said, "Hey, thanks a lot!"
Were you worried that the lawsuit would generate more publicity than you could stand? Did you ever feel like quitting?
ASHLY: No, because I have to stand up for what I believe in. A lot of people tell me Im strong to do this, but its just what I had to do, once I knew there was the option. I was worried about the media, but I had to stand up for the cause and say, "This is inappropriate." Theres a lot of gay and lesbian teen suicide because kids are afraid to come out. If what Im doing saves one life, that makes all the difference to me.