Mt. Vernon student fights bigotry in his community
Mt. Vernon student fights bigotry in his community
by Rev. Barbara Allen - SGN Contributing Writer

Cute, well-built, and articulate, with tousled blond hair and blue eyes, well-mannered Ian Feis doesn't look like a hero and may not consider himself to be one. Nonetheless, he is one of our heroes.

Ian, as an adolescent Gay male, is at high risk throughout the world, including in his home community of Mt. Vernon, Washington. In spite of this, Ian, his teachers, advisors, supporters, and parents, take Pride in his accomplishments.

He just graduated Mount Vernon High School with the following awards for 2008 alone: Curiosity in Science Award (June 2008), Soroptimist Student of the Month (January 2008), Air Force: Mathematics and Science Award (May 2008), Most Inspirational Gay/Straight Alliance (for the entire MVHS GSA in May 2008), and multiple scholarships to help towards his college tuition.

Ian realized he was Gay at puberty, but didn't dare share that awareness with anyone. When interviewed just after graduation, he explained candidly, "My middle school experience was absolute hell. Every day I would get on the bus to inevitably be pushed, shoved, and tripped. The halls were no better. I guess I was lucky that our school didn't have lockers because I would have been locked in them. At that time in my life, I was so closeted it wasn't funny, but still somehow the other boys picked up on my difference and I was called 'faggot' more than my own name. During these years, my house was egged, our mailbox was burned to the ground, and my backpack was stolen. In my opinion, the administration at school did nothing. I'd report what was happening and the counselor would recommend that I join a sport, because that would solve all of my problems. The principal suggested to my parents that maybe I should change schools. This notion still seems ridiculous to me because I was a 4.0 student, ASB president, and one of the few students to pass all of sections of the W.A.S.L. My parents hired a lawyer, but I talked them out of pressing charges because I was already different enough and didn't want my parents to step in and make it more apparent.

"Both my parents were raised in religious households: father Catholic, mother Baptist. Later in life, both left the church because they felt that a majority of Christians were hypocritical - though they didn't abandon their faith, just the church. Our household was open to new ideas and experiences, which made coming out to my parents easier. Although I was a founding member of the MVHS GSA, I didn't come out to them until 2007 when plans were well under way for the Festival.

"Coming out to my parents led to us having a better relationship. They're now involved in my life as never before, truly my best friends. I think that they've grown as much - if not more than - I through this whole experience. My parents attended many of my scholarship award dinners with the GSBA and the Pride Foundation and are impressed with the Gay community after this affirming, positive experience. They plan on becoming involved with the Pride Foundation, and my mother wants to start attending our local PFLAG. My mom told Cathy Pfahl, the high school's GSA advisor, that she would love to help out with anything they need while I'm at college. It feels good that the work I began will be ongoing with the help of many new people.

"High school was 180 degrees different from middle school. I was able to find my niche and become a respected student among many of my teachers and peers. I didn't face as much harassment and bigotry as [I did in] middle school, although the administration was my/our biggest foe. The way we saw it, they hindered every attempt our fledgling GSA made towards equality.

"In spring 2003, MVHS Librarian Cathy Pfahl held an informational meeting for people with an interest in combating homophobia on campus. Gay students went to Cathy believing that she might be able to help them. At that time they weren't ready to go out and start a GSA because they didn't believe that the school was ready for it. Cathy felt it was her job to help students acquire information. Three years later, in spring of 2006, there was another meeting, and this time students - myself and two others - were ready to get a GSA started. Cathy's reason for wanting to help start a GSA was because she truly cares about the safety and wellbeing of all students.

"I was one of the three founding members of the Mount Vernon High School Gay/Straight Alliance in the spring of 2006. Since then I have served as president of the club for two years. The club's goals are to combat homophobia and other bigotry at MVHS, to educate students and the community about GLBTQ issues, to foster fun events for the club and school, and to support one another in a caring, accepting atmosphere.

"We thought we could combine all these goals into one event by having a two-day festival and educational event. There was backlash from the school administration. The club had an impromptu visit from the high school's principal and superintendent, one when they came to discuss their concerns, one of which was that we wanted drag queen performance at the closing variety show of our event. They felt that a drag queen would not be appropriately dressed for a school event. The club quickly assured them that any drag queen we would have would be more appropriately dressed than our own school cheerleaders. They weren't convinced and still tried to prevent the festival. Our club worked with the ACLU to educate the administration about our rights as a club. After sending in multiple forms to be considered a school-sponsored activity, with no response, we were denied the right for the Festival to be called a "school-sponsored event." Our club had worked hard to line up eight workshops by professors, lawyers, and doctors. We decided to call it the "Over the Rainbow Festival." We added a job fair which included organizations and businesses from across the state showing support and opportunities for LGBT students. We'd conclude with variety show performances from MVHS students, alumni, and community members. Opening night of the festival, we showed a documentary called For the Bible Tells Me So and our auditorium was packed. The next day attendance was just as impressive. We had five different GSAs at the Festival. Now many school GSAs in our area are communicating and getting students from different schools empowered about LGBT rights. I believe that our school campus and community were enhanced by this festival and hope that the school administration will give its full support next year.

"The GSA also faced other challenges. Earlier in the year, graffiti appeared in the school's restrooms that said, "All fags MUST die, starting with&" What then followed was a list of six names, mine being one of them. This was a very scary time for the GSA, but the school didn't seem to take these threats seriously. It was difficult to go to classes during that time, but I wasn't about to fall behind on my school work.

"The GSA and myself also brought the Straight For Equality campaign and the national Day of Silence to our school campus.

"The 'Christian Club' invited our GSA to a 'loving' discussion that would be about understanding each other, particularly about how 'they could support us and still be faithful to their religion.' Instead, Pastor Drew began a 45-minute sermon about 'perversion, sinful choice, and abomination.' He told us we had a God-shaped hole inside of us and needed to seek out Jesus. There was no discussion, love, support, or compassion."

Ian was chosen by the Pride Foundation to work on the Queer Youth Initiative Grant Review of grant applications to help decide which organizations will receive funding. During his junior and senior years he was involved in researching laws, organizing events, and planning meetings.

Next year, Ian will be attending Lewis and Clark College in Portland. "Lewis and Clark is all about social justice and that resonates very deep with me," he said. "I know that, on campus and in the city, I will be able to become active in organizations that are aiming for equality and striving for proactive and progressive change. While visiting Lewis and Clark, I was impressed by the great diversity, which quickly caught my eye and made me feel at home. In my conversations with students, I saw that they formulated arguments that challenged the normal standards of society and supported all aspects of diversity. These conversations cemented my interest. From what I can tell, curriculum is built upon a myriad of perspectives that would allow me to properly analyze any situation, enabling me to discover and clarify my own viewpoint."

Ian will be working towards receiving a double major in Biology and Sociology while meeting pre-med requirements. "My career goal is to be physician," he said. "I want to start an organization/clinic that is open to GLBTQ teens where they could seek medical help, counseling, tutoring. It would be a place where teens facing the same issues could network to see that they aren't alone, in a positive, fun environment. I chose Biology because I have always had an intense interest in science, and Sociology because I want to learn what affects people's decision-making and how much society affects this process. I think this will be a very powerful foundation for seeking a medical degree."

Ian, Cathy Pfahl, Kathy Reim, the greater Mt. Vernon Community and others throughout the state have clearly demonstrated that with persistence in utilizing and researching all legal assistance and options, great, enlightened, inspiring things can happen and are happening. As the song goes, "We shall overcome."

Please give all possible ongoing support to this cultural and societal change through these and other well-established organizations, and, wish Ian well on his life-path.