Oct. 8, 2009
By Tim Simard
Champlain Valley Union High School senior James Neiley found it difficult coming to terms with being gay when he first entered high school. He said there was a lot of apprehension during his freshman year, but that soon disappeared when he discovered CVU’s welcoming nature and penchant for tolerance.
Observer photo by Karen Pike
Timothy Williams, a 2009 graduate of Champlain Valley Union High and now a freshman at Johnson State College, accepts his Youth StandOUT Award at the annual Outright Vermont awards dinner last Thursday at Burlington's ECHO Science Center.
Joining the school’s Gay-Straight-Transgender Alliance, also known as the GSTA, was like finding a new home of understanding.
“When I was feeling really, really confused, there was a place for me to go, there were people for me to talk to,” Neiley told the Observer.
CVU’s efforts to be a more open and tolerant high school earned it high marks last week from Outright Vermont, the state’s leading gay youth organization. In the organization’s Safe Schools Report Card, CVU was one of nine schools to receive the highest possible rating.
Six Vermont students also received Youth StandOUT Awards from Outright Vermont for their service to their community. Neiley won an award, as did St. George resident and 2009 CVU graduate Tim Williams. The students received the awards based on nominations from their peers.
“I’m rather proud to be acknowledged for the work that I’ve done, knowing it’s done some good for people,” said Williams, currently in his freshman year at Johnson State College.
The awards ceremony and release of the report card took place at Burlington’s Echo Center on Oct. 1.
Outright Vermont is a youth center and advocacy group that, according to its mission statement, strives “to build safe, healthy and supportive environments for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth.”
Outright Vermont graded schools based on three criteria: the existence of gay-straight alliance groups, anti-bullying initiatives and whether gender-neutral bathrooms are provided.
“It’s safe to say CVU is really a standout,” said Christopher Neff, Outright Vermont’s executive director. “They have a very active community there.”
Meg Howard, an outreach counselor at CVU, said it comes as no surprise that the high school would rank so highly with Outright Vermont’s Safe Schools Report Card. She said she’s proud of the high school’s ability to recognize all students.
“CVU’s mission is to really embrace all students,” Howard said. “This is a very accepting, open-minded place.”
One of the biggest factors Outright Vermont considered during its rankings dealt with gender-neutral bathrooms. Neff said that at a statewide meeting last year, students in Vermont gay-straight alliances wanted Outright Vermont to advocate for gender neutral bathrooms.
“This was the number one issue the students voted on,” Neff said.
Currently, 28 percent of Vermont public high schools have at least one gender-neutral bathroom. CVU has one of the single-stall, unisex facilities, Neff added.
He said Outright Vermont’s campaign for gender-neutral bathrooms would continue, but will be student driven. If students want a unisex bathroom in their school, Outright will work with administrators and students to try and make it reality.
Overall, the majority of high schools in Vermont have been supportive of Outright Vermont’s efforts of making school environments safer for gay, lesbian and transgender students, Neff said.
“This is the start of an early effort for schools everywhere, and I would say Vermont is already a leader,” Neff said.
Williams said the support from CVU and Outright Vermont made him feel more comfortable with his sexuality.
“I was really shy in the beginning (at CVU) and the positive influence at Outright and the GSTA really helped me,” Williams said. “One of the strongest things you can have is a supportive environment.”
Williams was an instrumental force at Outright Vermont during his high school years and continues to be while attending Johnson State, Neff said. He’s coordinated transportation to meetings and increased safety at the organization’s headquarters. Williams has also been instrumental in writing government grants for Outright Vermont, Neff added.
Neiley’s advocacy work with Outright Vermont garnered him national attention when he spoke before the Vermont Legislature earlier this year in support of same-sex marriage. Neiley was also recently listed by Advocate Magazine as the only teenager to make its activist list of 40 under 40 most influential people.
“I love the direct effect (activism) has on people,” Neiley said.
Williams is studying to become a history teacher at Johnson State and Neiley is hoping to pursue a fashion design career once he graduates from CVU in the spring. Howard believes both students would not be as successful as they have been without the help of CVU’s GSTA or Outright Vermont.
“They didn’t have to fight their battles at school,” Howard said. “They felt so supported by CVU, the community and their families.”