Terry Miller returned to Shadle Park High School on Tuesday night to see for himself: It’s gotten better.
Miller, whose memories of bullying at Shadle in the 1980s helped inspire the inspiring “It Gets Better” project, returned to his alma mater for the first time in more than two decades. This time, the welcome was a lot warmer – a big crowd turned out to hear Miller and his longtime partner, the writer Dan Savage, give a hilarious and moving presentation about gay kids, acceptance and life after bullying.
“It’s really crazy and emotional to be back at Shadle Park High School,” said Miller, dressed in a white shirt, bow tie and logging boots. “It’s truly nerve-wracking.”
Since the project began less than a year ago, as a way to give hope to gay kids in the wake of high-profile suicides, Miller has told his “Shadle stories” about relentless bullying and administrative indifference.
But the school that welcomed him back Tuesday is a much different place. One with a thriving Gay-Straight Alliance. One where administrators like Principal Herb Rotchford supported the production of “The Laramie Project.” One where gay kids and their friends work hard to make it better.
“Shadle’s Gay-Straight Alliance is saying it’s not getting better after we leave. It’s getting better right now,” said Henry Seipp, the Shadle teacher who formed the GSA six years ago. “At Shadle, it has gotten better. I don’t know if it’s better in Omak now or Kansas City, but at Shadle, it’s definitely better.”
Seipp was instrumental in bringing Miller and Savage to the school, after Miller found the Shadle GSA’s Facebook page and reached out to him. Although their project is aimed at gay and lesbian youths – including more than 10,000 YouTube videos and a book full of stories of people who overcame bullying and went on to live happy lives – Tuesday night was the first time they’d actually spoken at a high school.
Savage and Miller live in Seattle, where they have a teenage son. They’ve been together for about 17 years, and are married in Canada. About a year ago, prompted by the suicides of gay kids, Savage began thinking about trying to communicate with young people who were being bullied – to let them know their lives would get better.
Part of what made the subject emotional for him, he said Tuesday night, was knowing about Miller’s experiences here. They posted the first video in September and encouraged others to do the same. Hundreds of people added their own within a week; in less than a month, President Obama had done one. It grew and grew, and a book was published earlier this year – “all, in part, because of what happened to Terry here, at Shadle, 25 years ago,” Savage said.
Miller’s return was an exciting moment for the Shadle GSA. Several members of the group went to Monday’s City Council meeting for a mayoral proclamation in support of the visit, along with representatives of Odyssey Youth Center and others. Aaron Horton, the GSA’s leader, said before the meeting, “I think it’s going to be a great experience for everybody at Shadle, and I think it’s really good for the community.”
Seipp started the group at Shadle after he overheard some kids at lunch loudly debating the morality of homosexuality as two gay kids nearby hung their heads uncomfortably. When he upbraided the debaters, suggesting that they sounded like bigots, it led to a “conversation” with parents and administrators, he said.
“At the end of that conversation, I agreed to use kind, gentle language and to start a Gay-Straight Alliance,” Seipp said.
Sixty kids showed up to the first meeting. The backlash was quick – students wore “Straight Pride” shirts, and GSA posters were torn from the walls. But Seipp said that the hostility had an unintended consequence – it drove support to the GSA.
Seipp gives a lot of credit to his boss, Rotchford. When he wanted to stage “The Laramie Project,” for example, Rotchford went to bat for him with upper administrators, Seipp said.
“I think we’re in a much different place than we were 20 years ago, as a school and a society,” Rotchford said. “What really means a lot to me is Terry can come back, not only to Spokane but to Shadle Park High School, and understand it’s been transformed.”
It’s not like everything’s perfect. Gay slurs remain a vital part of the teenage lexicon. Bullies haven’t been banished. The culture at large remains locked in an insipid debate over fundamental civil rights for gays and lesbians.
“Our signs still get torn down, six years later,” Seipp said. “But not as many of them.”
And it’s a far cry from the place that Miller left all those years ago, wanting never to return.
“I’m so proud of Shadle,” he said. “I’m kind of proud to say I’m from Shadle Park now.”