DarmerKatherine Darmer is a is a Professor of Law at Chapman University and is also a Distinguished Senior Fellow in the Gender & Sexuality Law Program this fall.   She offers the following observations about on-going litigation challenging a California High School’s failure to protect LGBT students from homophobic threats and violence:

Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that California’s Corona del Mar High School in Orange County had become the latest to try to put a stop the high school production of RENT, which depicts both gay and straight characters in a sensitive light.

Under the direction of drama coach Ron Martin, who picked RENT precisely to sensitize the student body at a time when Martin was alarmed by an increasing climate of homophobia at the school, the show ultimately went forward at Cornoa del Mar and won numerous national awards and ongoing media coverage.  Before the production, several male athletes at the school targeted HAIL KETCHUM, who played a starring role in RENT, releasing a video on FACEBOOK depicting threats to rape and murder Ms Ketchum.  On the same video, the boys also made numerous homophobic comments.  The video was posted via the school’s Facebook “network” and viewed by hundreds of students, causing acute distress to Ketchum.  Following the video, Ms Ketchum’s parents’ complaints to the school went largely unheeded.  Indeed, the boys were given athletic awards in the wake of the video’s release.

The ACLU of Southern California ultimately brought suit against the school district and administrators for failing adequately to protect Ketchum from the young men’s threat of violence and for failing to adequately protect LGBT students at the schoool.  As the Facebook video illustrated, misogyny and homophobia are frequently linked.

The ACLU suit arose against the backdrop not only of the controversy surrounding RENT at the high school, but also in the wake of the Proposition 8 campaign, which emboldened some at the school to articulate homophobic views.

The suit was one of the first to bring attention to the “collateral damage” of Prop 8 and the heated Prop 8 campaign done to young students coming to terms with their sexuality.NYTimes_cover

This past Sunday’s New York Times magazine profiled LGBT students in middle schools, noting that homophobic language in schools is frequently tolerated by teachers in a way that racist speech never would be.  As the article pointed out, phrases such as “that’s so gay,” deployed in a derogatory, dismissive manner, are part of a common high school vocabularly despite the pain such statements cause to LGBT students.  This environment of insensitivity was in evidence at Corona del Mar High School in Orange County.

The suit in Orange County was recently concluded in a favorable settelement that required district officials to apologize to Ms Ketchum and further required that school administrators, teachers and students participate in mandtory training.  The training will deal not only with the harmful impact of discrimination based upon sex but also with the problem of discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity.  Details of the settlement are contained in an ACLU press release, and were covered by the New York Times.

Ms Ketchum and her parents, who recently chose to be publicy identified, made clear that the suit was broght primarily to ensure that the overall school envirnoment would be improved for other students.  Ms Ketchum is now a freshman at Loyola Marymount University in California.

It is unfortunate that a lawsuit of this sort was needed as a “wake-up” call to a school district and its administrators charged with protecting all students.  But as the New York Times story on Sunday illustrated, the gains we have made in protecting LGBT rights leave us a long way from a school environment that is fully protective of sexual orientation minorities.

–Katherine Darmer
(Darmer is a board member and chair of the legal team of the Orange County Equality Coalition, which was a named plaintiff in the Orange County lawsuit.)


  1. Gender & Sexuality Law Blog » Blog Archive » RENT Case in …: Earlier this year, the New York Times report.. http://bit.ly/SQDi5

  2. Gender & Sexuality Law Blog » Blog Archive » RENT Case in …: Earlier this year, the New York Times report.. http://bit.ly/SQDi5

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