"MTV called me this afternoon," Chris Vasquez tells friends who greet him inside the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center on Mills Avenue. To say the wiry 17-year-old is a sudden celebrity is understatement: Prior to April 9, his media profile was limited to running the Edgewater High School newspaper. On this day, however, his story is being told everywhere from CNN to the national networks.
"My cell phone bill's gonna be outrageous," he adds.
Inside the center sit three of his friends -- Brandon Hodge, 20, Matt Sigurdson, 18, and Thomas Gentile, 19 -- who, like Vasquez, achieved their unwanted renown when state Rep. Allen Trovillion, a Winter Park Republican, opened his door to the gay youths so that he could render what he termed "constructive criticism."
In essence, he told the four -- who were in Tallahassee lobbying for the Dignity for All Students Act, which would extend civil-rights protections to gay kids in Florida schools -- they were going to hell. By being open about their orientation, in fact, he said they were bringing the discrimination they face upon themselves.
"You're throwing your life away," Trovillion, 74, declared after hearing the students' pitch. "I don't understand why the gay population is becoming so vocal. You are going to cause the downfall of this country."
By the end of Trovillion's 10-minute diatribe, Vasquez was in tears, his three friends had left in disgust and a Tampa Tribune intern who happened to be in the room was furiously scribbling notes.
The next day, April 10, the story broke, once again staining Orlando with anti-gay rhetoric. First, Southern Baptists took issue with Disney's gay-friendly employment policies; then, Pat Robertson said the city's refusal to thwart a rainbow-flag display for Gay Pride Month invited divine wrath. Now this -- and it comes just two months before the 11th annual Gay Days draws tens of thousands of gay tourists and their dollars to Central Florida.
Even Trovillion's own political party, it seems, is keeping its distance -- though the absence of condemnations is resounding.
Thanks to term limits, Trovillion can't run again. Yet he has peers in the Florida Legislature who share his views, particularly his contempt for so-called "special rights." Homosexuals, they say, don't need any additional protections.
That view is mired in ignorance of what it's like to be a gay teen.
The statistics are alarming: Gay teens are three times more likely to attempt suicide, according to a controversial 1990 U.S. Department of Health study. They comprise 28 percent of high school dropouts and are five times more likely to skip school than their straight peers, according to the gay advocacy group Project Yes.
A survey by the Gay and Lesbian Student Education Network (GLSEN) revealed that nearly 60 percent of gay students felt threatened at school because of their sexual orientation. Twenty-eight percent said they were physically assaulted.
Ninety-three percent reported being called "faggot" or "queer" by students. A bit more shocking: One-third heard the same utterances from teachers.
According to a Massachusetts study, gay students are three times more likely than their non-gay peers to be threatened or injured with a weapon. As a defense, they're also three times likelier to carry a weapon to school.
Schools, gay-rights advocates say, aren't doing enough. Sometimes, administrators look the other way.
While a freshman at a Boca Raton high school, Gentile says, some students began bullying him in the middle of class. First it was just name-calling, which he tried to ignore. Then, someone wrote on the back of his neck.
"When I tried to stand up for myself and tell them to stop, they hit me," he says. "It broke out and the three of them beat me up in the middle of class."
The teacher didn't intercede until Gentile was curled up on the floor. The principal suspended the bullies -- and Gentile, too, for provoking his attackers. At the time, Gentile says, he hadn't even come out.
Hodge went to a top-rated magnet school in Nashville, Tenn., where both his parents taught. But that didn't stop that school's principal from ripping up his national merit recommendation letter in his face when he tried to start a gay-straight student alliance.
"Every day gay youth are facing harassment," says GLSEN's Atlanta-based spokeswoman Brenda Barron. Yet school is not an option; it's a requirement, she says. "When students are hearing anti-gay epitaphs 25 times a day, they're not getting equal protection."
Barbara Trovillion-Rushing, Trovillion's daughter and an Orange County School Board member, voiced support for her father in the Tampa Tribune's initial report, saying she didn't believe additional protections for gay students were necessary. Just a handful of Florida school districts, in fact, include sexual orientation in their anti-discrimination policies. Orange County does not.
The code of conduct students must sign prohibits the "disrespect" of any student, says Orange County schools' spokeswoman Jackie Johnson. That, along with zero-tolerance policies toward any violent or intimidating activities, is sufficient, she says.;;
For years, conservative political and religious groups have fought gay rights with the scientifically unfounded claim that homosexuality is a choice. In his limited comments to the media, Trovillion echoed the same belief: homosexuals aren't entitled to government protections, because they choose to be gay.
Not so, according to the American Psychological Association. It says that, especially among men, sexuality is not voluntary. "By the time boys and girls reach adolescence," it reported to the U.S. Supreme Court in an amicus brief filed during the recent Boy Scouts case, "their sexual preference is likely to be already determined, even though they may not yet have become sexually very active."
"Who would choose to suffer the persecution?" asks Hodge. "To go through school being rejected, being in the class that [has] the highest statistics for suicide rate, high-school drop-outs and being on the street?
Yes, I want that life!" he says sarcastically. "I want to be gay!"
Gentile, in fact, did what Trovillion wants him to do -- ask God to cure him of his gayness. "Mom," he says, "is like super-Christian. I heard the same stuff out of her mouth that I heard out of [Trovillion's]."
For years, Gentile struggled with his homosexuality. "To give you a sense of how much I didn't want to be gay at first," he says, "there was a time [when] I actually started going to church heavily. I tried to let God heal me, but it's not something that can be healed.
"That caused me so much stress," he adds, "because when I first came out to my mom ... . " Gentile pauses, and looks around the room. "I'm not the type of person to commit suicide or anything," he says, "but I kind of backed off in my own little cell. I became a hermit."
Gentile did drop out of high school. It wasn't so much the abuse from schoolmates, he says -- as he got older, they laid off -- but the struggle at home. He moved out.
The coming-out stories of the others fall along the same lines. They fought it until they realized it couldn't be changed. Their families had tepid reactions, at best. In some cases, it's just something they don't bring up; in others, it remains cloaked -- Sigurdson says his mother, who lives in Canada, still doesn't know her son is gay.
But everyone knows kids can be cruel, especially to those perceived as different. Public schools are supposed to teach tolerance. In Florida, that's not happening.
Vasquez finds it frustrating, for example, that his school forces him to ignore that one big part of his life. "All through my classes," he says, "especially like health classes -- mandatory life-management stuff -- we learned everything about the human body but we were never taught anything about homosexuality. It was like this great hush thing."
Even in his role as editor of the school paper, he says, homosexuality was the one topic he wasn't allowed to cover. The only ads the paper refused came from "gay stores."
"It was really like trying to push it under the [carpet] and pretend that it never exists," he says.
The lobbying day was organized by Equality Florida, a Tampa-based gay-rights organization. About 80 GLBT youth from around the state -- 14 from Central Florida -- drove to Tallahassee on a Sunday evening, spent the night and hit the Capitol the next morning.
With one exception, the students say, even legislators who disagreed with them were cordial. But then came Trovillion.
"What they experience in schools," says Equality Florida executive director Nadine Smith, "he illustrated perfectly."
"God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, and he is going to destroy you and a lot of others," Trovillion told the students. Newspapers and members of the gay community sharply criticized that remark, saying it gives license for violence against gays.
According to his Tallahassee colleagues, however, Trovillion's not an angry, hate-filled person. "I was surprised by his remarks," says House Democratic leader Rep. Lois Frankel, of West Palm Beach. "Because he's a very mild-mannered, quiet guy."
The students don't describe the lecture as angry: If anything, they say, it was grandfatherly. Says Gentile, "It was like, ‘I'm a wise old man and I'm telling you how it really is.'"
The group met with Frankel right after Trovillion. "I don't think he understands the hurtful nature of what he said," she says, confirming reports of how shaken the students were. "I believe what he said shows a lack of sensitivity."
Trovillion remained unavailable for further comment. Requests by Orlando Weekly to speak with his pastor, daughter and several other state representatives on both sides of the aisle were declined.
The owner of a construction business, Trovillion was mayor of Winter Park from 1962-67. When he ran for the legislature in 1994, he did so with an anti-abortion, "family values" platform. "His views now," says Alfred Frith, an Orlando lawyer who challenged him in the Republican primary, "are consistent with what he ran on then."
Trovillion went on to defeat incumbent Democrat Kim Shepard, a former prosecutor. He wasn't challenged again until last year. On election day, attorney Alana Brenner bested him by 300 votes -- but thanks to absentee ballots, Trovillion emerged victorious days later.
Unlike Frankel, Brenner says, "I was not surprised [by Trovillion's remarks], let me put it that way. He's from the old school, the 1950s Winter-Park-good-ol'-boy mentality -- not the most tolerant person." During one debate, she recalls, he referred to an African-American student as "boy." "I thought, ‘God, I haven't heard that in a long, long time.'"
In the legislature, press reports indicate, Trovillion has been a party loyalist, at one point admitting that he supported a bill because he "knew it was going to pass and you vote for what the leaders want."
But Frankel also says Trovillion, who came into office with a tough-on-crime mentality, softened some as he worked on the corrections committee. In fact, he challenged the governor and the corrections secretary on issues such as chain gangs to the point where he was booted from the committee this session. "As he became more sensitive to it," Frankel says, "he became really at odds with the Bush administration."
No one -- now or ever -- is accusing Trovillion of liberalism. He has the backing of Associated Industries of Florida, the state's biggest pro-business group, and the Christian Coalition. He's near the bottom of rankings by labor and environmentalists. This legislative term, he is sponsoring legislation to forbid computers in public libraries from accessing pornography.
But he's mostly the goat of pro-choice groups. Penny Jacobs, a choice activist who worked on Brenner's campaign, says Trovillion once picketed outside the home of his neighbor, an ob/gyn who performed abortions at Winter Park Hospital.
Orange County Democratic Committee chief Doug Head says Trovillion plastered images of aborted fetuses in his front yard. And nearly three years ago, Trovillion catered a lunch for more than 100 Operation Rescue protesters across the street from an abortion clinic, just months after pro-choicers rallied outside his office.
"I haven't sung this since '68," Head utters as 70 or so sign-waving protesters break into an impromptu "We Shall Overcome" last Saturday at Orange and Orlando avenues, not far from Trovillion's Winter Park office. Patty Sheehan, Orlando's first openly gay city commissioner, is on hand, and petitions calling for Trovillion's ouster are circulating. The P.A. leaves much to be desired, but the crowd is nonetheless rather festive.
And angry, too. "I want to see Trovillion and his daughter lose their jobs," Vasquez says. "He doesn't represent us."
Head suggests that because Trovillion chairs the state tourism committee, his comments may invite a gay boycott -- a potentially crippling action in light of the upcoming Gay Days.
Still, that likely won't happen, says Keith Peterson, who launched the 1998 pride-flag display that irked Robertson (and, truth be told, city council members who would have stopped it if they could). Peterson is CEO of Watermark Entertainment Group Inc., which will market large-scale events as an outgrowth of the gay paper Watermark's success with previous Gay Day promotions.
In the past, says Peterson, anti-gay rhetoric has brought the opposite response. "Those years that we've had large protests, the gay community has said, ‘We're going [to Disney] anyway.' We're not going to let some group take it away from us."
Nonetheless, says Head, "That's an inappropriate message for the state of Florida to be sending to the gay community."
With Trovillion's seat open next year -- and his daughter rumored to be eyeing it -- Trovillion's comments won't become a dead issue. As for demands that he resign, don't count on it. Frankel, in fact, says there's no way the House would consider as much as a reprimand (though Trovillion's action brought quick responses from two Democratic Florida congressman, whose denunciations helped turn the story into national news).
Yet even conservative politicians are holding Trovillion at arm's length.
Gov. Bush quickly asserted that Trovillion's views were his own, and not the governor's. House Speaker Tom Feeney, of Oviedo, who initially voiced support for Trovillion's faith-based views, later had an aide deliver this fence-straddling statement to Orlando Weekly: "[Feeney] applauds Rep. Trovillion for taking the time to meet with the students and discuss issues candidly, however that is neither an endorsement nor a condemnation of his views."
Republican leaders, such as state chairman Al Cardenas, have been silent. Orange County Republican chairman Lew Oliver didn't return phone calls. Even religious groups that previously backed Trovillion haven't weighed in.
Apology or not, gay rights groups may come out on top. The Dignity for All Students Act, for which the students were lobbying, would have languished in obscurity had not Trovillion brought attention to it. As it is, the bill doesn't have a sponsor and won't reach the House floor any time soon -- but at least people know about it.
Moreover, Hodge says, Trovillion's comments have rallied the gay community. "We're motivated because of it," he says, adding that he's received supportive E-mails from all over the country.
"What matters to me," he says, "is [the] chain-reaction it started nationally."
"If we can make our point," Gentile adds, "whoever's going to run [for Trovillion's seat] is going to be for those issues."
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