By Patrick Rogers
September 03, 2001 12:00 PM

One day in October 1999, George Loomis showed up for Spanish class at Golden West High School in Visalia, Calif., wearing a silver stud in his left ear. A well-liked senior and class officer, Loomis, then 18, could never have dreamed that the speck of jewelry and a caustic comment from his teacher would change the course of his young life. “There are only two kinds of guys who wear earrings: pirates and faggots,” Loomis charges Juan Garcia, 46, with saying, in Spanish, “and there isn’t any water around here.”

Laughter filled the classroom as Garcia repeated the remark in English, according to Loomis, who is gay but had never made his sexual orientation public. “I was a spectacle,” he says. “I asked the teacher to stop and he laughed at me.” Loomis says other students joined in the name-calling after class, several kids spat at him, and word of his humiliation seemed to spread like a lurid rumor. For weeks the torment went unabated, until Loomis developed stomachaches from the anxiety of merely walking the halls. Complaints to administrators brought no relief; he says no action was taken to stop the harassment. Finally, in January 2000, he dropped out of school and earned a high school equivalency certificate.

Loomis, however, did not go quietly. Last January he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Visalia Unified School District alleging anti-gay discrimination. “Federal constitutional law requires that districts make their schools safe from such harassment,” says Kevin Lewis, 31, part of the San Francisco legal team handling Loomis’s case—along with the American Civil Liberties Union—pro bono. “The Visalia district utterly failed to do that—in fact it forced George out of school.” It is only the second such federal suit in the nation by a gay student; a 1997 action in Wisconsin was settled out of court. Apart from seeking unspecified damages, Loomis hopes to force the school to undertake reforms, such as sensitivity training and extracurricular activities that promote tolerance. “Every single person,” he says, “will benefit from reforms.”

Neither Juan Garcia nor the attorneys for the largely working-class school district would comment for this story. Bill Bettencourt, formerly Visalia’s acting schools superintendent, who assumed responsibility after Loomis left, acknowledges that the harassment took place and blames bureaucratic gridlock for the administration’s unresponsiveness to Loomis’s early grievances. “[The matter] just kept getting passed along, to the point where it wasn’t addressed,” says Bettencourt. Since then, however, district administrators, counselors and school psychologists have taken a mandatory sensitivity-training class.

Still, change has come slowly in Visalia, which lies 41 miles southeast of Fresno, and in the farming towns like it in California’s rural Central Valley. “The community as a whole has been pretty hostile,” says Loomis, who, with his sister Margaret, 17, was raised by an aunt, Donna Tyler, after their single mother, Sandra, was hospitalized for a chronic illness. He kept the fact he was gay from his aunt, a devout Christian with five children of her own who took the household on missionary trips to Mexico. “George didn’t want to disappoint me,” says Tyler, 40, a department store manager, who has since come to terms with his homosexuality. “I support him for who he is.”

Loomis grew into a typical teenager, who listened to alternative music, ran track and was so respected that in the spring of 1999 classmates and teachers elected him student representative to the school board. After the incident in Spanish class, Loomis visited the school psychologist, who suggested he consider an independent-study program that would allow him to work at home except for one hour each week. Loomis accepted the option, but was abruptly kicked off the board as student representative. Told point-blank by the vice-principal that the school might no longer be able to ensure his safety, Loomis claims, he left for good.

Today, at 19, he lives in Fresno and works in guest services at a hotel. Loomis plans to attend a junior college next year to make up the credits he needs to apply to his dream destination, the University of California at Berkeley, where he hopes to study law. However the legal action plays out, Loomis will always look on his hometown with an irreparable sense of loss. “I missed out on a lot of memories,” he laments. “I didn’t get to walk with my class or attend grad night. I can’t just go to Visalia anymore and feel safe. I’m still scared.”

Patrick Rogers

Leslie Berestein and Ron Arias in Visalia and Fresno