The Banks School District. Photo: Chas Hundley

BANKS - Carter Lee’s rainbow flag wasn’t supposed to be a big deal.

“I brought it to school and wanted to make sure everyone was open to it, and everyone was,” they said, cracking a half-smile. “At first.”

It didn’t take long for things to go south.

Lee first brought the flag to Josh Varnell's Banks High School history classroom, prompting other staff members to hang flags in their space. Days later, a local parent called into KXL's Lars Larson show and claimed one had taken the place of an American flag. Local media quickly caught wind, and before long, write-ups proliferated far beyond the Pacific Northwest. By the end of the month, Lee was making international headlines.

“After that,” they said, “I knew I needed to start a GSA.”

Lee spoke to The Banks Post in the lounge of an independent living program downtown Portland where they’ve been since April. Though the move was borne from family tension, it’s a welcome step toward stability after a stormy few years.

By 15, Lee had come out as bisexual to a select few friends and begun using they/them pronouns. The reception at home, at church, and school was less than warm.

“I probably went to school for four months of my senior year,” they said, citing death threats, hate speech, and physical intimidation from their peers. They fast-tracked their education, graduated at 16, and left home to bounce between couches in Forest Grove and Beaverton.

Before they left, Lee managed to get a GSA on the books. “GSA” has long stood for “Gay-Straight Alliance,” but per materials from the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and Lee’s own insistence, Banks’s club bears the new, more broadly-inclusive label. It received official club status in March of 2018.

Principal Jacob Pence says that the GSA went through the standard new-club application process without any major complications, but Lee expressed frustration with the pace. Before the club was approved, they and other students gathered for informal lunchtime meetings in the history classroom where Lee’s infamous flag still hung, advised by then-staff member Josh Varnell.

Lee describes Varnell as “one of the best teachers [they’ve] ever had,” someone who understood queer identities in a way they wished other teachers would. 

“I wish the staff could go through trainings,” Lee said when the Post asked what could be done to improve circumstances for queer youth in the Banks School District. They noted that several students with questions about their gender or sexuality approached Lee instead of a faculty member because Lee was better informed. Varnell departed the district last summer.

According to numbers provided by Oregon GLSEN chair Danny Rosen, 225 high schools statewide house a GSA of some sort. Meanwhile, the Oregon Department of Education provides guidelines for protecting transgender students, but does not require teachers to receive training on queer identities.

After Varnell’s departure, BHS English teacher Lindsay LaJoie inherited the GSA adviser role. She says it was a natural fit.

“I’d spoken to [Varnell] and thought it was very important to have a GSA at Banks,” LaJoie said in a phone interview with the Post. “I knew a lot of kids in the club, and I cared very deeply for them.”

She adds: “Our student body, although it appears very homogeneous when we look on the surface, is actually quite diverse.”

The GSA’s current executive board is living proof. President Allison Forcier, a senior with plans to study veterinary medicine, identifies as bisexual. Vice President Chloe Sinz, also a senior, is pansexual. Treasurer Liliana Standley is straight. 

They all say that they’ve been surprised by the club’s smooth reception. “As president, I thought I’d have to be talking to the school board, trying to convince them that our GSA should exist,” Forcier said. “That hasn’t happened at all.”

Still, of course, problems linger. Junior Katherine Stone, the group’s treasurer, notes that circumstances are especially tough for trans students. 

One of Stone’s best friends is transgender. When he first came out, he would spend whole school days avoiding the restrooms altogether, for fear of causing a scene. Eventually, he received special permission to use a gender-neutral bathroom in the district office, which is housed in an entirely separate building from the high school.

Deadnaming—referring to a trans person by their birth name instead of the name that matches their gender expression—is also a major concern. “A lot people just don’t take them seriously,” Stone said.

While there’s plenty of progress left to make, the officers remain optimistic. The GSA now gets space in the morning announcements and a billboard in the school’s main hallway. 

Best of all? 16 months after one pride flag in one Banks High School classroom made international headlines, nearly every classroom in the school flies a pride flag of its own. “And the teachers who don’t have flags are teachers that we know support us,” said Sinz.

Carter Lee’s rainbow flag was never supposed to be a big deal. It became one anyway. Now, almost a year and a half later, you can hardly open a door or turn a corner at Banks High School without encountering a symbol of queer pride—that’s supposed to be a big deal. And it is.

This article originally stated that Lee hung the rainbow flag; in fact, Lee brought the flag to school, prompting other teachers to hang flags. We apologize for the error.