Virginia Uribe’s life includes a forgotten epic battle over LGBT youth between the strong lesbian science teacher and her Religious Right nemesis, Lou Sheldon.
Before ACT UP and Queer Nation, there was another LGBT empowerment organization that courageously defied the old socially accepted mythology of gay people as sexual deviants and predators: Project 10. Founded by kindly but determined and focused Fairfax High School science teacher and counselor Dr. Virginia Uribe, Project 10 became the basis for GLSEN, Gay-Straight Alliances, and pro-equality youth public policies, student curriculum and progressive changing attitudes toward LGBT youth.
Dr. Uribe died late Saturday afternoon, March 30, of multiple health issues at Garden Crest Rehabilitation Center in Silver Lake where she was receiving hospice care, according to her wife, Gail Rolf. The two married in 2008 but were together for 30 years this May. Uribe was 85.
Project 10 was named after the Alfred Kinsey sliding scale of human sexual behavior in 1948 that posited that roughly 10 percent of the population identified as bisexual or homosexual. Deeply rooted in the concept of liberty and justice for all, Uribe saw the desperate need of an unrecognized minority at risk because of unscientific societal norms and prejudices. In fact, the LGBT program started because bullied gay students saw how she responded to black students.
“In the 1960s, way before Project 10, the school had no black faculty and the black students at Fairfax High School sought her out and asked if she would be their club advisor because of her principles and giving voice to those who have no voice,” Rolf tells the Los Angeles Blade. “So the gay kids went to her for the same reason, not knowing that, in fact, she was a lesbian.
“A young African American student was attacked by other students for presumably being gay and the students at Fairfax who were LGBT had a sort of ‘Rosa Parks’ moment where they said enough is enough,” Rolf continues. “She was not out at the time but she realized that she needed to come out so she became one of the first educators in the Los Angeles Unified School District to come out – because of her work with Project 10.”
The launch of Project 10 in September 1984 as a “little informal rap group at lunchtime” that became an LAUSD pilot project was not only historic but groundbreaking in challenging existing attitudes.
“Every young person has a right to a sense of self-respect and dignity,” Uribe told the LA Times in 1984. “In public education we serve the needs of all our students. Some are gay and lesbian and we need to serve them too. We’re supposed to be teaching them to live in an increasingly diverse society. This shouldn’t be a place where prejudice is fostered. It’s where discrimination should be fought.”
LGBT students would act out, winding up with poor academic records, disciplinary problems, and after conflicts with their teachers, parents and other students, would too often drop out and wind up on the streets. Closeted LGBT students would suffer shame, depression and anxiety in silence, often resulting in mental and emotion issues such as alcohol and drug abuse.
Project 10 provided LGBT and questioning students a supportive safe space to talk about their issues, learn about themselves and develop a sense of empowerment and self-worth. If they stayed in school and graduated, they had a better shot at a productive life.
“This is not an advocacy program,” Uribe told the LA Times in 1985. “It is an attempt to relieve some of the pressures on gay kids so that they can go on to graduate instead of dropping out.”
The Times described Uribe, who had been teaching for roughly 30 years, as “an avowed lesbian health teacher and counselor who founded the project.”
“Not all of them are kids you would immediately classify as definitely gay or lesbian,” said Uribe, who started thinking about gay youth while getting her Ph.D in psychology. “I’ve talked with some kids who are confused about their identities, but were afraid to tell anyone else about their feelings.”
Uribe started meeting quietly with students in her windowless classroom during her lunch period. “They had no one else they could talk to,” Uribe said. “Their parents either didn’t know, or else did know, but wouldn’t listen. They obviously couldn’t talk with the straight kids. And a lot of these kids were very intelligent, but their grades didn’t show it.”
But Uribe needed more time. “These kids were in danger of dropping out and I couldn’t help them with just a few minutes a day,” she told The Times. She approached Fairfax Principal Dr. Warren L. Steinberg, who signed on.
“It’s another way to help a segment of society that needs attention,” Steinberg told The Times. “We have programs at Fairfax for deaf students, for orthopedically handicapped, for immigrant students, for the gifted, for the educably retarded. Why not gay students?”
Two LAUSD Board members also jumped on—Alan Gershman and Jackie Goldberg, who would become a significant friend and supporter as LAUSD Board Chair.
“I thought there would be some resistance,” Uribe said, “but everyone’s been supportive.”
LAUSD originally provided $6,000 of funding but Uribe, who was only paid her regular teacher’s salary, turned to the new City of West Hollywood with its large gay community for a $1,800 grant for books and other materials.
“It’s the high school where our students go,” said West Hollywood Councilmember Helen Albert, a former teacher. “And it helps us by making sure gay students graduate instead of ending up on our streets.”
After the LA Times stories, people started sending in contributions to help support the project, Rolf says, so in 1986, they created Friends of Project 10 (FOP10), the nonprofit arm of Project 10, which Rolf ran as Education Director. The non-profit helped fund a myriad of programs Project 10 developed, including the annual LGBT Prom, an annual Models of Pride youth conference, the Models of Excellence Scholarship Competition, a Youth Lobby Day, and the Make It Real Project.
But founding and sustaining Project 10 was no easy feat, transforming Uribe into a fierce “David” fighting the emboldened Religious Right, with Traditional Values head Lou Sheldon as her staunchest “Goliath” nemesis.
In fact, Project 10 was a perfect foil for the Religious Right, fitting squarely into the “no promo homo” mold, a term coined by attorney Nan Hunter to describe the 1978 Briggs Initiative that would have allowed the firing of any public school teacher or school official found “promoting” homosexuality. Sheldon was involved in pushing the Briggs initiative through his California Defend Our Children, chaired by State Sen. John Briggs. After the initiative failed, Sheldon attached himself to the merger of the New Right with the Religious Right after evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians took credit for Republican Ronald Reagan winning the White House in 1980.
Sheldon admired political Christian televangelist Pat Robertson and launched the Traditional Values Coalition as a grassroots Christian lobbying group in Anaheim, where televangelists were making millions. As AIDS in the 80s began taking the lives of gay men, Sheldon called homosexuality a “deathstyle” and claimed gays were child molesters recruiting children as part of the real “homosexual agenda.”
Sheldon grew increasingly part of a network of anti-gay Religious Right groups such as Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, Family Research Institute, Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and other so-called “pro-family” groups with sophisticated mailers and computer networking. The anti-gay groups also became proficient in developing “victimhood” as a useful tool. For instance, Dr. Paul Cameron’s membership was dropped by the American Psychological Association in 1983 “for a violation of the Preamble to the Ethical Principles of Psychologists”—and he fought back by immediately becoming an “expert” on homosexuality and an AIDS consultant to Sheldon’s friend and ally, California Assemblymember William Dannemeyer. The Sheldon- Dannemeyer relationship would endure after the politician was elected to Congress. Dannemeyer wrote a whole book on the gays-recruit-kids-“homosexual agenda” called “Shadow in the Land.”
In 1984, a promotional national newsletter for the Religious Roundtable’s Family Forum III said the agenda included “important moral issues such as: the economic survival of the family, parents’ rights in education, the homosexual movement, personal charity, child pornography, and abortion.”
That year, Uribe founded Project 10, and soon after, Sheldon founded SHAPE (Stop Homosexual Advocacy in Public Education) at TVC. “Project 10 is clearly a recruitment program,” Sheldon told The Times. “It advocates for young people the homosexual life style. This is an absolute one-sided perspective. Why should taxpayers’ dollars support only one life style?”
He added: “Project 10 says you are born this way (a homosexual) and this is the way you are. That’s false information. It’s not conclusive that (homosexuality) is genetic. Homosexuality is only an underdeveloped stage of heterosexuality.”
Meanwhile, Virginia Uribe’s network was friends, teachers and supporters, many of whom were fighting for their lives on the AIDS front, as well. It took courage during the AIDS crisis and the Reagan administration to promote Project 10 as an LGBT dropout and suicide prevention program—and to spread the project to other schools, providing workshops for teachers and administrators on how to help LGBT students, how to stop the use of anti-gay words and behavior, and how to encourage parental participation at a time when Sheldon was working to elect anti-gay school board members who advocated for abstinence-only sex education and parental rights, not “special rights” for gays.
Uribe and friends advocated for honest sex education and condom distribution as AIDS prevention at a time when many were still afraid to share breathing space with a person with HIV/AIDS and were writing their fears into law. In 1986 and 1988, Sheldon endorsed far right extremist Lyndon LaRouche’s initiatives to quarantine for people with AIDS, which Sheldon dubbed “cities of refuge.”
Sheldon used Uribe and Project 10 to build his bona fides with his Religious Right friends. In one TVC Special Report, Sheldon cited “reparative therapy” cult leader Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, founder of the Los Angeles-based NARTH:
“I believe it is a profound mistake to encourage adolescents with homosexual feelings to identify themselves as “gay” — and thus to make a sexual lifestyle decision with long-term and potentially deadly implications. Yet that is precisely the goal of Project 10 and similar pro-gay programs, which are being instituted in scores of public high schools across the country.”
“Project 10 is founded on the highly dubious assumption that there are “gay” youth who must be supported as gays. This ignores the formative factors behind homosexuality. The adolescent is torn by intense sexual and romantic feelings. At the same time, he is very unsure of his personal identity. These adolescent years serve as a transitional phase when affectionate, emotional and identification needs are eroticized. Compulsive, even addictive, sexual patterns can be formed during youth. Later in adult life, if this same person attempts to pursue a heterosexual lifestyle, he will find the transition very difficult. He already labeled himself “gay,” and will have established deep seated sexual behavior patterns.”
But by 1989, Uribe’s Project 10 in Room 308 had expanded to almost 600 counselors, nurses, teachers and school psychologists via workshops she conducted throughout LAUSD, according to The Times, with backing from more than 20 local and state teacher associations and youth groups.
“[LGBT youth] have to monitor everything they say, play it straight with friends and parents,” and be silent about their feelings, Uribe said – but in Project 10 they can be free.
In 1988 and 1989, Uribe faced off with Sheldon and Catholic Archbishop Roger Mahony, who called Project 10 “a camouflaged method to legitimize homosexuality” and urged thousands of the faithful to protest the program.
In March 1988, conservative Republican Marian La Follette led the GOP caucus in voting to withhold new funds from LAUSD until it killed Project 10. District Supt. Leonard Britton and the LAUSD school board said no—they supported Uribe.
In June 1988, about 100 supporters and foes of Project 10 turned out for a boisterous booing and cheering LAUSD forum over the program.
“I’m sorry there’s an opposition,” Uribe said, “because, as part of a public school system, I feel that our commitment to equality extends to all children, including our lesbian and gay children.” LA City Councilmember Zev Yaroslavsky and out Municipal Judge Rand Schrader agreed.
Sheldon led a bunch of ministers against it, to no avail.
Students, meanwhile, praised Project 10. “I’ve had books thrown at me, I’ve had food thrown at me, I hear the word faggot 55,000 times a day,” said a 17-year-old Fairfax student, who asked The Times not to identify him.
“I just want to make it through my teen years,” said Regina, 17, who came out to her mother “because I couldn’t live a lie anymore. I wanted to be up front and truthful and honest about my feelings, but it just made matters worse.”
She was forced out of the home and wound up living with another young lesbian friend. Project 10 saved her—but she wanted the straight world to know that “I am not a child molester, I am not sex crazy and that I do not look at other girls that way when we dress in the locker room.”
Despite the constant scrutiny and protests, Uribe and Rolf found other ways to help support for LGBT youth – including a prom where they could dress up and dance together and have fun like every other high school couple. And the Prom wasn’t just reserved for young people—oldsters who had been denied the experience got to come, too.
And by May 2009, Fairfax High School had its first male Prom Queen.
“I think that indicates where our society is right now. That the young people, they are not involved in this whole argument about gay rights. They think this whole fight is silly. They just accept people for who they are,” Uribe told The Times. “Gender-bending is just kind of in.”
Two years later, Lou Sheldon held a news conference in Santa Ana and only three people showed up—all of them from the progressive Courage Campaign.
TVC is just a shadow of its former self, though it keeps its anti-LGBT light burning through this message on the website:
“whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea”
Nah, out science teacher and counselor Virginia Uribe might say. She is now with the many other LGBT pioneers who preceded her in death, including Jim Kepner, Harry Hay, Morris Kight, and Paul Monette. Jackie Goldberg, meanwhile, is running for LAUSD school board again. (Full disclosure: I’m in the photo at Morris and the group’s insistence.)
The Los Angeles LGBT Center assumed the responsibility of a Project 10 project—the annual Models of Pride conference. Center CEO Lorri L. Jean issued this statement on March 31:
“The entire Center community mourns the loss of Dr. Gina Uribe. As an educator, advocate, and activist, she devoted her life to helping nurture and protect LGBTQ youth. Believing every young person has the right to self-respect and dignity, Gina led the fight against anti-LGBTQ discrimination in our public schools for over half a century.
“Project 10, which she founded in 1984, was the nation’s first program to address anti-LGBTQ harassment in public schools and became a model for school districts throughout the country and around the world. As part of Project 10, she was instrumental in the development and growth of Models of Pride, now the world’s largest free conference for LGBTQ youth and allies presented by the Center.
“A true hero of the LGBTQ community, Gina’s legacy of fighting discrimination and her devotion to creating a world that embraces diversity and celebrates all of our children will surely live on in the countless lives she helped change for the better.”
Named in honor of Dr. Uribe and Gail Rolf—fellow educator and now Executive Director of Friends of Project 10—the Rolf/Uribe Leadership Award is presented annually during the Models of Pride conference to a youth and adult who have been models of pride to the LGBTQ community, showing extraordinary leadership and dedication to the rights of all people to live as full and equal members of society.
A scheduled fundraiser will go on for the Models of Excellence scholarship competition for Southern California senior high school students who have advanced LGBTQ civil rights. Sunday, April 28, 2019 from 2:00 PM to 5:00 PM PDT. Contact Gail Rolf, Education Director, Friends of Project 10 Inc. for more info: [email protected]
CORRECTION: A previous version said Dr. Uribe was 84. She was actually 85. My apologies.