“If everyone knew and understood the difficulties and consequences for the lack of sexual health education for youth, and if they understood what it is like to be discriminated against, stripped of their rights, or beaten down by a world which is not built for their success, then maybe people would not be so flippant with our rights.” ~ Jack, LGBTQ Youth Activist
I know what it’s like to be a teenager. I know what it’s like to feel insecure. I know what it’s like to put on a mask. I know what it is to lie about how I feel. I know what it’s like to be popular and to be unpopular. I know what it’s like to do almost anything to please my friends.
I do not know what it’s like to have to hide the very core of who I am in order to survive. I don’t know how it must feel to be brave enough and confident enough to share my innermost secrets only to find that the rules have changed and it is no longer safe to have done so.
We were making steady progress in our acceptance of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer) kids until last year according to Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. GLSEN (pronounced Glisten) is the leading national education organization working to create safe schools for all students. They just released the latest National School Climate Survey data which is based on the experiences of over 23,000 school-age students surveyed during the 2017 school year.
This is the first year that there hasn’t been a continual reduction in incidences of homophobic harassment, transphobic harassment, and an increase in anti-LGBTQ bias and violence at school. It reflects what many teachers and students have been reporting. In 2016, 6,121 hate crime incidents were reported which is an increase of five percent from 2015. Of the 6,121 incidents reported, 1,076 were based on sexual orientation bias and 124 were based on gender identity bias. These numbers reflect a two percent and nine percent increase, respectively. This seems to me to be a good time to stop and assess the challenges we are facing as the climate continues to worsen for vulnerable children.
A gay teenager agreed to talk with me at the urging of his mentor this week. His story is disturbing. Alexander, who recently celebrated his 16th birthday, moved in with his grandparents after being forced out of his Alabama home when he ‘came out’ to his parents and community. His father threatened to force him into a gay conversion boot camp the Blessed Hope Boys Academy boarding school (now known as Joshua House) created by Pastor Garry Wiggins. Alexander’s parents told him he was not welcome in their home because of his immoral behavior and that he might influence or even molest his 11-year-old brother. A once popular athlete and sometimes honor roll student, Alexander was shunned by his school and peers as well.
Only his best friends Steven and Katherine stuck by his side. He had good reason to feel excluded. Alabama is one of seven states that have “no promo homo” laws (or laws prohibiting the promotion of homosexuality). In Alabama, State Code § 16-40A-2(c)(8) decrees that ‘Classes must emphasize, in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state’.
Alexander talks openly about his feelings of betrayal, loneliness, and fear. He recounted how his former schoolmates refused to talk to him and how they slipped hateful notes into his locker. He was mocked, teased and threatened. A high school gym teacher told him not to dress out anymore and to stay away from areas where other boys were changing clothes. It was even worse at home. His father pointed out that his behavior was forbidden in the Bible and that he would go to hell unless he “went back to being straight.”
He was not allowed to eat at the table with his family and was only allowed to use a separate bathroom in the basement. As mentioned before, he overheard plans that were being made for boarding school conversion therapy so he got on a bus headed for an area near metro Memphis and family who readily accepted him. Alexander is receiving counseling and attending a regular public high school. But he is too traumatized to tell anyone else that he is gay for now. He told me, “It just costs too much to be honest.” In the meantime, he struggles with depression and admits occasionally thinking about suicide in the past. But this is a resilient kid. He is determined to succeed despite his situation saying;
“If the kids in Parkland can find the courage to stand up and make things better, so can I.”
To better understand the problems facing Alexander and kids like him, it might be a good idea to take a trip to your local cinema and watch the 2018 movie “Boy Erased” released in September and based on Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir of the same name. The film stars Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, and Russell Crowe, and follows a young man who is forced by his parents to take part in a gay conversion therapy program.
Providing Support for LGBTQ Kids
Every provider of youth services has a duty to support and encourage children and adolescents who identify as LGBTQ with an amount of dignity and respect equal to that given those who identify as STR8. There is ample evidence that the health and emotional well-being of LGBTQ kids is at risk. They need help to survive in the face of family rejection and school harassment, against heightened HIV, STD, suicide, and violence rates, against racial, cultural and socio-economic prejudice. It goes without saying that they should be able to thrive and succeed as valuable members of their communities.
But, with the radical rejection of standards and values in public life we took for granted only three years ago, and the continuing erosion of our commitment to public education, LGBTQ youth require increased support. There is good material available online provided by Advocates for Youth entitled Creating Safe Space for GLBTQ Youth: A Toolkit. It contains lesson plans, tips and strategies, background information, and additional resources to help youth service providers create safe spaces for young people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Another great resource is the NPR series of podcasts called “Nancy” which premiered in 2017. Hailed the “All Things Considered” for LGBTQ people and their allies, “Nancy” covers a spectrum of experiences and issues which are meaningful, educational and topical.
Safe Schools for LGBT Youth
PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) is the United States’ first and largest organization uniting families and allies with people who are LGBTQ. They recommend these five ways to make schools safer for LGBT kids:
If you’re a student:
- Doing nothing can be worse than the act itself: Report harassment, bullying, or threats targeted at LGBTQ students to a trusted teacher or advisor.
- Encourage your teachers to address homophobia and transphobia in the classroom by posting safe-space posters, stopping hate speech, and supporting gay-straight alliances (GSAs).
- Watch what you say: Don’t use words associated with being LGBTQ as euphemisms for stupid and explain to friends and peers who do why they shouldn’t.
- Ask your school to address LGBTQ issues by having a Pride Week, bringing a speaker to your school, and talking about sexual orientation and gender identity in class.
- Support your LGBTQ peers by joining a GSA: the A stands for ally.
If you’re a teacher:
- Stop hate speech in your classroom. Speak out if you hear a student in your class or in the halls using words like “fag”, “dyke”, or “gay” as put-downs or insults.
- Ask your administrator for the opportunity to attend professional training for diversity and LGBTQ issues.
- Participate in educators’ conferences, and speak to current and future teachers about being allies for LGBTQ staff and students.
- Post “safe-space” posters, materials, or just talk to your students about why your classroom a safe-space, free of harassment, bias, and violence.
- Support gay-straight alliances, chaperon LGBTQ positive proms, and help LGBTQ students and staff advocate for fair school policies.
If you’re an administrator or guidance counselor:
- Reach out to both parents and students to help make them aware that peers may be struggling with sexual orientation or gender identity.
- Meet with teachers and parents to help them learn about the issues that their students, children, or their children’s peers may be facing as an LGBTQ person.
- Make sure your library, school healthcare workers, and health teachers include accurate information about gender identity, LGBTQ sexuality, and health.
- Ensure that students, parents, and teachers know how to respond to bias incidents.
- Let students know that your office is open to them, should they need support speaking about bullying, violence, harassment, or conflict at home.
If you’re a parent:
- Understand the issues and terms associated with LGBTQ issues, and teach your children what you learn.
- Talk to your kids about hate speech, bullying, and acceptance. Let them know that not participating in these activities, and standing up for others, earns your respect.
- Work with your PTA to create allied groups in your community, focused on making your school safer.
- Write to local papers and contact your school administrators to make it known that your family and your community are concerned about safe school issues.
- Let your children know that you accept them, their friends, and their peers, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Make your home a supportive and open space.
There is almost no way that kids can focus on academic growth and achievement or other developmental functions if they don’t feel safe at school. The renowned psychiatrist, Abraham Maslow, demonstrated clearly that safety needs must be met if students are to focus on more advanced tasks.
Time to Push Back
The past decade of steady, consistent progress for LGBTQ rights as well as youth health and safety has slowed and deteriorated. Hard-won favorable policies are under scrutiny for change or deletion. On October 21, 2018, The New York Times announced that the Department of Health and Human Services is considering rolling back the definition of gender by narrowing the definition of sex to be ‘that which is assigned at birth’. This significantly impacts civil rights protection for Trans individuals. It is undeniable that social and political events affect the daily lives of some of the most vulnerable children. Our current tendency to accept or even embrace hate speech, meanness and discrimination against minorities is negatively impacting LGBTQ kids. The work of securing respect for every young person demands our immediate attention.