Beyond “Safe” Spaces for LGBTQ Students, the State, the School, and You

Recent events echo, and remind us of the hate directed against the LGBTQ community, while quieter pain, often equally devastating and more widespread permeates the halls of most schools.  Schools need to be safe places for every child and they aren’t.  You can check the stats, LGBT high school students report hearing an average of 26 anti-LGBT slurs per day, 1/3rd from staff.  What do you think that does to a fragile adolescent?

The numbers can answer that, according to research, 28% drop out because of harassment and more than half of transgendered kids attempt suicide, to name just a a few of the grim outcomes.  We need to do better.

California’s curriculum reforms are a positive first step, making LGBT folks and their movements for equality visible in the curriculum, but it’s going to take concerted action by school sites to change this culture, as well as individuals, and Oakland has a great example in the School of the Arts.

Making LGBT struggles for equality visible

You hear a lot pejoratives in schools, but homophobia dominates.  And like many of the other sticky issues, it does fall on schools to address this one.  Making LGBT people visible and situating the discussion in the struggle for equality should help.  The new California curriculum standards will, according to the LA Times  include “a study of the role of contributions” of minority groups, including “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans.”

As the Times reported,

The new guidelines, now better captures “essential moments in the struggle for equality, and the evolution of communities and identities.” said a more inclusive curriculum will make LGBT students more comfortable in school.

“It allows all students to think critically and expansively about how that past relates to the present and future roles that they can play in an inclusive and respectful society,” Don Romesburg, framework director for the Committee on LGBT History, said in the statement.

Whether these curricular changes actually change life in schools for students will ultimately depend on the school cultures changing and concerted individual actions.

But schools can make a difference and one deliberately did in Oakland, the Oakland School for the Arts Charter School.

A School Takes Action

When the Oakland School for the Arts started, the founder was explicit about its purpose.  It was there to provide a top flight arts experience and create a place where kids, and LBGTQ kids and those perceived as such, could be themselves and grow.  It was more than a safe space it was a space for students to develop into themselves, cultivating their talents and identities.  He was out, and many of the staff were as well.

And there was a casual ease as he walked through the halls, greeted by students who sometimes would likely face a very tough time in comprehensive high schools, but here found a home.  I am sure it was not perfect, but in terms of being accepted, this was good.

I also like that it wasn’t the “gay” high school, it was a high quality arts school, where kids who felt different or were perceived as such fit.  This took deliberate action by a school leader, and we need more such actors, who obviously don’t need to be LGBTQ, but can create other model environments.

Individuals matter

Several years back I partially abandoned my straight privilege, and started calling my now wife, “my partner.”  Lots of funny stories out of that for another day.  But I did it so that people would not assume I was straight (and probably assume I wasn’t), and this actually became an easy shortcut to addressing homophobic statements by students—even the very small and subtle ones that usually go unaddressed.

“That’s gay”, student

“What do you mean”, me

“it’s stupid”, student

“How do you know I’m not gay, and how do you think that makes me feel?”, me

Sometimes long pauses and kind of slinking away or apologizing or trying to explain more, or sometimes they will want to argue a bit more.  But either way, it’s humanized, and I do think they will think about the conversation and saying those words, and feeling those feelings, as more and more of us make them think about it.

It really matters

The statistics paint a painful story, so I will just end with them and the push for us all to do better.

From GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network):

  • 90% of LGBT students hear anti-LGBT  comments  in  school
    • On average, an LGBT high school student will hear 26 anti-LGBT slurs per day
    • 1,’3 of which come from  a school staff member
  • 84% of LGBT youth report verbal harassment at school because of their gender identity and/or sexual orientation

a      74% of Transgender youth report sexual harassment at school based on their gender identity and

expression

a    25% of LGB students been physically hurt by another student because of their sexual orientation

  • 55% of Transgender youth report physical attacks based on their gender identity and/or expression

a     28% of LGBT youth drop out of school due to this harassment

  • The consequences of physical and verbal abuse directed towards LGBT students include truancy, dropping out of school, poor grades,  and having to repeat  a grade.   In one study,  28% of  LGBT youth dropped  out of school due   to  peer harassment.   (GLSEN)
  • LGBT youth are twice as likely to abuse alcohol three times more likely to use marijuana, and 8 times more likely to use cocaine/crack than non-LGBT youth. (Lambda Legal)
  • LGBT individuals account for 30% of all suicides each year. (Lambda Legal)
  • Greater than 50% of transgender youth attempt suicide (University of NH)
  • Roughly 34% of LGBT youth report suffering physical violence from their parents as a result of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. (GLSEN)
  • Up to 46% of LGBT youth of color experience physical violence related to their sexual orientation. (GLSEN)
  • 26% of LGBT youth are forced to leave home because of conflicts with family over sexual orientation and/or gender identity. (Lambda Legal)
  • 25-40% of the youth who become homeless each year are LGBT, and the number is likely much higher. (Lambda Legal)
  • More than one anti-transgender murder per month is reported in the USA, and in the last 10 years, 51 youth have been murdered in confirmed cases of anti-transgender attacks; the actual number is likely much higher (GenderPAC)

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