Making It Better for LGBTQ Youth
A survey aimed at Marin’s high school students and designed by a small group of their peers gets right to the point: “How often do you hear homophobic language (example: ‘gay,’ ‘fag,’ ‘queer’)?” “How often do your teachers and school administrators do something about it?” “In the past year, how often have you been harassed or threatened by students…using Facebook?”
The teens conducting this survey will use the answers to these and other questions to help influence policies to make school environments, in their words, “equitable, healthy, and safe” for members of the LGBTQ community—lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgendered individuals, and those who identify as queer or questioning.
These students, from schools throughout the county, are taking part in a program sponsored by the Youth Leadership Initiative and Spectrum LGBT Center of the North Bay and funded under MCF’s efforts to engage residents in achieving greater social justice in Marin.
It has two goals: to develop a plan of action for school policy changes to prevent discrimination and other risks faced by LGBTQ youth, and to give the participants tools to become leaders and learn the ins and outs of having an influence on issues they are concerned about. Their concerns are especially poignant given the recent highly-publicized wave of suicides by LGBTQ youth and incidents of harassment, in and out of school.
Ivan Shaw, a junior at Redwood High School, says that “as a member of the LGBTQ community myself, I think it’s very important to educate children while they’re still young about these important issues, since they affect 10% of people in our society.”
He says he’s aware of only a small handful of gays and lesbians who are out at his school, feeling that others are afraid to come out in part because of the derogatory language he hears every day.
Others, like Joelle Appenrodt, a junior at San Rafael High School, describe themselves as “allies” of the LGBTQ community, since, as she puts it, “Seeing kids condemned for who they are is not healthy, even if I’m not a victim myself. It affects me on a daily basis.”
Under the guidance of Dana Callihan, from YLI, Ivan, Joelle, and the others are learning about the process of making social change—researching issues, identifying specific policies they want to address, and examining advocacy efforts that can lead to results. They’ve developed a timeline along with a grid that outlines their vision, allies and opponents, targeted audiences, tactics, and resources.
During a recent meeting, they looked at model policies developed by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) and shared their thoughts on the issue of having policies in place, but with little or no enforcement. They asked if teachers are trained in how to implement the schools’ existing policies. Are students aware of them? And in what settings should students learn about sexual orientation and gender identity—beyond what they agreed is the superficial treatment they usually get in sex education classes?
They also specified what, for them, the terms “health, safety, and equity” mean—as a way to envision what they want this effort to achieve. Their comments ranged from “It means learning to be happy” and “There’s no fear of being threatened,” to “It’s the ability to express yourself freely” and “It’s having someone who understands you.”
Even at this stage, they began to think about how to deal with potential obstacles: the difficulty of changing what gets taught in the classroom, the persistent focus on preparing kids for standardized tests above all else, and just getting people to pay attention.
For these young people, the benefits of being involved in this effort are both personal and political. Sander Lutz, a sophomore at Tamalpais High School, says, “My eyes have been opened. I’m taking what I learned here and bringing it back to my high school. I see all these things happening. I didn’t care to notice before, or didn’t see them.”
And Bobby Weissenberg, a senior at Novato High School, adds, “I want the knowledge to be there. This might be the first time people think about the LGBT community.”