In California, most teachers and schools seek to provide an affirming and open learning environment for all children. However, in the minds of many teachers, administrators and school board members, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) children don’t exist. And if LGBTQ children don’t exist, there is nothing to say about them, nothing to teach about them.
This perspective even goes so far as to resist LGBTQ students organizing on campus. From the vantage of these authorities, such organizations are insidious elements of the so-called gay agenda. Their reasoning, perhaps, is that to be LGBTQ is to make a choice about one’s sexuality, and LGBTQ adults, therefore, were never LGBTQ children. Then there are those educators who see “Queers” as subversives responsible for the breakdown of American society. For these folks, LGBTQ children are dangerous seeds that will blossom into future threats to social stability.
Things are getting better. Two of the ways they are getting better concern actions that promote the well-being of LGBTQ schoolchildren as well as all schoolchildren.
Legislation is being considered that creates curriculum equality for LGBTQ children. Current law requires social sciences instruction to include the history and experiences of a number of groups such as men, women, African Americans, American Indians, Mexicans, Asians and other ethnic groups. A proposed bill would insert LGBTQ individuals into that list. (California SB 48)
LGBTQ children themselves have become campus activists creating an organized presence on campuses, which has resulted in a marked decrease in bullying and discrimination. Because they have made schools better, LGBTQ children stay in school and do better.
Bullying and WMDs
A war of sorts has silently swept across the American educational system, and the weapons of choice are anti-LGBTQ actions, behaviors and language. However, no one is surrendering. According to extensive research and surveys of students by organizations such as the California Safe Schools Coalition (CSSC) and the Gay-Straight Alliance Network (GSA Network), those schools with Gay-Straight Alliance clubs (GSA clubs) and curriculums that include the history and experiences of LGBTQ individuals saw a significant reduction in incidents of bullying and safer school climates.
Either as the result of purpose or default, the rich history and contributions of LGBTQ individuals, today and in the past, are rarely if ever mentioned in the educational process. It’s not just LGBTQ students who are denied a nurturing education by this silence, but all students. Education is not about being silent. Education often involves making noise—lots of noise as the 1980s activist group ACT UP reminded us. Silence can equal death.
Should it be left to schools or is establishing LGBTQ-Straight coalitions, such as GSA clubs, on high and middle school campuses and including LGBTQ history and experiences in the curriculum a successful and appropriate way to stop homophobic bullying?
According to the CSSC surveys, 90% of the LGBTQ schoolchildren surveyed reported being harassed or assaulted. In addition, most of those surveyed, both gay and straight, reported no confidence in help from the school or a teacher’s intervention.
According to media reports, many school systems and teachers have been either unwilling or unable to stop bullying. More shocking is that some teachers have participated and even instigated bullying.
A tragic case is that of Seth Walsh. According to the Bakersfield Californian (December 16, 2010), Seth Walsh (1997–2010) endured years of relentless bullying and verbal abuse at his Tehachapi school. Teachers and school administrators were aware that Seth was being harassed and, in some instances, participated in the harassment. One teacher allegedly called Seth “fruity” in front of an entire class, and students regularly called him “fag” and “queer.” On September 19, after a group of teenage boys assaulted him, Seth hanged himself from a plum tree in the family’s backyard.
Alex Merritt also found schools and teachers terribly disappointing. In Alex’s case, as reported by Newsweek (September 23, 2009) and the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune (August 18, 2009), two teachers repeatedly mocked Alex an entire school year for what they perceived was his sexual orientation. As the year progressed, the sneers sharpened and spread through much of the student body. “Kids were calling me fag, they were calling me queer,” recalls Alex, who says that he is straight. Alex received a $25,000 settlement but said it is “small consolation for the pain they caused.”
These cases are not unique or few. They become more outrageous each month. As reported in Globe and Mail (March 11, 2010), University of Ottawa research psychologist Tracy Vaillancourt relates the case of a child who stood in her gym uniform while other kids put her school clothes in the toilet and urinated on them.
If one Googles words like “gay student assaulted,” millions of hits come up regarding these media reports. Visit YouTube and view “It Gets Better” to see and hear what being a child who is LGBTQ or perceived as one is really like.
The CSSC surveyed California students and school administrators in 2003, 2004 and 2005 to determine whether curriculum that includes attention to LGBT people “promote[s] safer school climates.”
According to their research, “Students who report learning about LGBT issues in school…report fewer mean rumors or lies spread about them, fewer reports of being made fun of because of their looks or the way they talk, and less LGBT bullying at school.”
The CSSC also concluded that not only did more LGBTQ students feel safer at schools with LGBTQ issues in the curriculum but also “[m]ore straight students report feeling safe if they learned about LGBT issues.” The report concluded: Revealing the social and cultural contribution to society as well as the experience of LGBTQ individuals eliminates bullying in schools.
The California legislature appears ready to take up the question: Should the historical and current contributions that LGBTQ persons have made be finally included in the public school curriculum?
California will take up this issue because we have a decent and progressive electorate, and a decent and progressive government. More directly, the urgings and efforts of LGBTQ children and the work of organizations such as the GSA Network have appealed tirelessly to the state legislature. The GSA Network has responded to the requests of LGBTQ children for help, and for years, it has fought for a public education system that guarantees the needs and security of LGBTQ children.
Sen. Mark Leno (D–San Francisco) put it best: “Most textbooks don’t include any historical information about the LGBT movement, which has great significance to both California and U.S. history. Our collective silence on this issue perpetuates negative stereotypes of LGBT people and leads to increased bullying of young people.”
He added, “We can’t simultaneously tell youth that it’s OK to be yourself and live an honest, open life when we aren’t even teaching students about historical LGBT figures or the LGBT equal rights movement.”
One of the most effective examples of breaking the “collective silence” Sen. Leno talks about rests with the continued growth in the number of GSA clubs and the continued, unrelenting and creative support for these clubs by the GSA Network.
Because youth are coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer at younger and younger ages in middle schools and high schools across the country, schools are required to consider aspects of federal, state and constitutional law relating to these children. The GSA Network and GSA clubs provide identity, support and safety for students, as well as assistance and training to schools so they are adequately prepared to comply with the law and to protect LGBTQ students.
Research shows that youth harassed because of sexual orientation are more than twice as likely to report depression and seriously consider suicide. They are more likely to do poorly in school and do poorly personally. The presence of GSA clubs turns those experiences around. According to the Preventing School Harassment Survey, LGBTQ students in California schools with a GSA club get harassed less, felt safer and were safer. These students also learned valuable organizing and leadership skills to build support through alliances and making connections with supportive adults at school.
Since 1988, GSA clubs have grown and been officially sanctioned in a majority of schools in California. In addition, the California GSA Network provides support for GSA clubs.
The comprehensive support that the GSA Network provides for GSA clubs is extensively set out in its Web site along with its mission and strategy in working with and empowering GSA clubs and similar groups to fight homophobia and transphobia. All their work with students focuses on leadership development and activism to build alliances across sexual orientation and gender identity lines, as well as across race, ethnicity and class lines. The result is to end isolation, develop current and future leaders, and make schools safer.
Part 2 of this story in the April issue of the Community Alliance will focus on the response of the educational system to the bill (SB 48) that Sen. Leno has introduced.
The GSA Network maintains a directory of all GSA clubs. The directory, including those clubs in the Fresno area, can be accessed at http://gsanetwork.org/civicrm/profile?q=civicrm/profile&force=1&gid=5&crmRowCount=10000.
The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice has posted “It Gets Better” on YouTube www.youtube.com/watch?v=JSf3eZzqG2c, which provides a good introduction to the real experiences of real people and solutions.