Playgrounds and Prejudice

The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) has just released a report based on their research about LGBT prejudice and bullying in elementary schools: Playgrounds and Prejudice: Elementary School Climate in the United States. It is a survey of more than 1,000 teachers and 1,000 students from 3rd-6th grade during 2010.

In the Preface GLSEN Executive Director, Eliza S. Byard outlines that:

This report from GLSEN illustrates the extent to which children’s elementary school experiences still draw artificial boundaries on their lives based on critical personal characteristics. Name‐calling and bullying in elementary schools reinforce gender stereotypes and negative attitudes towards people based on their gender expression, sexual orientation, disability, race, religion or family composition. Elementary school students and teachers report frequent use of disparaging remarks like “retard” and “that’s so gay,” and half of the teachers surveyed report bullying as a “serious problem” among their students. Students who do not conform to traditional gender norms are at higher risk for bullying, and are less likely than their peers to feel safe at school. Our research also shows the connection between elementary‐school experiences of bullying and a lower quality of life.

The most comment epithets were those oriented toward intellectual or neurological difference, i.e. “retard” and “spaz,” but almost half the teachers and students surveyed said they hear “gay” used in any number of negative ways as well. The survey finds that children who are gender non-conforming endure the most bullying and name-calling. (I read this and feel as though nothing has changed since I was in elementary school. The children haven’t even updated the vocabulary of hate from the 1970s.)

GLSEN concludes that:

Elementary teachers often intervene in incidents of bullying and harassment, and most report being comfortable doing so. Yet, most are not comfortable responding to questions about LGBT people and few elementary students are taught about LGBT families. This tendency is not surprising given that most teachers report receiving professional development on addressing bullying, but not about subjects like gender issues or LGBT families. It is clear that an approach that fosters respect and values diversity even before bullying occurs, in addition to addressing bullying as it happens, would be welcomed by elementary school teachers who are eager to learn more about creating safe and supportive environments. Ensuring that all students and families are respected and valued in elementary school would not only provide a more positive learning environment for younger students, but would also lay the groundwork for safe and affirming middle and high schools.

Definitely the elementary schools are where we need to begin education that will change the culture of  middle and high schools. I often wonder how much impact my daughter’s presence in her school will have on her classmates as they move into middle school. For the kids who are part of her school community having a queer-identified classmate will not be surprising as they move on toward high school.

About four months ago I wrote a post LGBT Bullying Ignored by School Policy in which I analyzed the policies of my local school district.  Our district’s Student/Parent Handbook and Code of Conduct identify “prohibited discrimination. For example:

No student shall be discriminated against or unlawfully denied the opportunity to participate in any program or activity on the basis of the student’s gender, race, color, national origin, or disability.

These guiding documents fail to go beyond those categories however. In my October 12, 2011 post I conclude:

According to the discrimination and the harassment policy of my local school district, sexual orientation and non-normative gender identity are not covered [as categories of "prohibited discrimination"].

Playgrounds and Prejudice finds that most schools fail to have comprehensive policies that protect children from harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation and non-normative gender-identity. The new GLSEN survey shows that less than a quarter of the teachers said that their schools had a policy protecting gender identity, sexual orientation or performance of gender. GLSEN suggests, and I heartily concur, that a comprehensive policy to protect children with non-conforming gender expression or who identify as LGBT will lead to teachers being more proactive in the protection of their students. The GLSEN report concludes:

Although most teachers report that their school has an anti‐bullying/harassment policy, less than a quarter (23%) say that their school has a comprehensive policy that specifically includes protections for bullying based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, among other characteristics (e.g., race/ethnicity).

Anti‐bullying/harassment policies may facilitate teachers taking action in their classrooms. Teachers in schools with these policies, particularly with comprehensive policies, are more likely to address incidents of bias and to take proactive steps to ensure that gender non‐ conforming students and students with LGBT families are safe and supported in school. (page 115)

What should we take away from this?

School districts must institute policies that are comprehensive in their protection of children based on gender identity, sexual orientation or performance of gender.

School districts and principals need to articulate to their teachers and school employees that these policies must be enforced and that school employees who identify incidences of harassment covered by these policies will be supported by school and district leadership.

School districts, principals, and teachers must commit to bringing these issues of justice into the school and classrooms. We need to teach justice and respect.

How do we do this?

We go to our the teachers, principals, and school board members and express our concerns. We ask for comprehensive policies to be incorporated into school codes of conduct and student handbooks.

We use the tools and programs already created for use in elementary schools. These are free programs that come with everything needed to institute a school wide, age-appropriated set of lessons that can form the platform to bring these issues into the schools, facilitate discussion, and cultivate a culture of respect among the students.

As GLSEN has just released their survey Playgrounds and Prejudice they have also released a toolkit to help educators incorporate lessons of respect and understanding into their classrooms. Ready, Set, Respect! answers the needs of elementary schools as outlined by the survey.  GLSEN Executive Director, Eliza S. Byard  states: Ready, Set, Respect! will equip teachers with tools and resources that not only improve school climate, but also instill a shared sense of responsibility among students that name-calling, bullying and harassment have no place in a school or community.”

The Human Rights Campaign has also created the Welcoming Schools program:

Welcoming Schools is an LGBT-inclusive approach to addressing family diversity, gender stereotyping and bullying and name-calling in K-5 learning environments. Welcoming Schools provides administrators, educators and parents/guardians with the resources necessary to create learning environments in which all learners are welcomed and respected.

The Welcoming Schools Guide offers tools, lessons and resources on embracing family diversity, avoiding gender stereotyping and ending bullying and name-calling.

For slightly older student populations, kids in middle and high schools, GLSEN has lots of resources to help organize Gay Straight Alliances (GSA). GLSEN also sponsors the Safe Space campaign.

The Safe Space Kit is a collection of resources for educators to create a positive learning environment for LGBT students. It contains a 42-page guide that provides concrete strategies for supporting LGBT students, including how to educate about anti-LGBT bias. It also comes with Safe Space stickers and posters to help students identify supportive educators.

I suggest purchasing a copy of Queer Kids: The Challenges and Promise for Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth for the school counseling center of your local schools. It is a book written for school counselors, parents, and youth.

Lastly, many high school drama programs have already put on productions of The Laramie Project, a play written about the death of Matthew Shepard on October 12, 1998. These productions are a great way for students to create public forum that encourage discussions about LGBT issues, including discrimination and hate crime. This year was the 13th anniversary of his death and we mark it as an important reminder of the need for everyone, gay and straight, to make the safety all queer and gender non-conforming people a personal commitment–Be An Ally.


Coming Out at School: This is Not a Drill

Attention School Personnel: This is NOT A DRILL.

This is an Actual Test of Your Professional Ability

Friday, my daughter came out to the school counselor and the music teacher. She told us all about it over dinner. This is what we discovered:

We see now that when our daughter comes out to the teachers she does not base her own self-worth and identity on what they say (which would be unhealthy anyway), but instead our girl refuses to be denied by them and will push the teachers further in their understanding when they try to say she is too young to know. Then our sweet baby rates their reactions based on what she knows should be the appropriate response of an educator!

This school is NOT READY FOR MY DAUGHTER IN SO MANY REGARDS.

(Substitute) School Counselor

The school counselor who is currently just filling in for our awesome regular counselor who is out on leave got very low marks for how she handled the interaction according to our daughter. Apparently, the counselor was speechless. The temporary counselor earned herself an eye-roll and a “she’s a TRAINED SCHOOL COUNSELOR for heaven’s sake” comment when the incident was recounted over dinner on Friday evening.

This was when we realized: a-ha, our girl’s not coming out to them, she is testing them! She has enough support; that is not what she is looking for. She simply wants to continue the process of being her out, authentic self at school and she is testing these professionals against what she knows are the right ways to react and support LGBT youth.

School counselor grade: D. Comments: Perhaps the counselor should be allowed a do-over to improve her grade. It was a pop quiz after all. Moreover, she was just filling in and was surely not prepared to be asked to deal with such an unusual situation.*

Veteran Music Teacher

The music teacher got HIGH marks for: coming around after my daughter upped her evidence-based argument. The music teacher then addressed the issue of bullying proactively, made a strong verbal commitment to my daughter as an ally, and then outed herself as a devout Christian (of questionable appropriateness as a public school employee, but fine as a caring human being) and made a “I believe God knows what he’s doing, and he can see the future, and he doesn’t make mistakes – don’t you let anyone tell you otherwise” statement. It was this well-intentioned music teacher’s version of a pro-gay Christian vaccination against stupid homoprejudiced Bible-Belt Christians.

Music teacher grade: A. Comments: Music teacher goes to the head of the class!

The New Evidenced-Based Argument

My girl has developed a virtual bag of reasoned responses to all sorts of questions and statements that people present her with. Some are defenses against bigoted comments and some are educational explanations to be used when confronted with an ignorant person who makes unintentionally offensive statements.

She has been working on her answer to the dismissive “you are too young to know” statements that she gets from adults for some time, but has seemed unsatisfied with it, until now . . . .

So, the music teacher gave her some variation on the old “you have many years to figure out who you are/you are too young to know/you will get to puberty and figure out who you like then” chestnut.

Oh, the familiar disappointment.

Then . . . it comes to her and she says something like this to the teacher:

Imagine you are a fifth grade girl in the hallway at school. There is this cute boy that every girl likes; I mean, EVERY GIRL has a crush on him. He is super cute, nice, everything. He walks down the hall past you and you feel nothing. NOTHING.

Then this girl you like, who is super cute and really nice walks down the hall past you and you feel all tight and tingly. Maybe you think to yourself, ‘hmmm, this must be a delayed reaction from the boy?’ But, NO, you realize you never get that tight, tingly feeling with the boy, only with the cute girl.

Apparently this was proof enough to convince the music teacher that when my daughter says, “I’m a lesbian” she means, “I’m a lesbian.”

Observations

First, I am so proud they way she handled this. She was quick on her feet and has intuited that appeals to reason aren’t convincing enough; she must appeal to emotion and the body’s own unconscious physical reaction to attraction. She has deduced that she must prove that she has consistent physical responses that support her claim of same-sex attraction.

This leads me to my second observation, do adults have to prove their identities to all and sundry when they come out? I don’t think so. Maybe a few times to family members, but bosses or college professors would never question or refute a man who declares, “I’m gay.”

I understand that adults guide and educate children and adults see this questioning of children as part of their obligation to help a child through life. However, we should consider reframing our “you are too young” denial to something more affirming. If one must search for evidence in order to believe a child’s assertion, consider asking questions that affirm and further the discussion, “what is that like for you?” or “how did you figure this out?”

Just imagine if the story I recounted above about my very confident, articulate, and strong-willed daughter coming out to the counselor and music teacher featured a scared child in need of support and encouragement instead. What would that girl’s experience have been? How would she have felt afterwards?

*(addendum from 30 January 2012) When our beloved school counselor returned to work, my daughter promptly sought her out for an appointment. After they met, my daughter came right home and told me about the interaction. My girl was very happy to tell me that the counselor made sure that she was supported at home and that she knew that the counselor’s office was a safe and supportive place within the school. A+ for our counselor and in the months since I originally wrote this post I am so happy to report that my daughter’s teachers have been great and that her friends have really supported her. So far, so good!


Reteaching Gender and Sexuality

This is a spectacular video featuring queer youth: Reteaching Gender and Sexuality. It is not about changing bullies, but about making a culture in which are kids are thriving, and loving, and being awesome. It’s about changing a culture of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and that coming out is not something that happens once. Coming out is a daily process.

Reteaching Gender & Sexuality is a message about queer youth action and resilience. The video was generated to contribute additional queer/trans youth voices to the national conversations about queer/trans youth lives. Reteaching Gender & Sexuality intends to steer the conversation beyond the symptom of bullying, to consider systemic issues and deeper beliefs about gender and sexuality that impact queer youth. Share the video with your friends, family and networks and talk about what THIS means to you!

And check out their full 34-minute documentary Put This on The {Map}. This is just the kind of resource we need to introduce educators to the kids who are in their classrooms every day. This needs to be shown to people across society to help reeducate us to the true beauty that is our gender and sexual identities. We are so much more than simple binaries.


Black Ribbon Day – When Our School Ignores LGBT Students

This morning like every Wednesday morning, I perused the contents of my daughter’s “Tuesday Folder.” Its a manila envelope sent home on Tuesday afternoon full of fliers, completed school work, and promotional materials for activities like basketball clinics and youth softball leagues.

Red Ribbon Week

Today I came upon a bright red flier describing the school’s activities for Red Ribbon Week. If you are not familiar with Red Ribbon Week, it is dedicated to substance abuse awareness, particularly in the public schools:

Today, the Red Ribbon Week brings millions of people together to raise awareness regarding the need for alcohol, tobacco and other drug and violence prevention, early intervention, and treatment services. It is the largest, most visible prevention awareness campaign observed annually in the United States.

Red Ribbon Week established in 1988 by Ronald and Nancy Reagan recognizes the torture and death of Enrique Camarena in 1985 and to set aside time for drug use prevention education and drug abuse awareness. Many of us grew up with Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign of the late 1980s. Red Ribbon Week was part of the administration’s overall commitment to the War on Drugs.

Please know:

Red Ribbon for Substance Abuse Awareness

  • I believe Red Ribbon Week is important. Recognizing the sacrifices of the law enforcement and Department of Justice, and Drug Enforcement Administration agents is an obligation and honor. Many brave people have risked, and lost, their lives making our communities safer for us and for our children. 
  • I acknowledge Red Ribbon Week and support it.
  • I do not want my daughter to abuse drugs and I am happy that the school is helping me educate her about the dangers of drugs.
  • I put our Red Ribbon Week flier on the front of the refrigerator so next week we can take part in all the activities, including wearing red clothes in recognition of everything Red Ribbon Week observes and stands for.
  • I am fine that the children at my daughter’s school will miss class time  for assemblies about drugs and will complete lessons about it while in class.

BUT . . .

Ally Week - GLSEN

The irony of this was striking. During Ally Week, the week after National Coming Out Day and the anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, our school didn’t mention one word about the sacrifices of LGBT individuals or try to raise awareness of LGBT issues. THIS is the week that the Red Ribbon Week flier came home.

Just so you know:

Matthew Shepard, December 1, 1976 – October 12, 1998

October is LGBT History Month.

October 11th is National Coming Out Day.

October 12th is the anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death.

October 17th – 21st is Ally Week.

My daughter’s school recognizes none of this, but my daughter does. Tomorrow, October 20th is Spirit Day and my daughter has her head-to-toe purple outfit picked out to wear tomorrow in celebration and recognition.

Millions of Americans wear purple on Spirit Day as a sign of support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth and to speak out against bullying. (. . .)  Observed annually on October 20, individuals, schools, organizations, corporations, media professionals and celebrities wear purple, which symbolizes spirit on the rainbow flag.

Probably her outfit will go unappreciated by her classmates and teachers, since there have been no discussions, bulletin boards, posters, or assemblies acknowledging LGBT history, awareness, bullying, activism, accomplishments, lives lost to make communities safer for LGBT people, or deaths just at the hands of violent bigots.

Ignoring LGBT Students

Black Ribbon Day*

So, I would like to recognize today as Black Ribbon Day at our local school. A Day when we blatantly ignore the contributions and sacrifices of LGBT people.

Couldn’t we just have an Anti-Bullying Day?** Is that so much to ask?

 

 

 

 

*Notes on Awareness Ribbon colors:

All the possible colors already stand for other issues. Black ribbons commemorate September 11th, the Virgina Tech shooting, and represent melanoma awareness. Red ribbons stand for substance abuse awareness and even more commonly for AIDS awareness. In reality the power of the symbolism is already diluted since every color of ribbon stands for many things. My choice of the black ribbon is in no way intended to belittle the loss suffered from the attacks of September 11th or from melanoma.

**Notes on Violence Against LGBT Students:

In case you’d like statistics and facts about what life is like for LGBT kids, especially in school, please peruse the following sites. The the GLSEN site and tell you far better than I can.

2009 National School Climate Survey from GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network)

Dealing with Gay Students, Bullying in Different Ways from CNN – Listen to what Minneapolis Public Schools do – intervention and education can work.

Violence Against Gays and Lesbians from The National Centers for Victims of Crime – Gives a sense of the kind of violence endured by LGBT people in general.

One last note in defense of October:

October is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Autism Awareness Month, Dwarfism Awareness Month, National Pork Month, and National Cyber Security Awareness Month and they’ve gotten no coverage in school either. I hope somewhere someone is writing angry blogs about how these other issues have been ignored by the public schools! (Well, maybe pork doesn’t need a special day in the schools – we celebrate pork awareness every month in our house.)


LGBT-friendly Schools

With my daughter out as a lesbian at school I am holding my breath waiting to see what happens. So far so good. She has almost two years to go until middle school though. Middle school was just the worst for me, and from the kids I know in the neighborhood who are in or just graduated from middle school it still is hard to endure.

Earlier this week I avoided doing work and tried to assuage my concerns about my daughter by checking out the local school district’s Visual Arts Magnet middle school and high school on the internet. Maybe those schools would offer a more nurturing, diverse environment for my artistically-inclined daughter, I thought. Educationally, I feel the future is up in the air in a way it wasn’t before. I just don’t know what’s going to happen at school tomorrow, next month, next year and the media offers me a daily array of nightmares to ponder.

I used to live in NYC near the Harvey Milk school for LGBT kids. As I understood it from someone who used to teach there the kids who manage to transfer to Harvey Milk had a really rough time wherever they’d been before. It wasn’t a school you went to just to enjoy the comradeship of other queer kids. Schools like Harvey Milk are few and far between.

Thus far my girl has been tough and brave. She says the kids who use religion to denounce her are stupid; she claims she doesn’t listen to them. Perhaps more importantly she has a circle of friends who embrace her (though I am pretty sure most of the parents still haven’t heard about her disclosure from their kids yet – let’s see what happens when the news trickles up to the parents). Her natural commitment to social justice would suggest that she can handle life in the neighborhood public school – that she might even do some good there.

Yet as a mother I don’t want ANYONE to be mean to my kid. Obviously, that is unrealistic since kids are mean to each other for many reasons and few people, if any, get out of childhood without a few battle scars.

TIME magazine is running a special feature on bullying, and one of the articles is about the Alliance School in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It’s an LGBT-friendly charter school, the first in the nation. The article gives voice to the kids who find the Alliance School a safe haven, as well as those who would say my daughter might be better placed in her neighborhood school, for her own sake and for the sake of her classmates.

The article, A Separate Peace argues that schools like Alliance might not be the answer, yet for some children a school like this is the thing that will keep them alive long enough to make it through school. Author Kayla Webley writes,

Parents want to protect their kids, but is wrapping them in an Alliance-style cocoon of tolerance the best solution? Some conservatives oppose the idea of a gay-friendly school on moral grounds, others for fiscal reasons: Why should taxpayers help make sexuality a central part of a child’s or a school’s identity? Developmental experts — and many gay activists — question the wisdom of shielding some students rather than teaching kids coping skills and promoting an atmosphere of respect on all campuses. “Being segregated doesn’t help gay kids learn, it doesn’t help straight kids learn, it doesn’t help bullies learn,” says Ritch Savin-Williams, a professor at Cornell University who chairs the human-development department. “All it does is relieve the school and the teachers of responsibility. It’s a lose-lose situation all around.” And yet to some bullying victims, it’s nothing short of a lifeline.

It is hard to embrace the argument that taking queer kids out of hostile schools is a problem because it relieves the schools of the duty to educate their staff and students about diversity and LGBT issues, and fails to hold the schools accountable for teaching bullies the error of their ways. As far as I can tell many schools are choosing to ignore LGBT students until someone dies. Moreover, in many states it seems to be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to get LGBT awareness materials added to the curriculum in any form.
I’d like to know that there was a school like the Alliance School in our general area, just in case life gets tougher for our girl down the road. For now I will keep holding my breath and waiting.

Be an Ally

Today is the 13th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard.

Matthew Shepard, December 1, 1976 – October 12, 1998

As a parent I want to make this world safer for my own child and everybody else’s gay child.

I won’t be able hide behind trees and crouch behind bushes while she goes to out into the world in order to make sure no harm comes to her.

What I can do is try to engage others in conversation about queer kids. Until she is older I can try to protect her from the ignorance or prejudice of people who know she is out.

I can be an ally and an advocate.

Yesterday I went to Safe Zone/Ally Training. I suggest that anyone who wants to make the world a safer place for members of the LGBT community consider spending an afternoon at a local training. I will proudly display my Safe Zone sticker beside my office door, so that anyone who needs a safe space will have one.

Moreover, displaying the Safe Zone sticker let’s others know they aren’t alone.

One can find plenty of information about being an ally information here.

Many universities regularly offer Safe Zone/Ally Training. Check with your local university’s LGBT Center or Women’s Center to see if or when they will offer a training session.


Bringing LGBT Awareness to the Public Schools

Listening to my daughter’s call for more LGBT education and awareness in the schools, I thought I’d find some resources that I could share with her principal and teachers. These websites offer practical strategies and concrete resources that can be implemented in the schools.

First, the Human Rights Campaign has a program called Welcoming Schools which helps create educational communities that embrace family diversity of all kinds. This program is designed for the K-5 population. Resources which provide solutions to the what, why, who, when, and how questions address the issues at hand without requiring lots of research can be invaluable.

Secondly, there is the GSA Network which fosters Gay Straight Alliances with information about how a GSA can be established, as well as material about the rights of students to receive a safe and appropriate education.

How serendipitous for my family that October is LGBT History month!

 


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