Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Back to School PSA from Teen Link!

The beginning of the school year is stressful for everyone. Trying to juggle new responsibilities of homework, teacher expectations, friends groups and social pressures, waking up early and being on time, fall sports, clubs, music classes... all after having three months of relaxation and sun? Doesn't exactly sound like my idea of fun. Now imagine that you have all of this pressure on you, and are balancing another huge weight: trying to decide whether or not to come out to your family, friends, and peers. For millions of students, this is a reality that they have to face every day. By some estimates, 10% of the American population is gay, lesbian, or bisexual - just think, statistically, 1 out of every 10 people at your school could be struggling with this right now.

In the past, the average age of a person when they began to publicly identify as gay was in their early to mid 20s. Now, the average age is dropping and more and more youth begin to self-identify in high school, or even junior high. This change is due largely to the public's increased acceptance of LGBTQ individuals, portrayal of gay and lesbian culture in popular media, and anti-discrimination legislature. But while society as a whole is becoming more accepting of what is still (problematically) termed "alternative lifestyles," schools are another place entirely.

A recent feature in the New York Times Magazine details the emerging phenomenon of publicly gay middle school students, and the author has this to say about being out in middle school:

"[One] parent of a gay teenager I spent time with likened her child’s middle school to a 'war zone.' In a 2007 survey of 626 gay, bisexual and transgender middle-schoolers from across the country by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (Glsen), 81 percent reported being regularly harassed on campus because of their sexual orientation. Another 39 percent reported physical assaults. Of the students who told teachers or administrators about the bullying, only 29 percent said it resulted in effective intervention." (The rest of the article can be read here.)

On top of that, anti-gay language is extremely prevalent amongst youth, especially the 11-14 demographic. "That's so gay" can be heard in every middle school and junior high in America, and many school staff don't intervene, thinking "it [is] easy to let anti-gay language slide because it’s so imbedded in middle-school culture" (same article). As a result of this type of pressure, gay and lesbian youth are at a significantly increased risk of suicide, self-harm, drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, dropping out of school, and self-esteem issues - as well as simply being forced to hide who they are and feel like they have to lie about their identities in order to fit in with their schoolmates. Fortunately, in many schools students have begun to fight back against this type of discrimination, working to make their schools safer for their gay, lesbian, and transgendered peers.

The most common form of this is through Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) groups, chapters of which can be found in almost every high school, as well as several middle schools, in King County. According to the Seattle Public Schools website, GSAs are active in all of the following schools:
  • AS #1
  • Ballard
  • The Center School
  • Eckstein
  • Franklin
  • Garfield
  • Hamilton
  • Nathan Hale
  • Ingraham
  • Rainier Beach
  • Roosevelt
  • Sealth
  • West Seattle
  • NOVA
  • Salmon Bay
  • Summit
  • Whitman
GSAs are places where straight and gay youth can meet in a safe environment and discuss ways to make their schools safer, encourage a positive portrayal of gay individuals and lifestyle, be open about themselves in a supportive environment, and connect with other youth in their school that are facing the same issues they are. Even if it isn't a cause you are particularly passionate about, just finding out if your school has a GSA and who runs it could end up being valuable information to a friend or family member who needs someone safe to talk to. And if your school doesn't have one, maybe you want to consider starting one! Resources are available at the end of this post.

Lastly, I know we all say things we don't mean, and that some language is so embedded in our vocabulary that we don't think about what the words mean (ever thought about the origin of the phrase "I've been gipped"?), but consider the power of your words when you use the phrase "that's so gay" or use the term "gay" in a derogatory manner - someone could be deeply affected by it without you even knowing. (For a hilarious set of PSAs related to this, go to this website.)

And now, some links!

Resources for GLBTQ youth and allies in Seattle:
Safe Schools Coalition - an organization dedicated to making schools safe for LGBT youth, staff, and families
Lambert House - a Seattle based organization that provides services and a drop-in center for LGBTQ youth
King County GLBT Youth Resources - a lot of good information about health, both mental and physical
Western Washington GLBT Youth Resources - more resources and organizations to contact

More about GSA:
Nation-Wide GSA Network
Washington State GSA Alliance
Seattle School District GSA/GLBTQ Policies

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this is an interesting article--I hadn't ever really thought about issues of sexual identity within middle schools. For some reason I had always thought of it as a high school issue, but I can see now how important it is to have Middle School GSAs too!

    Another resource that came to mind when I read this article was the Trevor hotline, a hotline for gay, lesbian and questioning youth: 1-866-4-U-TREVOR. Just another good resource to keep in mind.