Danger zone: school, part 1

“When my son was 13, in middle school, things got a little tough for him,” opened John Otto. “He was bullied by older students, and had to be hospitalized for depression.”

Upon discharge, the hospital recommended that Otto and his wife sign up for PFLAG, the organization for parents, family and friends of lesbians and gays. They had to learn how to support their gay son.

He joined and has become an active member. “I’m very strong on the advocacy side, getting involved in legislation, such as anti-bullying laws,” he said. “I am interested in making my son’s path easier in life.”

Fortunately, the incident was a huge learning opportunity for his class and his school. The boy was the academic sort and had rarely ever missed a day of school. So his absence from school while he was hospitalized was quickly noticed.

“When he went back to school, the bullying stopped. Other kids changed their perception and realized that words could hurt. The school administration also made sure it stopped.”

* * * * *

The University of Pennsylvania has an LGBT Center, one of six cultural resource centers. “In the 1990s, most of the students coming to the center were exploring their identities,” said Bob Schoenberg, the center’s director. “Now, more and more students who step through the door the first time are already out. We even have parents bringing them here asking us to take care of their sons and daughters.”

These are the signposts of change sweeping American society.

At the time it was started, in 1982, UPenn’s LGBT Center was one of only three professionally-staffed LGBT centers on university campuses across America. Even now, out of more than 5,000 tertiary institutions, less than 200 have professionally staffed LGBT centers, but it’s still exponential growth.

But what exactly does it do? Staffers Erin and Rebecca explained that its work is three-fold:

  • Educate people in the university community to be LGBT sensitive, e.g. dorm behavior; work with professors to include more LGBT content in the courses they teach;
  • Advocate for non-discrimination, e.g. health coverage relevant to transgender students;
  • Provide support to LGBT students through a peer mentoring program.

Although many LGBT students are nowadays out, the center is still careful to be sensitive to those who are not, or not sure of themselves. This is particularly relevant to foreign students who may come from social climates that are far more forbidding. “We offer free printing services, to give people an excuse if they come in through the door,” said Erin.

Social events are also organized, “as an outlet for people trying to set foot in,” said Rebecca. There is careful provision for those who are too young to drink.

The Center never asks participants and visitors about their sexual orientation, so they could not answer a question as to how many straight students participate in their many programs. But some volunteer the information that they are straight, including several graduate students doing LGBT-related projects in connection with the center.

Erin recalled that right after the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998, “three first-year women came in and asked, ‘What can we do? This is important to straight folks too.’”

So they formed a group. “At first it was a hetero-only group, but it has since evolved into a gay-straight alliance.”

What are some of their current challenges?

“There’s the bathroom project,” said Schoenberg. “We are working with campus authorities to have single-gender bathrooms.” These are important for transgendered persons, and will be in addition to the existing male/female bathrooms.

“We’re also working with athletics and recreation departments because we have coaches and team members who could be a lot better than they are with their LGBT teammates.”

They are also trying to see why there aren’t more faculty members who are out.

“And then there’s healthcare,” he said. The first few transgenders who needed healthcare and went through the system, “went through hell.”

However, it’s not just the paid staffers who do the work. The students themselves learn to advocate on campus, “so they learn to advocate [nationally] later,” said Rebecca.

Said Schoenberg: “Our student leaders meet with the university leadership on a monthly basis; about tax matters, transgender healthcare benefits . . . ”

So here’s the thought: If learning the art of advocacy is part of a university education, is this a scary idea for Singaporeans? Yet, is not advocacy the engine of change? Does it not in there the difference between progress (of any kind) and stagnation?

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