Danger zone: school, part 2

“Between grades 6 and 8, forty percent of LGBT students report being physically assaulted in school,” said Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a US organisation deeply involved in research an advocacy in relation to bias, harassment and violence in schools against LGBT kids.

“Of high school students, twenty percent report the same.

“The result is that they skip school, they feel depressed and ultimately their prospects in life suffers” because of difficulties in their school years.

Whatever one’s beliefs are about homosexuality, would any reasonable person want that to happen to any child? This is GLSEN’s primary message. “At its foundation, this is an issue of [bullying] behaviour, not belief,” stressed Byard.

GLSEN works with educators, policymakers, community leaders and students to address anti-LGBT bullying and bias in schools. Beyond overt violence, and increasingly cyber-bullying, there are more subtle issues. For example, when children and teens are asked to bring a photo of their family to class, even when the kid himself or herself is not gay, some of them may have same-sex parents. “GLSEN’s job is to make sure that any teacher responds with equal respect and dignity to those kids and their families, and with no editorial comment,” explained Byard.

While GLSEN focusses on the school environment around an LGBT child, the It Gets Better Project aims to address the child or teen personally through social media.  This is a relatively new organisation formed in the wake of media stories in the summer of 2010 about young people who had taken their own lives.

Speaking through video conferencing, Seth Levy from the Project said: “Any suicide in young people is of course unacceptable.” There was widespread anguish over those incidents.

In the fall of 2010, author and journalist Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller put up a video speaking to whichever kid might want to watch, and it snowballed from there, inspiring 50,000 more such videos since that have been viewed over 50 million times.

Essentially, the message in these videos is that if the viewer is a young LGBT person, while things may look very difficult right now, they will get better with time.

For a lot of gay teens, “it can be very difficult to perceive your own future,” said Levy. The only gay people they see are celebrities, “but they know they won’t grow up to be celebrities. They grow up to be teachers, police officers and parents.” And yet few of them have any clue what gay teachers, police officers and parents look like. It’s hard to imagine.

The videos are very useful in starting a conversation in living rooms and over the kitchen table, said Levy. “Once people get talking, they may ask, ‘what are the reasons a 14-year-old might want to kill himself?’ ”

He was however eager to stress that “the message of [the videos] to teenagers is not that of coming out. The message is that there is life ahead. It’s about helping youth to see that regardless of their [difficult] circumstances, there is a place for them.”

Added Byard, “If we can transmit the reality of change to young people, we can show that promises will be kept.”

I asked Levy, given the fact that anyone can create a Youtube video and call it ‘It gets better’, how they ensure message consistency. What if an extreme religious group put up a video that says it gets better provided you sign up for reparative therapy?

“There are a few challenges,” he conceded. Anybody can upload a video and all that It Gets Better has is their official Youtube channel. “If the maker wants his video to be included in our website and channel, they have to submit to us [for review].”

He gave the example of a video made by a group of employees of a company that didn’t have a good track record of equal treatment. Was it a sincere effort? Was it a case of the company trying to absolve itself?

* * * * *

Byard stressed that GLSEN’s work would never push activities and actions that would put any individual in danger, so coming out is not in their messaging. Nor is this about “putting sex before a class,” she said.

“The first job is to talk about violence, and about prejudices. Prejudices are transmitted in schools without any discussion of LGBT rights. Enforcement of gender norms is already present, and our first job is to clear away these.”

GLSEN is first and foremost “an advocate of children’s wellbeing.”

She also highlighted how language used thoughtlessly by kids themselves can be hurtful. ‘That’s so gay’ is used by kids to mean something stupid or as an insult. “Kids use the expression and words like ‘faggot’ and ‘dyke’ without even thinking about it,” said Byard. So GLSEN now has a ‘Think before you speak’ campaign.

Levy added: “Silence today in the face of despair is unacceptable.”

The It Gets Better Project is also beginning to do offline work in collaboration with other organisations. For example, they now have a live interactive theatre project, in association with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles.

“But our work is always rooted in the fact that every child should be safe in school and get an opportunity to learn free from fear,” said Byard. “When we show that a young person is suffering, any decent person would want to act.”

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