Gay youth struggle against schools’ ignorance and communities’ intolerance

**This article was first published at on June 25, 2012**

As thousands in the LGBT community took the streets over the weekend in places such as Chicago, New York and San Francisco to parade pride before a nation that considers itself tolerant, research shows gay youth still grapple with painful issues during perhaps the most pivotal stages of their lives.

Take, for example, a recent report by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay-rights advocacy organization. The report stressed the prevalence of bullying and discrimination toward LGBT youth, a problem Chicago-area experts say is caused by intolerant and unsupportive systems in schools and communities.

HRC’s national survey of 10,000 LGBT-identified youth, called “Growing Up LGBT in America,” recently found 51 percent of participants had been verbally harassed at school, and 48 percent felt excluded by peers because of their sexual identity.

One seeming remedy is forming Gay-Straight Alliances – extracurricular organizations that aim to create a safe space for LGBT youth and their allies. However, few GSAs exist in Chicago-area schools. While 47 percent of students nationally reported having a GSA at school, only 41 of 158 Chicago public high schools are listed in the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance’s GSA directory, according to an analysis of Illinois Safe Schools Alliance data.

Alexis Wieselman, who has advised GSAs at both Eric Solorio Academy and Phillips High School, said running these clubs is particularly difficult without the support of administration and the surrounding community.

When she advised the club at Phillips two years ago, she said the administration “put up barriers whenever possible” by delaying the start of the club and subjecting them to additional paperwork.

“The problems that I have run into with GSA’s in inner city Chicago schools is that administration doesn’t have an understanding of the importance of visibility for LGBT youth,” said Wieselman, a science special education teacher. “They don’t view it as important that teachers be out and that there be communication in the handbook that LGBT students exist.”

A Gay-Straight Alliance, when permitted, can provide a place for students to speak openly about their identities, which may work to combat the rise in LGBT youth suicides that led to the viral “It Gets Better” campaign from 2010. But a recent report from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center indicates that it is not getting better. LGBT youth attempt suicide at a rate of two to four times higher than that of their heterosexual peers. They struggle to “cope with developing a sexual minority identity in the midst of negative comments, jokes, and often the threat of violence,” the report said.

Spencer, a 16-year-old attending a public high school in New York, was initially afraid to share his identity with friends, family or teachers. HRC reported that one-third of LGBT youth feel they do not have an adult to whom they can talk.

Spencer said his parents, who were unsure how to handle his questions, arranged for him to speak to a therapist about his identity. Through these sessions and a few friends, he learned to ignore people who probed him about his identity with malicious intent and brushed off “certain remarks, certain looks and just people being rude.”

“During 8th grade I had identified myself as a homosexual, but never publically,” he said. “I never talked about it. People would always ask me and I would deny it, not because I wasn’t proud or I wasn’t comfortable. It’s just that I didn’t know what that meant. I wasn’t positive, I wasn’t sure. There were so many questions floating around. It was not a hard time but it was just confusing.”

And even with a supportive administration, a club’s success can hinge on the attitudes of the school’s neighbors. According to the HRC report, four in 10 LGBT youth say the community in which they live is not accepting of LGBT people.

Spencer, for example, said the community in which he grew up focused more on racial diversity than sexual diversity, and being gay was still a taboo subject, especially for his parents’ generation.

Emily Tongue, who advises the GSA at Collins Academy High School in North Lawndale, said establishing the club was easy; retaining membership proved more difficult because of the stigma surrounding it. Students sometimes referred to the organization as “that gay club,” and parents approached her insisting that their child remain uninvolved, she said.

“Commitment is really hard in high school in the first place, especially with something like a GSA,” said Tongue, who, like Wieselman, teaches science special education. “We’re [North Lawndale] a mostly African-American  area, drug ridden, low income, and very homophobic. So it’s big-time needed there. But it’s just a matter of students feeling comfortable enough to show up.”

Tongue said a few of her GSA seniors were victims of bullying last year, but chose to mediate the situations within the club rather than take it to administration. The club provided support for the targeted students but encouraged them to handle the situations on their own.

“This was their chance to start standing up and being the voice they needed for the rest of their lives,” she said. “We were lucky to have only a few bullying cases, but the students learned to know that the world was mean, and they would have to be bigger person and move on from it.”

Even when bullying cases are brought to authorities, the “three strikes you’re out” policy typically used in Chicago schools is not conducive to LGBT mediation, said Bonnie Wade, associate director of UCAN, a Chicago-based program for LGBT. The perpetrator gets a slap on the wrist and the victim gets set aside, without further effort to create a safe space, she said. Often, Wade said, the complaints of LGBT students are overlooked by teachers and administrators who blame the students for drawing in violence with their appearance and behavior.

“Our social structures are not set up to support gender variance or gender nonconforming young people.” she said.  “So when young people fall outside of the mainstream…that is seen as deviant or is stigmatized…It’s still pretty uncomfortable for people, especially when it comes to teenagers. Our schools, our community groups and churches, we’re in the process of catching up.”


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