The solution to LGBT teen suicide, specifically death-by-bullying, should be about the students. There's a lot of attention being paid to gay teen suicide right now, and I hope that it doesn't get misdirected to other projects that people want to push, legislation that would make adults feel better but wouldn't do much to concretely change the way LGBT kids are raised. It's easy to focus on big-ticket LGBT legislation as the solution to everything, but even states that have same-sex marriage still have an anti-gay bullying epidemic and gay teen suicides.
Anti-bullying programs would help alleviate some of what LGBT teens go through, as would good sex education that explained that human sexuality is diverse. Accountability for bullies and schools that don't care about bullies would help, and resources for homeless queer youth who are also contributing to queer teen suicide would alleviate some of the problem.
And supporting LGBT teachers would, too. I didn't know a single openly gay adult before I left high school, and I didn't have an openly gay teacher until my second year of college. There's a reason for that: being out and working with kids is inviting attacks, so many of us avoid the profession or keep our identities in the closet just to avoid possibly career-ending confrontation. According to British LGBT people, education is one of the most homophobic sectors of the work force there is (I don't know of a comparable American survey), and the only one that topped the list that wasn't a macho job.
I've done plenty of work with kids -- camp counseling, tutoring, substitute teaching, working study halls, and, most recently, teaching English here in France -- and depending on where I was working the homophobia was at times palpable and always created hopelessness. I lost one job because I was out. A school I worked in refused to allow a GSA to meet on campus (after, I stopped working there) on the grounds that some parents would be upset. And anti-gay insults were always being tossed around with almost no one willing to confront the casual homophobia.
Such an environment is a direct result of institutional action; there's something about kids meeting real-live queer people that signals distress in seemingly friendly parents and that makes less-than accepting parents' brains burst.
Consider this story from just last week:
Seth Stambaugh told a fourth-grader who asked if he was married, that he was not. When the student asked why, Stambaugh, who is gay, replied it was not legal for him to get married because he would choose to marry another man. The student then asked does that mean you like to hang out with other guys? and Stambaugh responded yes, said Lake Perriguey, Stambaugh's attorney.
The parent of a student who overheard the conversation complained, Perriguey said, and district administrators asked Stambaugh's advisors at Lewis & Clark College to find him another school. [...]
Beaverton School District spokeswoman Maureen Wheeler said the decision was not discriminatory.
It was based on "concerns about a conversation he had with a fourth-grade student," Wheeler said. "Our concerns were about the professional judgment and age appropriateness."
Wheeler said the district's "policy and practice is non-discrimination. We train on this issue." But student teachers, also known as interns, are not employees and the district does not have policies dealing with them.
I'm sure Maureen Wheeler isn't a red-in-the-face, "God hates fags" sign-holding homophobe. I'm sure she considers herself a good person faced with a tough decision. There's just something about a gay person letting a 10-year-old know why he's not married that bothers her, and she's doing what it takes to keep an openly gay person from interacting with children. She thinks that's "age appropriateness," the little gay kids at her school will take that as a sign that they're the only ones in the world that are like that, that there's something inherently wrong with them.
But think about all the steps that led to us knowing that Stambaugh had been dismissed. First he had to want to be a teacher, when there are many potentially excellent LGBT teachers who avoid work with children for this exact reason. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to not just say "fuck it" and go into another line of work.
Then a student asked why he wasn't married; he said it's because he's gay. He could have come up with another excuse like that he's too young or hasn't met the right person yet. It's really not too hard to lie to a 10-year-old about that. I could see quite a few normally out-n-proud LGBT people just not wanting to deal with that situation and the potential consequences of being an out teacher (like false accusations of child molestation).
Last, he had to make a stink about it to the media. Lots of gay teachers don't. They need a job in another district. They feel ashamed of their actions. They just want it to go away. They don't really have any proof so who's going to believe them? They just don't want to be in a newspaper for a variety of reasons.
Either way, Stambaugh is just the tip of this iceberg, one of the few teachers willing to do what he did and volunteer himself as a positive role model for gay youth and an administrator stamped that out. I'm sure the other LGBT teachers in his district got that message loud and clear, and he may have as well since he has no legal recourse. The gay kids at that school have no recourse either, even though they'll suffer too because of this decision.
This is an old fight for conservatives -- the original anti-gay ballot initiatives weren't about keeping us from marrying, but keeping us from teaching. Anita Bryant toured the country to keep us out of schools. Harvey Milk didn't work on the Briggs Initiative to get us to serve in the military or to get anti-discrimination protections, but to just protect our right to work professionally with children at all. People actually felt the need to pass laws banning us from classrooms, and there are still some who do:
[Sen. Jim] DeMint said if someone is openly homosexual, they shouldn't be teaching in the classroom and he holds the same position on an unmarried woman who's sleeping with her boyfriend -- she shouldn't be in the classroom.
"(When I said those things,) no one came to my defense," he said. "But everyone would come to me and whisper that I shouldn't back down. They don't want government purging their rights and their freedom to religion."
That's a US Senator who's just casually advocating witch-hunts in schools to purge them of people who don't have sex in ways he prefers. And that won't get much media coverage since that level of homophobia is completely acceptable in our culture.
A gay teacher talking to a gay student was the central "scandal" in the faux controversy Fox News, The Washington Times, and other conservative media outlets focused on when it came to trying to get Kevin Jennings (former GLSEN head appointed to the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools), that he once talked to a gay teen who thought his "life isn't worth saving anyway" and helped him work through those feelings of worthlessness. Media Matters found the teen and here's his version of his conversation with Jennings, who was a teacher at the time:
However, since the Republican noise machine is so concerned about my "well-being" and that of America's students, they'll be relieved to know that I was not "inducted" into homosexuality, assaulted, raped, or sold into sexual slavery.
In 1988, I had taken a bus home for the weekend, and on the return trip met someone who was also gay. The next day, I had a conversation with Mr. Jennings about it. I had no sexual contact with anybody at the time, though I was entirely legally free to do so. I was a sixteen year-old going through something most of us have experienced: adolescence. I find it regrettable that the people who have the compassion and integrity to protect our nation's students are themselves in need of protection from homophobic smear attacks. Were it not for Mr. Jennings' courage and concern for my well-being at that time in my life, I doubt I'd be the proud gay man that I am today.
The mere fact that he talked about being gay with a teacher was enough for right wingers to try what they could to get rid of Kevin Jennings and send a message to LGBT people: stay away from all children, no matter their sexuality or gender, no matter what they're going through.
The fact that gay teachers are still getting fired, in 2010, and that many more are closeted or avoid becoming teachers in the first place because they don't want to deal with that mess should be troubling to everyone. Controlling knowledge is power, and using the educational system to make a segment of the population feel inferior and to privilege certain identities above others is a leg in the table of homophobia.
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