THE BLOG
12/17/2013 03:09 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2014

In Latin America, Chile is 'Making it Better' for LGBTQ Youth

In 2011, United Nations Secretary Ban Ki-Moon declared anti-LGBTQ bullying a "moral outrage, a grave violation of human rights" and urged Member States to take action to address the issue within their schools and communities. Indeed, bullying on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression is a global epidemic. Within Latin America in particular, a recent study conducted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) found that as many as 68 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual students have been targets of homophobic bullying. Results also demonstrate that 40 percent of gay men reported being physically assaulted at school as a result of their sexual orientation and nearly half (45.3 percent) of all trans students in Argentina have been forced to drop out of school due to bullying.

Of the countries in Latin America, Chile has the highest incidence of bullying and youth suicide. Until the brutal torture and murder of Daniel Zamudio in March 2012, little was done to draw attention to the problem of heterosexism and transgender oppression in Chile. Zamudio's tragic and untimely death sparked a national debate that accelerated anti-discrimination legislation and prompted a movement to raise awareness about LGBTQ issues, particularly as they impact young people.

Among the organizations leading the charge in this movement is Todo Mejora, Latin America's version of the It Gets Better Project with a more specific focus on ending suicide and bullying based on real or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. With less than a year as an official foundation, Todo Mejora has established itself as a pioneer in the area of anti-LGBTQ bullying prevention in Chile and its influence is growing across Latin America. Partnering with local and international organizations including the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Todo Mejora has worked to train educators and mental health professionals; increase the visibility of LGBTQ students and issues in schools; develop and disseminate educational resources related LGBTQ students' experiences; and address legal and policy initiatives related to bullying.

Last week, I was afforded the opportunity to work alongside Todo Mejora as a representative of GLSEN's National Advisory Council and as the co-founder of Georgia Safe Schools Coalition. Supported by a grant from the U.S. Embassy, the purpose of my visit was two-fold: to share my experiences as a researcher, educator and activist within the United States and to gain a more critical understanding of the similarities and cultural and legislative differences between the United States and Chile as they relate to LGBTQ issues in schools. Highlights of my visit included presenting at two anti-LGBT bullying prevention seminars at universities in Temuco and Santiago, the former of which marked the first-ever LGBTQ student-related seminar in the southern region of Chile. My visit also provided the opportunity to meet with mental health professionals, anti-discrimination centers, educators and volunteers to share my experiences related to individual and collaborative action, research, policy, advocacy and curriculum design as well as to provide consultation related to strategies for intervention.

While many bullying prevention interventions can be applied in a variety of contexts, one must be careful not to assume that effective evidence-based practices implemented in the United States can be translated successfully for use in Chile or other parts of Latin America and the world. Indeed, Chile remains a mostly conservative country, steeped in Catholic traditions and beliefs regarding sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. For example, Chile is one of four countries in Latin America where the age of consent is higher for gays, lesbians and bisexuals than for heterosexuals (18 years of age compared to 14, respectively). Further, the education system in Chile is significantly different than that of the United States. There is an expansive movement to increase student enrollment in privately subsidized schools and educators in both private and public schools receive virtually no professional development related to matters of sexual and gender diversity. Additionally, Chile's LGBTQ community is concentrated largely in Santiago which presents issues of access to resources for parents, educators and young people in more rural areas of the country. Most notably, there is virtually no empirical research to date on the topic of anti-LGBTQ bullying in schools. Significant additional research is needed in both Chile and across Latin America to better understand the experiences of LGBTQ students and the educators who work with them.

The situation in Chile with regard to LGBTQ youth presents somewhat of a paradox: it has the highest rate of bullying and youth suicide in Latin America yet is one of the only countries taking action to achieve broad-based, systemic social change. Indeed, despite existing challenges, the current political and social landscape of the country presents a wide array of opportunities for change. Michelle Bachelet, the front-runner in Chile's run-off election, is an outspoken supporter of LGBTQ rights including marriage equality. Further, the recently passed anti-discrimination law has prompted a new focus on protections for LGBTQ people, including the establishment of seven anti-discrimination centers across Chile. The Ministry of Education is also taking steps to improve the school experiences of LGBTQ youth in Chile. For instance, the Ministry recently incorporated sexual orientation and gender identity as part of its comprehensive efforts to address issues of school climate. Additionally, the two largest and arguably most emblematic school districts -- Santiago and Maipu -- are currently collaborating with Todo Mejora to develop professional trainings in the areas of anti-LGBTQ bullying and sexual and gender diversity. On a larger scale, a recent movement to mobilize a global network of activists, educators and researchers has the potential to foster opportunities for collaborative action, support, and a critical exchange of ideas and experiences.

There is certainly much to be hopeful for. I left Chile with a reignited passion and commitment to the work of safe schools, not solely in the United States but in Chile and around the world. In all of my meetings and seminars, I fed off others' thirst for change and their eagerness to learn and do more to end anti-LGBTQ bullying. Indeed, the heart and soul of the Chilean people is innately compassionate and open. All of the educators with whom I met -- regardless of political affiliations or religious beliefs -- agreed on at least one crucial point: all students deserve to feel safe, respected and affirmed at school and when students feel safe at school, they benefit emotionally, socially and academically. This simple yet essential point is at the core of Todo Mejora's mission and it is where, I believe, we can find common ground in the global effort to end anti-LGBTQ bullying.