When I first became the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), the nation's leading organization advocating for black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, I was often asked why I had chosen to accept the position. I am a straight woman who was raised in suburban Florida with a military husband from urban Detroit, Mich., a family with strong Christian values and an upbringing that included attending one of America's Historically Black College and Universities. At first, I was deeply focused on black churches and far-right activists' anti-gay rhetoric. Then I tried to engage people and share with them the stories of everyday people who couldn't find work or suffered from workplace discrimination because of their gender identity. Even worse were the horror stories of teenagers being attacked, bullied, and even murdered, because people suspected they were gay. This journey caused me to question how we, as a society, have come to define "community."
At NBJC, we work at the intersection of race, orientation and gender identity. Daily, we are standing in support, solidarity and commitment to building safe communities, families, schools, churches, and places of employment for everyone, inclusive of our LGBT brothers and sisters. And while it is incredibly rewarding to know that we are helping to make the world a better place for all people, the challenges of this work have resonated with me, as a wife, stepmother and advocate, deeply.
Together, my husband and I are helping to raise nieces, nephews, unofficially adopted sons and daughters we love and look after like our own. While we try our hardest to create a haven within our home for their many talents, quirks, and big personalities, we unleash them into the world hoping for the best. As adults we have come to know all too well the importance of creating safe spaces in our schools so that all our children can thrive. But how can our young people meet their full potential when they are being harassed, teased and rejected for who they are?
Just last month, NBJC, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) released data from Injustice at Every Turn: A Look at Black Respondents in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, which found that half of the respondents who attend school expressing their transgender identity or gender non-conformity reported incidents of harassment. And it doesn't stop there.
According to research from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), 85 percent of African-American LGBT students say they hear anti-gay language at school. Too often these same students don't even end up making it to school. About a quarter of those same students said they've missed class at least once or missed at least one full day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable, compared to just 6.3 percent of all black youth and 3.5 percent of all white youth.
These alarming statistics and the very real faces behind them have led NBJC to join the "be a STAR" alliance, a coalition committed to creating a positive social environment for everyone regardless of age, race, religion, or orientation through education and awareness. In conjunction with the National Education Association Health Information Network, "be a STAR" has created an anti-harassment toolkit for students, teachers and parents to foster an environment in which tolerance and respect for all people is the norm.
Bullying and violence have no place in our schools. When our children are the targets as a result of their orientation, perceived orientation, gender identity or gender expression, it is critical that there are adults they can turn to. It is imperative that their allies be visible so that they won't have to be invisible. This is our responsibility to not only our black LGBT youth but every child.
It is going to take a village to change the culture of bullying. As adults, we have an obligation to help young people "own their power." If they are bullied or witness their friends being harassed, they should feel empowered to speak up and speak out. That's where we come in.
We must engage our children in open and honest dialogue around anti-gay violence and rhetoric and bring LGBT-inclusive books, movies, and conversations into the home. Start a Gay-Straight Alliance with your son or daughter if they don't already have one. And if there is one, you can volunteer, whether your child is gay or not. Being a silent spectator is not an option. It is about building community and letting our children know that we care.
Follow Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks on Twitter: www.twitter.com/sharonlettman