Bad, But In Some Ways Better: GLSEN School Climate Survey Shows Mixed Results
September 5th, 2012
Moments ago, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) released its 2011 National School Climate Survey, which includes responses from 8,584 students from all fifty states and the District of Columbia. GLSEN has been conducting the survey now for over a decade, and this latest survey has found, for the first time, decreased levels of biased anti-LGBT language and decreased levels of student victimization based on sexual orientation. The survey also found increased levels of student access to LGBT-related school resources and support.
But a quick look at the survey when compared to 2009 shows that the situation is a classic glass-half-full/half-empty situation. Despite the improvements, LGBT students continue to experience hostile climates in the schools. According to the 2011 survey, 81.9% of LGBT students said they were verbally harassed, 38.3% were physically harassed and 18.3% were physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation. (In 2009, those same figures were 84.6%, 40.1% and 18.8% respectively.)
In addition, 63.9% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 27.1% were physically harassed and 12.4% were physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their gender expression. Those figures are virtually unchanged from 2009. The 2011 survey also found that 63.5% reported feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and 43.9% felt unsafe because of their gender expression. Those numbers are actually higher from 2009. About a third reported skipping class and a third reported skipping an entire day because of safety concerns.
The survey found that having a Gay-Straight Alliance, an LGBT-inclusive curriculum and anti-bullying policies which specifically addressed sexual orientation correlated with an improved school environment. The presence of teachers and other school personnel who were visibly supportive of LGBT students also resulted in higher grade point averages and lower absenteeism among LGBT students. Unfortunately, only slightly more than half could identify six or more supportive teachers, less than half attended schools with GSAs, and only about 7.4% attended a school with an anti-bullying policy which specifically addressed sexual orientation and/or gender expression.
Kevin Jennings, “Brewster,” and the Closet
October 3rd, 2009
(I’ve been extremely busy with work lately, which is why I haven’t been able to comment on this extremely important story. My apologies for my tardiness.)
Numerous anti-gay web sites have been hyperventilating about the appointment of Kevin Jennings, the former Executive Director for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), to be the Assistant Deputy Secretary of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools at the U.S. Department of Education. The loudest cries have centered on a story that Jennings has told many times in many forms, about an incident that happened when he was just starting out as a schoolteacher. There are several versions of the story floating around, but the one that anti-gay activists have fixated on goes like this:
And in my second job I wasn’t sure how I wanted to deal with that. And I was in my first month on the job and I had an advisee named Brewster. Brewster was missing a lot of classes; he was in the boarding school so I said to his teacher, his first period teacher, I said, “next time Brewster misses a class I want you to tell me that he’s missed that class and, uh, I will go find him.”
So I went and found Brewster one morning when she had called and he was asleep in his dorm room. And I said, “Brewster, what are you doing in there asleep?” And he said, “Well, I’m tired.”
And I said, “Well we all are tired and we all got to school today.”
And he said, “Well I was out late last night.”
And I said, “What were you doing out late on a school night.”
And he said, “Well, I was in Boston…”
Boston was about 45 minutes from Concord. So I said, “What were you doing in Boston on a school night Brewster?”
He got very quiet, and he finally looked at me and said, “Well I met someone in the bus station bathroom and I went home with him.” High school sophomore, 15 years old. That was the only way he knew how to meet gay people.
I was a closeted gay teacher, 24 years old, didn’t know what to say. I knew I should say something quickly so I finally said, My best friend had just died of AIDS the week before. I looked at Brewster and said, “You know, I hope you knew to use a condom.”
He said to me something I will never forget, He said “Why should I? My life isn’t worth saving anyway.”
For most people, this story, taking place as it did in the late 1980s, would be about how critical it is for LGBT students to have someone they know they can turn to in safety and confidence. It is also a story that illustrates how a young man can be made so desperate coming of age in a culture that condemns everything about him. But for some, this was a story has become about an underage fifteen-year-old student having sex with an adult, and Jennings’ failure to report this “statutory rape” or “molestation” to authorities.
The problem with this story, like many stories in which the storyteller wishes to protect someone’s anonymity, is that many minor details end up being altered to ensure that the people in the story can’t be identified. And sometimes these alterations change with different tellings. Typically, you try to alter details which are immaterial to the purpose of the story (the student’s name, for example). Unfortunately, some of these alterations can be interpreted by some in ways which turn out to be materially important, but in ways that the storyteller may not have anticipated (like Brewster’s age). That appears to be what happened here.
In Jennings 2006 memoir Mama’s Boy, Preacher’s Son Brewster appears to be a boy name Robertson. In an essay Jennings wrote for Mitchell Gold’s Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America, the boy’s name is Thompson. His name is unimportant, and clearly we have a case where Jennings is changing the student’s name in different tellings in order to hid his identity.
But it turns out that this detail about his age has ended up being important to those who want to use this story for a different purpose than Jennings intended. Sixteen is the age of consent for Massachusetts, although state law provides an exception of the two are close in age. In this version of the story I just cited, Jennings gave the student’s age as fifteen, but we don’t know the age of that “someone” at the bus station (who is assumed to be an adult).
But it appears that the student’s age might have been one of those details that Jennings was changing to protect the student’s identity. In most versions of the story, the student is simply identified as a sophomore and his age is not given. In other versions, and particularly in an important 2004 clarification by Jennings’ lawyer (PDF: 927KB/2 pages) when his issue first arose, the student’s age was given as sixteen. Furthermore, the story was clarified to indicate that Jennings had little information to believe that the student was actually having sex with an older man.
Now neither the student’s name nor his age were important elements to the story in terms of what that story was meant to illustrate (the importance of LGBT students having someone they can trust to turn to, the need for teachers to be able to deal with the special needs of LGBT students — more on that later). But one of those unimportant elements suddenly became vitally important for those who sought to take this story outside of its context.
Which is exactly what right-wing media has done. Fox News and The Washington Times have latched onto just one particular version of the story, the fifteen-year-old-Brewster version, as though it were gospel, while ignoring all the other versions including his 2004 clarification. And they ignored both its context and what seems to me a rather obvious attempt to hide the student’s identity by changing some of the details.
Fortunately, Media Matters for America has been able to track down “Brewster” and they obtained an image of his drivers license. That I.D. shows his birth date as July 31, 1971. Since the conversation took place in the fall of 1987, this would have made “Brewster” sixteen at the time and a legal adult. But more relevant than all that is this: a statement by “Brewster” himself:
Since I was of legal consent at the time, the fifteen-minute conversation I had with Mr. Jennings twenty-one years ago is of nobody’s concern but his and mine. 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.
As they say, all’s well that ends well, but that doesn’t put this issue entirely to rest. There is still the matter of the particular advice that Jennings tossed off — “I hope you knew to use a condom.”
I think we can agree that this closeted, 24-year-old teacher’s advice was abysmal. “Brewster” really needed — and should have gotten — much better advice than that. I think we can all compose a large list of topics that they should have discussed.
That closeted teacher handled that situation very badly, but that shouldn’t have been surprising. Closeted people rarely handle situations touching on sexuality very well. I should know. I was closeted for the first forty years of my life, and in those years I said and did things that I am not at all proud of, things that I would never dream of doing today. The closet is a very insidious situation to be in.
And if people had paid attention to all of the versions of this story, they would have noticed that this was one of the principle lessons behind Jennings’ story. He screwed up and gave lousy advice, an admission he reinforced in a recent statement:
Twenty-one years later I can see how I should have handled the situation differently. I should have asked for more information and consulted legal or medical authorities. Teachers back then had little training and guidance about this kind of thing.
I think it’s important to know that “this kind of thing” isn’t just general information about sexual conduct among students which many teachers were trained on, but the particularly unique situations that LGBT students were in during that time. The year 1987 was at the very height of the AIDS crisis, and all of the hysterial that accompanied it. Politicians and popular pundits alike thought nothing about advocating that people with AIDS should be rounded up and quarantined. Homes of children with AIDS were being firebombed in Florida and people were regularly shunned everywhere else. Couple that with the presumption that everyone who was gay had AIDS (a presumption that persists in some quarters today), this placed an added stigma to everyone who was struggling to come to terms with their own sexuality.
And just to add to that, sodomy was a crime in Massachusetts in 1987, a “crime” that both the student and Jennings were potentially guilty of regardless of age of consent laws.This fact was very much on the minds of all LGBT people, especially closeted ones. I remember well in the late 1980s that Texas’ sodomy law was cited by the Dallas police department as justification for their ban on hiring LGBT officers. I remember that because I held a security clearance at the time, and worried about how that might affect my job. I needn’t have worried; by then sexual orientation wasn’t much of a factor in granting security clearances, but I didn’t know that. I wasn’t willing to take the risk of asking. One cannot discount the fears that these conditions placed on all LGBT people at that time, especially those in the closet. No wonder “Brewster” thought his life wasn’t worth saving.
When I was in high school, there was absolutely not one person I could trust to talk about what I was going through at that time — not one teacher, guidance counselor, or any other trustworthy adult. The climate was simply too hostile. And to demonstrate the depth of my sense of isolation, let me tell you a story where I’ll have to change someone’s name (but nothing else).
A good friend of mine in high school who was later diagnosed with schizophrenia was sent to see a psychiatrist because of his behavioral problems. That psychiatrist, noting that Will had not had any girlfriends yet (and is that any wonder, given the nature of his illness?) concluded that his problem was latent homosexuality. That psychiatrist then embarked on the blame-the-parents-based therapies that were popular at that time in order to try to cure him — even though by then, homosexuality was not considered a mental disorder. Not surprisingly, that course of treatment was futile because the diagnosis was completely wrong. Will isn’t gay and he never was. But I saw the disruptive effect that response had on his family, and I saw that Will only got worse when it was all said and done.
So not only could I not trust any teachers, but I knew I couldn’t even trust the so-called “experts.” For that day and time, I don’t think my situation was all that unique.
Which is why, as bad as Jennings’ advice was, I still think “Brewster” was lucky. The bad advice he got was far better than the alternative that he was likely to get from anyone else at that time. Better still, Jennings himself later came out of the closet and and founded GLSEN, and he has dedicated the rest of his career to making sure teachers today are better able to work with the “Brewsters” of the world. As hostile as this climate still is, LGBT students are better off in more schools today than we ever thought they would be two decades ago. And much of it began because of some bad advice given by a frightened, closeted teacher twenty-two years ago.
Why You Should Always Go To The Source
May 29th, 2009
I’ve adopted a policy of never believing what I read on most anti-gay web sites, simply because when you go to the source, you find that things are never — never! — as they appear. And I say that mindful of the dangers of speaking in such absolutes. But here is just another of one those examples. This email landed in my inbox:
I’m a faithful DAILY (HOURLY?) gay guy reader of your blogs. I LOVE YOUR WORK!! I am grateful for all you do!
Since I also read WND to “find out what those guys are thinking”…every once in a while I come across something that makes me wince. If the below is true (is it?), it doesn’t look A-OK for our side…do you guys have any back-story on this? I don’t like the fact that parents can’t opt-out. Is this another scare tactic?
Good question, Thomas. Thanks for asking.
The WND article decries a “mandatory homosexual curriculum for children as young as 5.” But what is that “homosexual curriculum” that the Alameda (CA) Unified School District has developed?
Well, it’s all online right here. And as you look through it, you will find that it is simply a set of short discussions with students about fellow students’ families. Some of these families have a mom and a dad, some just a mom, some just a dad, some with two moms, and some with two dads, and some with no moms or dads but aunts, uncles or grandparents.
It’s the mentioning of two moms and two dads that’s stiring up the trouble. But having a child in school with two moms or two dads is just a fact of life. This curriculum is designed to reflect that ordinary fact, and to point out that ostracism, teasing, or bullying because of it are not acceptable.
But to anti-gay opponents, the possibility that we might just be ordinary families who happen to send children to school is very scary. So yes, it is a scare tactic. Anything that unmasks the horrible creatures invented by anti-gay activists and reveals that ordinary people in ordinary families send ordinary children to ordinary schools, well there’s nothing more frightening to them than that. And so they oppose it at all costs.
Our opponents are very good at scaring people. It’s all they have left. And so they label a curriculum designed to minimize bullying and ostracizing behavior as a “homosexual curriculum,” as if teachers were being ordered to teach the mechanics of homo-sex to school kids. But that’s not what this is. Not even close.
But the mechanics of hetero-sex, well that seems to be another matter.
[Thanks to Thomas for asking a very good question.]
California LGBT Anti-Discrimination Opponents Give Up
June 24th, 2008
California’s “Save Our Kids” Campaign have announced that they have given up on their efforts to overturn California’s Senate Bill 777. Signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last October, SB-777 provides an array of anti-discrimination and anti-bullying protections in California’s schools.
An earlier attempt by opponents to force a referendum fell short, which led them to start a petition drive to put an initiative on the ballot. Now that this effort has failed, the Save Our Kids Campaign has announced that they will instead concentrate on passing a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
This follows similar failures in attempt to roll back anti-discrimination measures in Maine and Oregon.
A Reason to Hate
March 24th, 2008
There is no reason anyone should like billy he’s a little bitch. And a homosexual that NO ONE LIKES
That was the heading of a Facebook page called “Every One That Hates Billy Wolfe.”
The NY Times tells us that Billy “likes girls”, but that matters little to those looking for a reason to beat him. And they have beat him. Badly. And repeatedly.
So his family is suing one of the bullies. And they are considering suing his public high school in Fayetteville, Ark.
The school has a tolerance program. But somehow this didn’t stop Billy from being beaten. Nor did it stop some administrators from blaming Billy first (only to have to retract their accusations when presented with videotape). I don’t know if their policies specifically include tolerance lessons based on sexual orientation or if bullies and administrators just chose not to take them seriously.
Anti-gays tell us that kids get picked on for lots of reasons: wearing glasses, being a little heavy, or just no reason at all so we shouldn’t have anti-bullying policies that specifically protect gay kids. But it sure seems to be the gay kids – or those like Billy who are labeled “homosexual” by their tormentors – that end up bloody or dead.
Arizona House Passes Bigot Protection Act
March 18th, 2008
Anti-gays are not always staggeringly stupid. For example, they are capable of understanding that “Proud to Be Irish” is not really comparable to “The Irish are Scum”. They can get that a T-Shirt bearing a Star of David and the phrase “Shalom” is not offensive to anyone while “Jews are Jesus-Killers” really has no place in public schools.
But for some reason, they just can’t understand the difference between a T-Shirt with a supportive gay theme and one that condemns and attacks gays. For some reason they confuse pro-Christianity with anti-gay and think that it is appropriate to wear T-Shirts with the language “Homosexuality Is Shameful, Romans 1:27″ and “Be Ashamed” and “Our School Embraced What God Has Condemned.”
Well now the legislature in Arizona has lept to their defense.
The House approved legislation Monday designed to ensure students expressing their religious beliefs are treated the same as those taking more secular positions.
Now those unfamiliar with the efforts of anti-gays to instill formal homophobia into the classroom may not recognize the reasons for this effort. They may think this is about the Bible Club or about anti-religious bigotry.
If I were ignorant, they might have my sympathies. As someone who was once mocked by a fifth grade teacher in front of class for closing my eyes and saying a silent prayer over my lunch, I know that schools can sometimes be tough on religious kids. And if you doubt that, try being the only boy in gym class in knee-length shorts.
But that’s not what this is about. And in case we have any uncertainty, the bill’s author, Rep. Doug Clark, R-Anthem, clarified.
Similarly, Clark said if students are allowed to wear T-shirts about their sexual orientation, then other students should be permitted to have their own shirts which express a religious viewpoint about such activities.
Yup. This bill is designed specifically to promote “a religious viewpoint” about “such activities”. I wasn’t the only one to notice this.
Rep. David Schapira, D-Tempe, said he fears the bill would give license to some students to bully or harass others, such as those who might wear T-shirts demeaning homosexual students, which he described as “harassing.”
Clark said schools would remain free to enact and enforce anti-discrimination policies.
“Most in the religious community are going to be level-headed and not be abusive of the rights that are established in the Constitution,” Clark said.
Well now, Rep. Clark, that just isn’t true. If there were no efforts to harass gay students, you wouldn’t need a bill that allows just such action. But somehow I think you already know that.
However, Rep. Clark – and those who are proclaiming a mighty victory in God’s name – let me give you a little warning. You’ve done this before and it didn’t quite work out the way you planned.
You passed a federal law, the Equal Access Act, that was intended to protect students who wanted to have Bible Study on campus. And now that is the law that protects Gay-Straight Alliances. To your surprise, shock, and dismay, you found that teen-agers didn’t much want to spend lunch time discussing the lamentations of Jeremiah but that gay kids did want to get together and work towards defending themselves from abuse.
In your rush to impose your faith on others, you forget that those who disagree with you will also get the same right to impose their faith right back.
So rush out and print your anti-gay T-Shirts just in time for the Day of Silence. You can use “Jesus Can Make You Happy, Not Gay” or even “God Condemns Homosexuality” if you like, knowing that their “religious” message is protected.
But if you stop and think you’ll realize that at this moment there’s some enterprising kid trying to decide whether “I Reject Your Fascist Religion” or “Real Christians Don’t Hate” will sell more T-Shirts before class. For every kid that is so devout that he wants to wear a message of hostility and condemnation of gays, there are many more who will mock you and your faith. When you open up the schools to “religious viewpoints” about “activities”, you aren’t going to like the results.
I figure gay boys could just wear the religious T-Shirt above and watch you and the other anti-gays work yourselves into a tizzy.
Rural Kentucky High School Student Fights for GSA
March 10th, 2008
Ohio County, Kentucky lies in the western part of the state, just south of Owensboro in the Western Coal Fields region. Far from the bright lights of the big city, it’s the last place you’d expect to find a story like this. But this is a new era, and demands for dignity and safety are taking root everywhere:
18 year old avid photographer Clyde Calloway is the president of the school choir and a member of the drama club and Kentucky School of the Arts.
The most recent organization he’s joined is the Gay Straight Alliance.
“A lot of people have joined,” Clyde explains. “At first, I was skeptical of what people might think. Now, you see how many people are in there. I feel more open than before.”
So far, membership stands at about fifty people — not bad for a high school student body of 1200. The group has been at Ohio County High for several weeks, but most students didn’t find out about it until the GSA placed a bulletin board in a hallway for poetry and artwork. But threats were posted instead, including one which said that a gun would be brought to the next meeting.
The principal isn’t so sure the school is ready for the GSA, but Clyde says that closing this organization isn’t an option:
“If it’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s don’t let people get you down about stuff. Be strong and if it’s something you really believe in, keep behind it until the end,” says Clyde.
Clyde’s mother, Deborah, sounds like a remarkable woman for having raised such a remarkable son:
“I raised him not to judge other people and he’s just carrying that on,” Deborah concludes. “I’m very proud of him.”
You can see the full video at WBKO Channel 13, Bowling Green.
Californina Referendum Effort Fails
January 12th, 2008
Opponents of California’s new law which protects students from discrimination, harassment and bullying based on the basis of gender or sexual orientation in the public schools, announced yesterday they failed to collect enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot to repeal the law:
In an e-mail announcement issued around 2 p.m. yesterday, which coincided with a Sacramento press conference, Karen England, director of the Save Our Kids Campaign, said backers of the referendum had collected over 350,000 signatures – more than 80,000 short of the 434,000 valid signatures needed to force a statewide plebiscite on the law in the June elections.
Last October 12, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed SB 777 into law after an acrimonious campaign among social conservatives to persuade him to veto it. Opponents claimed that the law would “promote homosexuality” and “persecute” Christians.
Three days after Gov. Schwarzenegger signed the law, Capitol Resource Family Impact, a Sacramento group, filed a referendum with the state attorney general’s office. They then formed the Save Our Kids Campaign to collect signatures before the January 10 deadline to put the referendum on the ballot.
Never one to concede defeat, England tried to turn lemon into lemonade:
“For a completely volunteer-driven campaign to obtain this number of signatures is unheard of,” said England in her e-mailed announcement. “We had to overcome incredible difficulties during our signature gathering, including the holidays, and the results are astonishing. While we didn’t reach the threshold of required signatures, we have surprised political observers with the amazing amount of signatures we gathered in just 70 days. It is unheard of for a volunteer-only effort to find this kind of support, especially in a state as large as California.”
England also announced that with the referendum effort dead, they have filed an initiative with the Attorney General’s office and will begin collecting signatures again. Meanwhile, a legal challenge to the law is still before the courts.