For an in-depth look at the experiences of LGBT youth in rural areas and small towns, check out Strengths & Silences.
Morgan Portland High School, Freshman
Act I, the mess called middle school. For sixth grade, I attended a school in a small town outside of Nashville, Tennessee. Portland has a population of fewer than 12,000 people and is not known for being easily accepting of difference. Considering I had no clue what “transgender” meant, I didn't mind being called a female or using the girls’ bathroom, but for whatever reason I was still unhappy. My young mind didn't understand. I felt hollow, as if something wasn’t complete. Cue to the move to Springfield, Tennessee in late sixth grade. Being the new kid, nobody was all that eager to befriend me so I was left to my own devices. All I did that summer was read. New dog? Who cares, I had a new book. New kid down the street? Who cares, the protagonist of the novel I'm reading just learned about his unique abilities. However, constantly reading introduced me to various things, including transgender individuals and the issues they face. Upon first seeing the word, it didn’t strike me as particularly meaningful. That is, until I further researched the word and found it described me and my inner feelings. The ones I had tried to push down with increasingly feminine clothing and other frivolous things that I embraced, trying to prove my “rightness.”
That summer, I had a realization that would change my life. I was a boy.
I had finally discovered the source of my unhappiness. In trying to physically represent my inner feelings, I stocked up on clothing that would compress my chest, purchased masculine clothing, and cut my hair short. I somewhat came out to my mother but gave up reasoning with her after she voiced her opinion that she thought it was the work of the Devil. It hurt to know my mother didn’t accept me. We had once had a close relationship and to have that fall apart in a single night was horrifying.
As bad as bullying can be at all schools, it seems to be amplified in the South and magnified in rural communities. It seems that in small towns, anti-LGBT bias is just accepted as the norm.
Yet I couldn't keep this to myself. It was something so vital to my being: how is one supposed to hide their true self? I was suppressing my own identity by not being myself. I didn’t know who else to turn to, so I confided in my science teacher and I am forever grateful that I did. Without realizing it at the time, I had confided in a devout Christian... surprisingly, she was entirely supportive of what she labeled my “transition.” The day I was pushed out of the female bathroom for having short hair, she told me she would arrange for more suitable bathroom arrangements and she did. When I was shoved into my locker and called a redneck fag, she held me as I cried and told me she would find who do it and ensured me that I was neither word they had called me. She taught me to be a caring human being. She taught me that I was a human being worth being cared for. Toward the end of my seventh grade year I was given rather surprising news – my family was once again moving. Back to Portland. Back to all of my childhood memories and friends. It also meant leaving my beloved teacher, the one person I could confide in. While I didn't protest the move – I felt it wise to not further pressure my mother – I was deeply saddened. Back to Portland we went. It was time for me to enter the eighth grade, which had once seemed so mystical and awe-inspiring. From the beginning of the year to the end, I was tormented. People I had once called friends turned against me. They refused to associate themselves with the weird kid, the kid who liked to rough house with the boys, the one they couldn’t get their heads around. I was hurt. No teacher here offered support. I was either told to suck it up or alert the administration, who almost one-hundred percent of the time disregarded any bullying complaints. I trudged through the year, depression and thoughts of ending it swarming my mind. The only thing that kept me going was the hope that high school would somehow be better, that somehow I would finally feel comfortable. I knew my body still didn’t truly match my real gender, but at least I would have the comfort of being acknowledged as a male. This simple acknowledgment was something I desired greatly. Act II, otherwise known as high school, began this fall. Amazingly, people began to take off the masks they had worn for the past three years in order to explore their own identities. For me, it was my chance to start off with a clean slate. New building, new teachers, new people... it was the perfect opportunity to enact what I dubbed the Personal Gender Reform. I introduced myself as male to my teachers and fellow students. Nobody ever really questioned it. Fast-forward a couple of months to my birthday. October 22. I was finally fifteen years old, an eager teenager anticipating his learner’s permit and struggling to maintain a reasonable math grade. At Portland High School, we announce students’ birthdays on the day they occur. That day, our principal coughed and began with the usual 'Happy birthday to...' and then stated my name. As you can probably tell, it begins to go downhill from there. 'If you see Morgan in the hallways today, make sure to wish her a happy birthday!' Just my luck. I was apparently the only person with a birthday on October 22 in the entire school. The principal had also just, however unknowingly, ruined what standing I had as a male in the school. Teachers began to refer to me as a she, even the ones that had previously never had an issue calling me he. Students began to pester me with their questions: “Are you a boy or a girl?” “Why do you dress like that? You look ridiculous!” Never did I alert my parents of the bullying. Why bother them when they would only be apathetic? The school has not really responded to this bullying. They barely understand what transgender means, let alone accept this as a part of my identity. The lack of awareness and resources about transgender issues makes this an even more difficult and lonely journey than for other students who are cisgender and identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. As bad as bullying can be at all schools, it seems to be amplified in the South and magnified in rural communities. It seems that in small towns, anti-LGBT bias is just accepted as the norm. Although I had hoped to just slip into a new identity and that no one would ask questions, it still seems impossible for me to be openly transgender. I am fearful of the responses I will get from the people in my school community. But countering that is the inner pain and turmoil I feel trying to hide my true self, and the isolation I feel in trying to keep these experiences to myself. I had been feeling good about high school being the start of something new, but a person can only take so much before they begin to unwind. Slowly, I was once again falling into the downward spiral of depression that had plagued me during my middle school years. What few friendships I had left began to disintegrate. My heart was no longer into the passions that before had kept me sane. Pride would not allow me to tell my friends of my feelings. Anxiety and worry would not let me voice my desire to be recognized as male. In all honesty, I let myself go. However, not all hope was lost. Earlier this year, I heard about this conference called the Student Action and Empowerment Forum (SAEF) being run by GLSEN Middle Tennessee. That weekend I met some truly amazing individuals and also heard about an opportunity to get involved as a student leader advocating for safe schools, the Jump-Start Team. I was intrigued. It was my chance to be part of something bigger. I applied and was accepted onto the team. GLSEN has had a huge impact on me. It has taught me so much and has shown me that kindness can be found all around us. They have accepted me into their family and made me feel as if I have a purpose. GLSEN has given me the materials and strength to work for change in my community. They inspire me to spread the message of unconditional love. Without GLSEN and our Jump-Start Team, I would still be the kid cowering in the corner, too afraid to show my true talents and to be my true self. You might be expecting a happy ending. Truthfully, I’m still hoping for it too. I have faith that things will get better; but for now, even while they are difficult, I know that I finally have a group of people I can confide in. And a GLSEN family that includes other students with similar experiences, shared thoughts and feelings, and who work as one to create safer schools in Tennessee. I'm still opposed by my classmates. My teachers still misgender me. My parents still don't entirely accept me. But I'm still trekking through life with the knowledge that there are people out there who support me and support GLSEN... and because hey, I’ve heard that life is pretty wonderful! If you would like to see how you can create safe spaces for transgender and gender nonconforming students, please see our Model District Policy.
This past spring, Lenoir City High School, a school in rural Tennessee, featured a section of short articles on student life in its yearbook. One article, entitled "It's OK to be Gay," profiled openly gay student Zac Mitchell. Apparently, as far as Lenoir City School Board is concerned, it is not OK to be gay -- or at least not OK to talk about it. Although the yearbook's student staff and faculty advisors felt the article was a perfectly legitimate and inclusive depiction of life at the school, members of the school board were vocal in their opposition. "I don't think that that type of material has any place in a yearbook," said Board member Glenn McNish. Board Vice Chairman Rick Chadwick added, "It should not have been put in the yearbook, and it split our community, and we are going to straighten it out." The story highlights the challenges facing many LGBT students who attend schools in rural and small town areas, but also points to a resiliency and determination to use the resources available to them to make their schools safer for everyone. It is this complex reality that we see reflected in GLSEN's new report on rural and small-town LGBT students. Strengths and Silences: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Students in Rural and Small Town Schools underscores the need for educators and policymakers to do more to address the safety risks for LGBT students in rural and small town schools. Rural LGBT students are far less likely to have access to LGBT-related resources at school. Nonetheless, they benefit substantially when such resources are present. GLSEN will continue to do all we can to bring those critical in-school supports to every community in the country. As familiar as this call may now be, it will continue until all students, in every type of school and of every demographic, have access to the school-based supports that can transform the LGBT student experience and enable every student to thrive.
One year ago today, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her historic address on LGBT human rights at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, I was in Rio de Janeiro at the first-ever UN convening on anti-LGBT bias and violence in schools. Alongside a remarkable group of fellow participants from all over the world, I participated in drafting the “Rio Statement on Homophobic Bullying and Education for All,” a call to action to all nations to ensure that the universal human right to an education enshrined in so many international declarations and conventions is a reality for every child, everywhere, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender expression or gender identity. For many years, GLSEN has provided technical assistance and capacity-building support to organizations from around the world interested in creating safer schools for all in their own countries, in ways appropriate to their local contexts . In Rio and since, it has been amazing to see the advances that are beginning to happen in many places, on their own terms and timetables. Tomorrow, I and many of my GLSEN colleagues and our partners will be at the United Nations headquarters in New York City for a celebration of International Human Rights Day entitled “Leadership in the Fight Against Homophobia.” The event will feature remarks from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon about the UN’s commitment to truly universal human rights. It is thrilling to be part of this work at a time when there is the prospect of significant progress with each passing year , and I am heartened to see that the issues close to GLSEN’s heart, safe and affirming schools for all, are being addressed in the global arena.
Rio Statement on Homophobic Bullying and Education for All
10 December 2011
Today marks the tenth annual observation of International Human Rights Day, when the global community celebrates the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Among the human rights codified in this document is the right of universal access to education of high quality. This right is further articulated in subsequent international conventions, including the Convention of the Rights of the Child, the Dakar Framework for Action on Education for All, and the Millennium Development Goals. In addition, the Yogyakarta Principles specifically make clear that this right must not be curtailed by discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. A number of governments around the world have already mobilized in support of the principle of Education for All. However, widespread violence and systemic discrimination and stigma against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people undercut these efforts and limit their impact for many learners. Every day, students around the world are routinely denied the basic, universal human right to education because of discrimination and violence they experience in school on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity. Research from many nations and regions consistently documents the high levels of verbal, physical and sexual harassment, abuse, and violence experienced by young people in schools. Homophobia and gender-based bias also limit learners’ access to accurate information regarding health and sexuality, and diminishes the visibility of LGBTI people in other areas of the curriculum. Studies repeatedly confirm links between homophobic bullying and bias – including lack of access to accurate information regarding health, sexuality and other aspects of the curriculum – and negative social, educational and health outcomes, including increased vulnerability to HIV, mental health consequences and suicide. These studies also indicate concrete steps which schools, education authorities, young people, communities, policy-makers and governments can take to prevent the negative effects of homophobic bullying and ensure the full enjoyment of the universal right to education. We, the participants gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the first-ever United Nations consultation on homophobic bullying in educational institutions, organized by UNESCO, are here to review the scope and impact of this urgent problem and discuss best practices in programming and policy to address it. We come from countries on all seven continents and represent non-governmental organizations, education ministries, UN agencies, academia and other development partners. Among us are current learners including young people, teachers, and parents. We call upon all governments to live up to their responsibility to provide universal access to a high quality education by eliminating the barriers created by homophobia and transphobia, including the unacceptable and devastating prevalence of anti-LGBTI bias and violence in elementary, secondary and tertiary levels and settings of education around the world. Education for All must be realized through measures to ensure:
- Safe school climates free of anti-LGBTI bias and violence;
- Access to accurate health and sexuality information relevant to the needs of all learners, including LGBTI people;
- Teachers and school staff prepared and willing to maintain learning environments truly accessible and productive for all; and
- Mechanisms of periodic review by which educational institutions, systems and governments consult with development partners and all education sector stakeholders in order to hold themselves accountable to these principles.
The Statement is also available on UNESCO’s site here: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/hiv-and-aids/our-priorities-in-hiv/gender-equality/anti-bullying/
GLSEN is growing! During our October meeting, the GLSEN Board of Directors voted to accredit two new Chapters into the network. GLSEN New York City and GLSEN Hawai’i have now joined more than 35 Chapters from across the country in creating safe schools for all students. We asked one of GLSEN New York City’s co-chairs, James Michael Angelo, what inspired him to start a Chapter in the vast and bustling Big Apple: I started this Chapter to help carry the message of hope that GLSEN has powerfully packaged to the ones who still suffer from the effects of bullying. Using the incredible system and set of tools that GLSEN provides and the local spirit of everyday New Yorkers we as GLSEN New York City look forward to furthering this amazing movement one student at a time. When one human being shares their experience with another, in the confines of a common goal, beautiful change can happen. The language of the heart is a powerful tool when shifting hearts and minds. We know that New York City will be served well with such passion and heartfelt conviction. In addition, GLSEN Hawai’i’s co-chair, Nick Aiello, shares how his Chapter will be using more than the aloha spirit to support the youth in the nation’s 50th state: GLSEN Hawai’i is gravely important to ensure our LGBT youth have an educational experience where they feel included, safe, and supported regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. GLSEN Hawai’i is dedicated towards working with educators and their administration in creating safe and inclusive environments in all facets of school. We will strive to empower students to concurrently be advocates in their communities as well as become leaders for the next generation of LGBT youth in all the islands’ K-12 schools. With the accreditation of these two outstanding Chapters, GLSEN is now serving communities in 23 states spanning coast to coast. They will work with students, educators and community leaders in organizing GLSEN days of action, administering educator professional development opportunities, and ensuring students have a safe space to learn in their school environment. Their work, like all other GLSEN Chapters, will serve as an essential resource for students in their communities. Welcome GLSEN New York City and GLSEN Hawai’i! If you would like to start a Chapter in your local community, click here.
Today it’s hard for me to imagine life before GLSEN. I never felt safe. I used to be sick with fear going to school every day. There was a group of students who used to follow me as I walked down the hallway shoving me into lockers. It seemed like every morning they got more and more aggressive. Even worse, during a football game, one threatened to kill me. Luckily, I found GLSEN. GLSEN helped me realize that no one has the right to bully and harass me. I’m a good person … an out and PROUD gay kid! GLSEN gives me hope! Thanks to GLSEN, I am learning to tell my story and become an advocate for change. But we can’t change our schools without your support. Please help this amazing organization continue its vital work on behalf of LGBT and allied students.
I am just one of hundreds of thousands of LGBT students across the nation who are helped by GLSEN every day. Without GLSEN … and without you … I know I wouldn’t be where I am today. By supporting GLSEN, you are investing in the future — in students who learn to survive, thrive and lead — students like me! Thank you. Jeremy Jeremy is a second-year GLSEN Media Ambassador and is in the 10th grade in Fargo, North Dakota.
With 2012 quickly coming to a close, many will look back over what has happened in these past twelve months and be thankful for what they have. At GLSEN, we are thankful for you. It has been a great year for GLSEN and the safe schools movement, full of benchmarks and achievements. To give you a sense of some of our successes this year, GLSEN has put together a short montage capturing many of our 2012 highlights. I hope you will take a minute to watch.
Everything we have achieved this past year has been possible because of you. And everything we hope to achieve going forward will be as well. On behalf of all of us at GLSEN, and the hundreds of thousands of LGBT and allied students we serve every day, thank you. P.S. For other great videos from this past year, visit the GLSEN YouTube channel.
Here at GLSEN, we're always looking for the next big way to get the word out about the amazing work we do. Our newest tool is called a Spark, and it looks like this:
The Spark is an awesome way for us to highlight our work in a way that compels people to take action, which is always super important! GLSEN couldn't make such a big difference without an energized supporter base working hard across the country. This could not have come at a better time, as GLSEN is now in the running to win $1 million in the Chase American Giving Awards! Through the widget, you can watch a video where Eliza describes GLSEN's important work, follow our Twitter feed, sign up for our email list, and vote for us in the Chase American Giving Awards. There are a ton of easy ways you can help make schools safer for LGBT students by using this Spark! You can embed the player on your personal website, blog or Tumblr by clicking on the "Share" button on the Spark and copying the embed code. You can also add the Spark to your Facebook or Twitter by clicking on their respective buttons. If you haven't yet, you can always vote for GLSEN on Chase's Facebook page, and Chase card holders can vote a second time at ChaseGiving.com. This last part is super exciting: you only have to embed the Spark once to get constantly updated content from GLSEN. After the Chase Awards end, we'll be updated the Spark with new content and new calls to action on a regular basis, without you having to do a thing! Please share this cool new tool with your friends, and let's keeping working to make safe schools for ALL students in America.
GLSEN is one of 25 charities competing for a chance to win $1 million in the Chase Community Giving Awards. Our hope of winning and expanding our work to create a world in which every child learns to value and respect all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression depends on your votes! Voting is now open, so don’t waste any time helping create safe schools for all students!
- Vote! November 27 marks the first day of the competition, so make sure you vote! You can vote once on Facebook and once more at ChaseGiving.com if you are a Chase account holder. The contest ends December 4 at 11:59 p.m.
- Sign up for our mailing list: Visit glsen.org/chase to sign up. By signing up to receive emails, you can stay informed of the great work your support enables GLSEN to do. Hopefully, we’ll be able to email you on December 8 with $1 million to help make safe schools.
- Show your support on Facebook. After you vote, you can let the world know that you chose GLSEN by “liking” us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/GLSEN. Let you friends know you voted, and ask them to show their support as well.
- Tell your friends about the contest. Let your friends and family know that you support making school safe for all students. After you vote for GLSEN, make sure your friends know about the amazing work GLSEN could do with $1 million.
- Donate a tweet a day at http://justcoz.org/glsen. Looking for an easy way to let your followers know that you support GLSEN? Donate a tweet a day and join a network of students, educators, parents, administrators, and supporters who are working to make schools safer. Your tweets will help spread the word about ways we can all make a difference!
Thank you for your support of GLSEN!
Today is the International Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), a day to reflect on the violence and loss caused by anti-transgender fear, discrimination and hatred. We remember those lost, and re-commit ourselves to building a better world. For me and my GLSEN colleagues, the commitment to the safety and well-being of transgender students is core to our purpose of building true cultures of respect in K-12 schools. Sadly, it is also one of the most urgent and challenging elements of our current work. GLSEN's report, Harsh Realities: The Experiences of Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools – the first national report on transgender student experiences – found that a shocking 53% of transgender students had been physically harassed and 26% had been physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their gender expression. For adult transgender people, the threat is even greater: 264 transgender people were murdered in hate crimes worldwide in the past year. The price of difference, of not conforming to gender norms, is far too high. Changing this dire reality means building respect for difference, and for transgender and gender nonconforming people specifically, from the ground up. Earlier this year, we published Ready, Set, Respect! GLSEN's Elementary School Toolkit to provide the tools for elementary educators to better understand how gender roles and expectations can contribute to a hostile school climate. Released in partnership with the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Ready, Set, Respect! provides K-5 teachers with developmentally appropriate, standards-aligned lesson plans on bias-based bullying, gender roles and the full measure of respect. Students are also leading the way on this critical issue. Today, GLSEN is partnering with Gay-Straight Alliances and student leaders across the country to enlist broader support for transgender students among their peers with a special pledge. It’s a message for all of us: I pledge to support transgender and gender nonconforming youth by making a commitment to:
- Not use gender-biased language or transphobic slurs.
- Not assume anyone's gender identity and ask respectfully how a person identifies.
- Respect the diversity of all gender identities and expressions.
You may not currently be in school or work in a school, but these are certainly steps we can all take, and I encourage you to take the pledge here as well. Please check out our action page to find other ways to get involved and to learn about other GLSEN resources designed to create safer, more affirming schools for transgender youth, like our Model District Policy on Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Youth (pdf) created in partnership with the National Center for Transgender Equality. Schools must be safe spaces for EVERY child. Difference must be valued in our schools and in our society. And the scourge of violence perpetrated against transgender people of all ages must become a thing of the past. Thank you for committing to take a critical step forward on this day of remembrance, and for your continued support of our work.
For those invested in equality for LGBT people, last night's election had several primary story lines – races and issues that loomed large on Twitter and our personal networks but that were not always front and center in the mainstream coverage. We bit our nails and sought out the latest returns until the historic results became clear:
- Tammy Baldwin became the first out Senator ever;
- Marriage equality won popular votes in Maine and Maryland, and is currently leading in Washington state, the first time ever that same-sex couples won the right to marry at the polls;
- An effort to ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota was defeated at the polls;
- A pro-marriage equality Justice of the Iowa Courts was reelected despite being targeted by anti-LGBT forces;
- The nation reelected a President who endorsed marriage equality, LGBT students' rights, and LGBT-inclusive bullying-prevention legislation; repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell and refused to defend the "Defense of Marriage Act"; led federal agencies that have sought to act in the interest of LGBT people, particularly youth; and appointed LGBT people, including GLSEN's founding Executive Director Kevin Jennings, to a remarkable number of positions in his administration.
These victories for equality – whatever one thinks of the results of the Presidential election – underscore changing attitudes toward LGBT issues in our society that are the result of decades of hard work to change laws, to reach hearts and minds, and to integrate the lives and needs of LGBT people into policy and practice in this country wherever possible. And all of that change was possible only because of coalition-building and years of effort to build strong partnerships for equality and justice across communities and lines of difference. If you’ve made it this far, I ask you to pause for a moment and reread that previous sentence. That idea can become a cliché, stripped of meaning from overuse. But this election and the internal debates now looming for the Republican Party underscore powerfully what those concepts – coalition-building and partnership – really mean. This was brought home for me powerfully this morning when I heard a conservative commentator respond to the suggestion that the Republican Party might need to rethink its approach to an increasingly diverse electorate in order to build a new majority. Current Republican strategy has its roots in the late 1960s, when a young Pat Buchanan suggested to Richard Nixon that the party could divide the country in half and win by retaining the “larger half.” In other words, no need to broaden your base, just create a sharp, dividing line, and motivate those who agree with you by any means necessary. Asked if the party might need to do more to bring new communities into its base, the commentator replied: "Ideas trump all. When you broaden the base, you weaken the foundation. You begin to lose sight of what you stand for." His comment efficiently killed a discussion of alternative Republican approaches to advancing conservative ideas. In a way, he succinctly articulated the polar opposite of a coalition and partnership-based approach: a commitment to ideological purity over the kind of strategic clarity that powers great coalitions and effective partnerships. An approach that says "This is what you must each believe and act on" rather than "this is what we intend to accomplish together and let’s agree on how we will work together to achieve that goal." For twenty years, GLSEN has stood firmly for a coalition and partnership based approach to the long, hard work of change. Sometimes we have sought power from others in alliance, sometimes we brought our own power to bear on a common goal. Always, we have tried to do the listening and thinking and negotiating required to bring people and organizations together on common ground for a common purpose. Our mission statement articulates GLSEN's commitment to valuing difference itself for the contribution it makes to a diverse and healthy society. Last night we saw the incredible power of difference assembled for a common purpose to drive victories for equality and justice. The power to bring us closer to the day when each member of every school community learns to respect and accept all people regardless of sexual orientation, gender expression or gender identity. It is our youth who still struggle, in the hallways and classrooms where they spend their days, for the very basic tenet of equality – respect. That is why GLSEN has made passage of the Safe Schools Improvement Act and Student Non-Discrimination Act a priority. I am hopeful that the historic nature of yesterday’s election will help bring passage of these important bills closer to reality, and help ensure safe environments for every student to thrive.