The Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine (HHRC) presented Betsy Parsons the first Gerda Haas Award for Excellence in Human Rights Education and Leadership. Betsy was honored at the HHRC’s Annual Meeting celebration at Bates College in Lewiston on Sunday, June 1. Gerda Haas, a Holocaust survivor, who wrote These I Do Remember about her experiences in a concentration camp during World War II, founded the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine and was a long-time research librarian at Bates College.
Betsy, a public school English teacher for many years, is a founding member of GLSEN-Southern Maine and currently serves as GLSEN-Southern Maine’s GSTA Coordinator, organizing educational programs, supporting GSTA faculty advisers, and advising a regional team of GSTA student leaders from many high schools.
During her acceptance speech Betsy told the story of a World War II veteran she asked for support while she was working at a polling place to help legalize marriage equality in Maine. The veteran greatly surprised her when he said, "What do you think our boys died for at Omaha Beach?" And then he signed the marriage equality petition with enthusiasm.
Betsy is constantly being inspired by the courage, compassion, and resiliency of Maine’s GSTA youth as they make their schools more peaceful and affirming places for all.
As a senior in high school and president of my high school’s GSA, I feel graduation coming with a mix of sadness and excitement. I’m excited to see what my future holds and what future activism I’ll be able to do with all the skills I’ve learned so far, but I’m sad to be leaving my GSA behind.
I love my GSA and as the school year winds down, we are going to be electing next year’s officers so we have a foundation to lay the club onto. I have nothing but confidence in the candidates, but I don’t want to leave them behind. They’re like a family to me and I want to be with them to lead the way to greatness.
Already this year, we’ve made a major change to the school culture. For our school’s annual Sadie’s dance, the rally that goes along with it is Battle of the Sexes, something that winds up being incredibly sexist with insults being thrown, specifically from the guys at the girls. Girls are expected to dress in pink and white and boys in blue and black. Last year, before I came out as transgender, the decision of what colors to wear was hard and one that caused me a lot of stress.
With that experience under my belt and knowing countless girls, including my younger sister, who are made uncomfortable by the sexist comments at the rally, we decided to change it for the better as a club. We started out by proposing an alternative to the setup at the rally -- instead of boys vs. girls, students would be seated by underclassmen vs. upperclassmen. No way for sexist comments to appear if the layout is changed. This idea was struck down by a vote in the leadership class, with people voting towards tradition instead of change.
But the good news is that we were able to implement a third color into the mix: purple. The idea of purple was that anyone who didn’t feel comfortable identifying with a side could wear the color and sit wherever they’d like. It also created an opportunity for allies to show their support and give other students an outlet to protest the rally while participating in the required event.
And it went well! The rally was still full of sexist comments, some even worse than previous years full of “Make me a sandwich!” But the purple was implemented without issue and the rally emcees did a great job at shutting down disrespectful chants. There was an incident where a friend of mine was wearing purple and told by a teacher she was not allowed to sit on the boys' side because she was obviously a girl and that’s where she belonged. Threats were made to get the principal involved and she eventually slipped away and joined me on the boys’ side where she was more than a little peeved. Luckily, this was the only staff member who seemed to have forgotten to read his email and didn’t understand. He’s since been talked to.
The group of underclassmen who made this happen are my hope for the future of our school and club. I know that these young people who are so full of passion will be able to lead our club forward and do great things. I can’t wait to elect a new great activist to hurl our school into the respectful place that it deserves to be. Who knows -- maybe next year we won’t have a Battle of the Sexes Rally at all.
Kane Tajnai is a GLSEN Student Ambassador.
I am a transgender student in California and this is my senior year of high school. During the summer, I was out to close friends and family, but no one older than my parents knew. It was hard to even imagine coming out at school.
It wasn’t until GLSEN’s Media Summit that I even thought I had the courage to come out to my grandparents and shortly after I had come home, I had heard about the Safe Schools and Opportunities Act, or simply AB 1266, being signed by California Governor Jerry Brown. This was the final push that I needed to come out, so I did.
In short, AB 1266 simply said that transgender students were allowed to use gender-segregated facilities (locker rooms and bathrooms), activities (PE classes), and sports teams that aligned with their gender identity.
I came out at school and even though the law didn’t go into effect until January 1, my school treated me like they would have to under the law. I was put into PE and allowed to use the boys’ locker rooms and bathrooms. It felt wonderful.
But not much later did the opposition come rolling in. Privacy for All Students joined the fight in getting a referendum put on the ballot. The plan was to put the voters to a test and get them to overturn the bill.
That was when I got active. I started getting interviewed in the local news, the Wall Street Journal, smaller newspapers in the area, and more, just to tell my simple story of what it was like to be treated as if the law was in place. I wrote articles for my school paper about what this law meant and I was consistently trying to better my interview techniques, something I found out I needed. So, now that the referendum attempt has failed, the opposition having failed to get the amount of signatures required (though they are now protesting that they got plenty and valid signatures were thrown out), I have learned a few things since this all started:
In the case of media, always focus on the positives of what you’re trying to do. Even if it’s only for a question or two that you talk about the negatives, they may focus on that instead of what you want to get across.
The media still isn’t sure how to report on transgender people, from being misgendered to having publications use wrong or odd terminology. Despite that, they’re trying.
People will lie and phrase things oddly in order to get you to sign a petition, as in the case of my AP Government teacher who was told the petition for the referendum was to stop harassment in the bathroom.
People will listen to your story, especially if you have a stake in it. At my dad’s work, someone was working to get signatures and by telling them about me, his son, many of his coworkers refused to sign.
Teachers, even with guidelines like AB 1266, still need help in figuring out how to implement these practices, especially from students like me.
Lastly, activism is hard, no matter how fun it is to get interviewed for TV.
With such an important bill on the books and the activism that students like me did around the state in order to keep this bill in place, it’s obvious that young people are making a difference in the world. While it’s tiring and hard to keep track of all your talking points, the work being done really does matter. I am sure about that.
Kane Tajnai is a GLSEN Student Ambassador.
GLSEN’s Day of Silence has always been a powerful event for me. Since I was 12, I felt as if there was knowledge to spread. My brother has high-functioning Autism and I created a support group for those siblings who needed someone to talk to. From there it expanded to teen violence, racism towards biracial people, like myself, and beyond. I had always wanted to raise awareness of the troubling issues that diverse communities face.
I moved to San Diego from Ventura County in 7th grade and transferred out of public school to be homeschooled afterwards while my mom was going through her breast cancer treatment. During this time, my classmates from Ventura were part of this thing called a Gay-Straight Alliance and participating in something called the Day of Silence. I didn't know anything about the LGBT community except from the occasional poorly-portrayed gay character on TV. All I knew was I had to be a part of this day.
I read the info on the event invite and decided to put it in motion. Only problem? The projected audience was a school, and I wasn't in public school. So I took it to the next level and brought the Day of Silence out to the community.
My mom and I were running errands and started off with the overcrowded post office. At the time, I didn't have the resources that GLSEN provides. Instead, I improvised. I wrote up some information about tragic events that occurred around the nation, including the murder of Matthew Shepard, and explained my reasons for taking a symbolic vow of silence. I would carry this note around with me all day.
At the post office, a woman attempted small talk with me and I took out my note. She tilted her head to the side as she read the note. Then came the gasp, and her hand covered her mouth. She apologized and thanked me. I put my hand on her shoulder and nodded.
The day was filled with shock from passersby and by the end of it, I felt accomplished. I took the Day of Silence beyond school and brought it to the community. And by doing so, I raised awareness of anti-LGBT harassment that takes place every day.
Ari Segla is a GLSEN Student Ambassador.
Maybe you had a really great Day of Silence experience in high school and you want to keep it up. Maybe you're an educator looking to support your students. Maybe you wish you'd heard of the Day of Silence when you were in school and you're making up for lost time.
Whatever your reasons, there are plenty of ways to honor GLSEN's Day of Silence on April 11, even if you aren't currently a student. Here are our favorite things you can do.
9. Write your Senators and Representatives about the Safe Schools Improvement Act. SSIA, GLSEN's signature legislation, would require all public K-12 schools to enact an anti-bullying policy that includes specific protections for bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity, along with other categories like race and religion. SSIA currently has more cosponsors than ever before. Contact your local legislators asking them to support the bill so they know just how many people support safe schools.
8. Connect with a local GLSEN chapter to learn how you can support their work on the ground. GLSEN's 38 local chapters carry out GLSEN's mission with schools and communities across the United States. Contact the chapter closest to you and ask how you can help.
7. Donate to GLSEN. We rely on donations from compassionate adults who are committed to making schools safer for students everywhere. Even if you can't participate in the Day of Silence, your donation will help us provide resources to students who can.
6. Change your profile picture on social media. Official Day of Silence graphics are available on our Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, and at the Day of Silence website. Choose your favorite graphic and make it your profile picture or cover photo to show others you support the Day of Silence, even if you're unable to participate yourself.
5. Take a Selfie for Silence. Print out a Selfies for Silence sign and fill in your reason for supporting LGBT youth and their allies on the Day of Silence. Snap a photo of yourself holding the sign and share it on Facebook and other social media. If you can, hang up the sign at work, school or anywhere else it might spark conversation about the Day of Silence.
4. Wear an official Day of Silence t-shirt. Whether or not you're silent, wearing Day of Silence gear communicates to students and others that you're committed to safe schools for all students. Buy an official GLSEN Day of Silence shirt in our online store, make your own Day of Silence shirt, or simply wear the official Day of Silence colors -- black and red.
3. Donate an LGBT-themed book to a local library. Silencing occurs in school and local libraries when LGBT-related books are deliberately excluded from the shelves. Find a book that addresses LGBT issues in a way that's suitable for elementary, middle school or high school readers (we have a few suggestions to get you started). Look for a copy at a used bookstore near you, or bear to part with your own beloved copy.
2. Vow to be silent on social media. If your workplace or other responsibilities don't allow you to be silent for the day, post a status update Thursday night explaining that you will refrain from posting on social media all day to show your solidarity through "social silence." It may not have the same effect as being silent for the day at school, but you'll still be taking a vow of silence!
1. Share your story. If you participated in the Day of Silence, joined a Gay-Straight Alliance, or experienced bullying when you were in school, chances are LGBT youth could learn from your story. Write a blog post or editorial or record a short video about your experiences, then share it on social media or with a local newspaper or website. (You're also welcome to send us your blog post for publication!) In addition, if you're in contact with LGBT youth, invite them to have a conversation before or after the Day of Silence about what they've gone through and how it may relate to your own experiences.
Any other ideas? Drop us a line and let us know!
Have you ever been scared of someone hating you just because of who you are based on misunderstandings - and one of those people was yourself?
If you answered yes to this question, you have survived those terrifying situations due to a strong personal resolve and a coalition of support in your life. Consequently, you have an obligation to protect the lives and livelihoods of LGBTQ* (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) youth in your community and beyond by supplying yourself as a resource to a young person struggling to find and accept themselves in the face of severe oppression.
By my freshman year, I had come out at school to provide a source of help and understanding for my many questioning peers. My lifelong mentorship to LGBTQ* kids officially commenced as I joined my school’s fledgling Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) and extended my online research to the jaw-dropping realm of GLSEN. Entering into sophomore year, I had become GSA president and engaged heavily with GLSEN, which empowered me to change the worlds of queer students everywhere around me.
However, my advocacy was thrown into a completely new stream when I was gaily (excuse the pun) approached by the youth group at my Unitarian Universalist church. In that little congregation within a congregation, I was informed by an excitable ally that a 13-year-old boy had bravely shared with the religious education class that he is gay, and they wanted to introduce the two of us so that he could ask any questions and receive general guidance from a kid who also came out at 13.
That boy, BW, is one of the sweetest people I have ever had the privilege to meet. While his immediate family was largely accepting of his sexual orientation, his neighbors were not nearly as kind or open-minded. It turns out that BW has been homeschooled for most of his education, due directly to the fact that he has been harassed permanently in public school regarding his outward gender expression and polite displays of feminine attributes since the early elementary years.
But BW’s bullying at school didn’t stop once he relocated to home. The students with whom he was homeschooled taunted and harassed him extensively for his sexual orientation and constantly evoked a few lines of the Bible to justify their perspective without ever opening their minds to the loving and accepting notions expressed by Jesus himself. His peers and their parents mercilessly treated him with degradation and verbal abuse, going so far as to say that he did not deserve to live.” As a reminder, BW is 13. So are these kids.
Thankfully, when BW reached out, he had a supportive family and a very supportive church community to latch onto (the church holds PFLAG meetings, marriage equality rallies, and is heavily populated by LGBTQ* people). When BW reached out, he had someone willing to care enough to offer their time and experience to a confused young boy. When BW reached out, he needed a lifeline - and he got one. He didn’t need much; barely a few hours of conversation, illumination, and a small donation of my now unnecessary teen queer lit. I have seen him grow so much since I have had the privilege of intervening in his life, blooming into an outgoing, charismatic personality because he is no longer afraid of who he is. I would never trade our friendship.
If I - a high schooler with limited free time - can make the effort to make a positive difference in someone's life, so can you. If you cannot mentor a queer youth, be ready and willing to refer them to someone who is or an organization with resources that can help them survive in a world frequently hostile to LGBTQ* people. Make the difference in someone’s life because someone made the difference in yours.
Liam Arne is a GLSEN Student Ambassador.
Why is it important to keep telling the story of Matthew Shepard, a college student from Wyoming who was kidnapped, robbed, beaten, and killed in 1998 simply because he was gay? I would like nothing better than to stop telling his story. I would like nothing better than to live in a world where his story was no longer relevant. A world in which gay bashings no longer happened. A world in which everyone could walk this earth free of fear regardless of sexual orientation and gender expression (not to mention race, religion, body size, ability/disability, etc.). But that is not yet the world in which we live. Our world is still a dangerous place. In our world, too often the word “gay” is used to mean “stupid” (as in “That’s so gay”). In our world, too often the word “fag” is hurled at someone with hatred. And in our world, too often that word is followed by a punch or a kick or a shove down the stairs. Or worse. When will this hatred end?
When someone is reduced to a slur, they become, in the eyes of a tormentor, less than human. They become, in a tormentor’s eyes, someone of no consequence, someone who doesn’t matter, someone—or something—easy to destroy.
And this is why we must keep telling Matthew Shepard’s story. Matt was not a “fag.” Matt was a person. He was a son, a brother, a boyfriend, a classmate, a friend. In the Jewish tradition, which is my tradition, it is said, “Whoever saves a life, saves a whole world.” I believe that the opposite is also true. Whoever destroys a life, destroys a whole world. We will never know all the great things Matthew Shepard would have done had he not been murdered (ironically, he wanted to work for international social justice). We will never know how he would have looked once his braces were removed. We will never know what he would have done upon graduating from the University of Wyoming. We will never know if, later in life, he would have married and raised children. We will never know all the joy and love he would have continued to bring to his family and friends and to those he had yet to meet. When his life was cut short, a whole world was destroyed.
In my tradition there is a concept known as “tikkun olam” which means “repairing the world.” Every person is assigned this task at birth even though it is assumed that our broken world will never be fully repaired. Still, each one of us must contribute to “tikkun olam” in some way. It is also assumed that no individual can do this alone. And that is why I am so excited to be working with the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), the Matthew Shepard Foundation, and Candlewick Press. Together we can do so much. Together we can reach high school educators and administrators, political activists, LGBT youth, librarians, parents, and readers of teen literature, all of whom can work together to carry on Matthew Shepard’s legacy to make the world a safer place.
In my lifetime, so much has changed. The high school I attended (and where I was teased for being a “lezzy”) now has a Gay-Straight Alliance, which welcomed me with open arms 40 years after I graduated (to read about this very emotional visit, see my essay “You CAN Go Home Again”). I am happily and legally married to the woman of my dreams, something I never dreamed would be possible. I make my living as an out lesbian writer, whose books are read and taught in public schools all around the country. I find all of this nothing short of miraculous.
And yet, so much hasn’t changed. Kids and teens still get teased, beat up, tormented, and even murdered for being gay or for being perceived as being gay. There are many states that still define marriage as being “between one man and one woman.” There are still many people—writers, teachers, celebrities, athletes—who are afraid they will lose their jobs if they come out of the closet.
Help us make the world a safer place. Read Matt’s story and teach it to your classes. Honor him on the Day of Silence, which occurs every year in April (this year it falls on April 11). Read poems about Matthew Shepard in your classroom during National Poetry Month (April). Make your school a safe place for LGBT students. Get involved in your school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, and if your school doesn’t have one, help your students start one. Make your curriculum LGBT-inclusive. Plan lessons specifically around LGBT History Month (October) and National Coming Out Day (October 11). Be the person at your school who disrupts inappropriate behavior. So many students have told me that when someone at their school is called “a fag” the adults around them do nothing. Do something. You could save a life, and in doing so, save a whole world.
Visit glsen.org/matthewshepard to download He Continues to Make a Difference: Commemorating the Life of Matthew Shepard and find other resources for creating LGBT-inclusive curriculum.
Lesléa Newman is an author and gay rights activist who has written more than 60 books for readers of all ages. Her children's book, HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES was the first picture book to portray a family of two lesbian mothers and their child in a positive way. Lesléa is also the author of the teen novel-in-verse, OCTOBER MOURNING: A SONG FOR MATTHEW SHEPARD which explores the impact of Matthew Shepard's murder in a cycle of 68 poems told from various points of view including the truck he was kidnapped in, the fence to which he was tied, the stars that watched over him, and a deer that kept him company all through the night. OCTOBER MOURNING has won many literary awards including an American Library Association Stonewall Honor, and the Florida Council of Teachers of English Joan F. Kaywell Award. Lesléa has given her presentation, "He Continues to Make a Difference: The Story of Matthew Shepard" all over the country at high schools, colleges, libraries, and conferences, hoping to inspire students to carry on Matthew Shepard's legacy to erase hate and make the world a safer place for all. Visit Lesléa online at www.lesleakids.com.
It is difficult growing up different from everyone else, and being gay in Asian culture is no different. Growing up, there was nothing I wanted more than to fit in, but fitting in meant abandoning my identity.
Around the same time I began to understand my sexuality and come to terms with being gay, I also realized there is simply no room for diversity in a society that supports uniformity. I am an Asian Pacific Islander of Chinese and Filipino descent. And as a gay Asian born and raised in the United States, I found myself in an uncomfortable culture that combines strict Asian traditions, the American lifestyle and the stigma of being gay, all in one inferior reinforcement: I was less than.
I look at myself in the mirror only to be disappointed by my appearance—an introverted, skinny, four-eyed braceface with small eyes and dainty, effeminate features. I did not see the masculine, hypersexual confident male model I saw in the media and internalized, telling me what I thought I should be.
I was put to shame. I felt like a conundrum. I was rejected by my Asian culture for being gay and shunned by LGBT circles for my Asian heritage. The backhanded homophobic comments from my Asian family and the racist compliments from the gay community—including, but not limited to, “You’re hot—for an Asian.”—undermined my confidence and left me feeling isolated and alone.
I tried so hard to fit in this mold, only to be miserable. But as I grew older, it was through my advocacy work in the LGBT movement that I discovered a community that shared the same experiences as my own. Today, I have learned to see my authentic, beautiful self. I discovered that the truth to my identity is not to live a life that fits into the norm, but pushes against it. The flaws I thought I had were never imperfections at all, but rather flawless perfections that defined who I am. I now embrace my odd charm and awkward likeableness because they make me different.
The understanding of who I am, as both gay and Asian, has made me a strong person. The slow realization that I was not a nobody, but a “somebody,” taught me to love myself and to own my individuality. I have become a person who respects all people, regardless of any marginalized characteristic decided by society. Coming to terms with my identity has only fueled my aspiration to end racial discrimination and LGBT inequality, and for that, I will be forever grateful and happy.
Matthew Yeung is a GLSEN Student Ambassador.
When I first became a GLSEN Ambassador, I had a hard time feeling supported by others around me. I live in a conservative town, so you could imagine that being a transgender boi didn't prove to make me very popular. It took me a while to become confident enough to show everyone who I truly was. It's been a long, hard journey, and I hit a lot of roadblocks on the way.
But I was lucky enough to have known another trans guy for almost five years now; he has helped me so much and made me feel like I wasn't so different from everyone else. He always had advice for me and has really taken care of me over the years.
Having a role model has made all the difference in my life, and I don't think I'd be as successful as I am today without him. So many transgender kids all over the world feel like somewhat of an outcast at some point in their lives. I believe that having someone to look up to could really make a difference to these boys, and may even save lives.
It's for this reason that I recently started an international collaborative channel on YouTube. I gathered a group of about seven guys from all over the world and created the first international female-to-male (FTM) collab channel. One of the guys on the channel is my brother, and one of the other guys on the channel I met online. As far as everyone else goes, I advertised on my blog and had people send me audition videos for review.
We have such a diverse and unique group of people, and I feel that by making videos and possibly mentoring one another and our viewers, we can create that same feeling of acceptance that I felt in having my trans brother in my life.
We have just started making videos, so now is the perfect time to start following us. We will be covering several different trans-related issues and providing tips on everything from binding safely to hormones.
The channel is called Gender Bender Bois, and we make videos Monday-Sunday every week. We hope you can check it out!
Dannie Dobbins is a GLSEN Student Ambassador.
February is Black History Month, and it makes me very motivated as an activist for LGBT rights. As a GLSEN Ambassador, I think it’s important this time of year to reflect on how we as a society treat other people regardless of their race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.
As we all know, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought endlessly for something he truly believed in: equality and freedom for African-Americans. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a living inspiration, and now that he is gone, his legacy still remains today in society and within me.
In my early childhood I participated in a school play which told the story of Rosa Parks, and at that time we also learned about Dr. King through reading some of his inspiring speeches. This would be the first time I ever came across the story of Martin Luther King, and it was also the day that I found a new role model. Being so young and clueless at the time, I didn't know much about the real world, particularly the history of prejudice against African-Americans and how poorly they were treated.
However, learning about Dr. King taught me that it is very valuable to spread love and to treat everyone with kindness. This inspired me because growing up I was always a happy kid, and now that I am an adult, I can see that society needs so much improvement when it comes to treating all our citizens equally.
Dr. King was a strong believer in standing up for yourself and teaching others to do the same. Since I first learned about him, I have been inspired by how one man tried to change the world. I try to apply Dr. King’s message to my work as an LGBT activist by being open-minded, and treating people with kindness, equality and respect, even if they do not always treat me the same way.
Dr. King taught me to always be the better person, and influenced me to change the world one man at a time.
Dustin Gallegos is a high school senior and a GLSEN Student Ambassador.