This past year, members of my school community hosted a brief performance of “The Laramie Project” during a school wide assembly. For those who are not familiar with “The Laramie Project,” it was a play (now a movie) created by the New York based Tectonic Theatre Project. Eight members of this company traveled to Laramie, Wyoming to interview members of the small Wyoming community after the 1998 murder of a 21-year-old gay man named Michael Shepard. Michael Shepard was targeted for his sexual orientation and his murder was classified as a hate crime. This was one of the first times that a hate crime was brought to national attention and it highlighted the lack of legislation surrounding hate crimes.
After this production, we sent an anonymous survey to the entire student body containing questions that pertained to the nature of hate crimes. Some of these questions included in the survey were, “Is it wrong to dislike a person because of their race, gender, religion or sexual orientation?” and “People should accept others who are different from them. Agree? Disagree?” The responses to these questions ranged widely throughout the school; this was slightly alarming as many individuals responded with words such as, “People get offended way too easily. Grow up,” or “I agree that it’s wrong, but everyone has the right to dislike anyone for any reason they choose so it’s hard to say.” This showed how alive and prominent ignorance and misconceptions are in my high school, and how there are problems that are not being addressed. While I was shocked, many students who belong to underrepresented groups on campus, such as the LGBTQ+ community, were not. I wanted to know more about the prominence of micro-aggressions towards the LGBTQ+ community not only in my school, but the surrounding schools in my region of the state. I wondered if the type of violence that had just been spoken about on stage began with the lack of acceptance and ignorant ideologies that exist in the high school hallways, and what emotional and psychological tolls those have on the teenagers who are targeted for their gender identities and sexual orientations.
Before We Start!
Fill out this survey to reflect on your own experiences with the LGBTQ+ community before we hear the opinions and stories of others!
I began my project by speaking to John Allen, the founder and co-president of the New Haven Pride Center (NHPC), which also goes by the New England Pride Center. John Allen identifies as cisgender and gay and explained how within his lifetime same sex relationships have been illegal and his sexual orientation was considered a “mental illness.” It was infuriating to him to have his civil rights stolen and to be viewed as a second hand citizen; he felt as though “founding the Pride Center was [his] duty in order to help others who have experiences similar to [his].”
John and I transitioned our conversation to focus more on high school aged students. While be belives that people are now coming out at younger ages and are more fluid with their sexuality, there are still immense struggles and obstacles that must be overcome and they all come down to the prevelance of privilege or lack thereof. According to the United States Government site, Youth.gov, “LGBTQ+ youth contemplate suicide three times the rate of heterosexual youth, are more likely to experience increased rates of depression and anxiety, and are more likely to use substances to cope with bias and stress.” Although these national averages vary by state, the fact that LGBTQ+ youth experience higher rates of mental illness and substance abuse still holds true. The cause of this disparity between LGBTQ+ and heterosexual youth comes down to a lack of acceptance. John Allen said, “It is all about emotional and psychological pain when you’re not accepted or seen as less than who you are.”
While John gave me a lot of insight into the LGBTQ+ community through his eyes, he still didn’t quite understand what it means to be a gay, transgender, or nonbinary teenager in 2018 (understandably). I spoke to the Executive Director of the NHPC, Patrick Dunn (he/his/him), and he gave me some interesting information about his recent observations of the New Haven area. Patrick said that over the past couple years, there has been a national decrease in Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) club membership. Patrick just recently noticed that two GSAs have shut down on Dixwell Avenue, a main road in New Haven. “It’s not that there are less LGBTQ kids, they’re just afraid,” said Patrick. Kids don’t want to be affiliated with GSA because of the impending social backlash that they believe comes with it. The topics of gender identity and sexual orientation have been put in the national spoltlight (more than usual) lately, and there has been such a passionate divide surrounding the topic.
I came to the conclusion that the root of this lack of acceptance is an absence of education on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) related topics. There is no arguing the fact that the topic is controversial, therefore it is often avoided in academic settings. John believes that we must “normalize the value of authenticity and learning how to accept ourselves.” We were taught that not conforming to the roles that society has molded for us is somehow wrong and we must break that belief. John emphasized that “this the most diverse time we’ve ever lived in, yet also the most polarized; sexual orientation and gender identity traverse all boundaries.” These two lines contained the most powerful words that John had spoken to me throughout our interview. People who don’t identify as cisgener or straight are not new to this earth, nor are they unique to one region of the world. We must recognize the familiarity of humanity within one another and always strive for improvement if we want to begin on our path of social progression.
Where to Go from Here?
My interview confirmed the idea that there exists a lack of acceptance towards LGBTQ+ youth. I couldn’t think of a better way to truly understand what kids my age are experiencing other than to simply ask. I reached out to a number of students from my own school (Hamden Hall Country Day School), Hamden High School, Hopkins School, Mercy High School, and West Haven High School, and asked to interview them.
I asked questions such as:
- How open do you think that you can be about gender identity and sexual orientation at your school? Do you think that it’s talked about enough?
- Have you ever experienced yourself (or others) being targeted for their sexual orientation or gender identity?
- If so, what was done/ what effects did it have on you or another person? When there is a lack of acceptance from people around you, does it make it harder for you/another person to accept yourself (themselves)?
- How did you/another person overcome this feeling? (Did you meet people who shared similar experiences as you or had a lot in common?
- Do you think that a lack of education on the topics of gender identity and sexuality contributes to a lack of acceptance for people who are members of the LGBTQ+ community?
- What has been done or could be done to educate people and create a safer school environment for not only LGBTQ+ students, but all people your age?
Meet the interviewees!
Current SOGI Education in Schools
Treatment of LGBTQ+ Youth
What this Lack of Acceptance Does to LGBTQ+ Youth
Educating and Creating a Safer Space
Educating people on gender identity and sexual orientation does not have to be difficult. Based off of the information I gathered from my interviewees and other local members of my community, I found a few effective ways that we can all educate each other on gender identity and sexual orientation as well as create a safer school community.
- Educate children from a younger age: Almost every single one of my interviewees said that in order to create a more accepting community, we have to educate people on SOGI related topics from a younger age. As Emily said, people are not born hating, but taught how to hate. Parents and teachers are the most influential individuals in a child’s life, especially during their most crucial and vulnerable years of development. By creating an accepting community for children in the home or at school teaches children that existing as an individual who does not identify as cisgender or straight is absolutely normal. Even just introducing the terms and ideas of gender identity and sexuality at a young age familiarizes children with the concepts and makes them less likely to ridicule or fear something that they do not fully know or understand.
- Teacher involvement: Within the school community, teachers must be more involved, aware, and open. When a teacher sets the tone that a topic is too controversial or uncomfortable to speak about, it creates an uneasy environment. People may think that there is something wrong with discussinggender identity and sexual orientation because some of the most influential authoritative figures in their lives have created this stigma. Many children, as Vedica, Nav, Emily, and Maya all spoke about, may not have safe space at home and may resort to school staff for resources and advice. Teachers should make their students feel safe in the academic space.
- Mandatory classes or units within classes: It’s understandable that teachers want to stay focused on their course schedules and may not want to introduce unrelated topics into the classroom, so schools should prioritize the introduction of a mandatory class that educates students on SOGI topics. Almost every high school requires students to attend mandatory health classes, yet LGBTQ+ discussions are rarely introduced. Many interviewees said that their health classes only discuss heterosexual relationships and avoid other relationships that may not be viewed as the social norm. If we require health classes, administration should make a point of including a sexual orientation and gender identity unit to educate students and build awareness. Every studentwould benefit from these classes, whether it be an ally, an LGBTQ+ individual, or someone who just hadn’t understood the difference between bisexual and pansexual.
- Start or maintain the existence of focus groups or GSAs and Pride Clubs: Almost every person, young or old, that I’ve spoken to about the promotion of LGBTQ+ safety and education has emphasized the importance of clubs or groups that allow people to feel comfortable and unique. Maya used to have a club called “Girl Power” that openly and freely discussed topics such as gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, intersectionality, and feminism becasue many girls at Mercy High School did not feel as though they had anywhere or anyone else to confide in for comfort and expression. Emily said that one of the biggest things that helped get her cope with her depression and anxiety throughout coming out was her attendance in her school’s Pride Club. Hearing the similar stories of classmates and teachers around her made Emily realize that there was nothing wrong with her and that the love that she feels for people is not something that she has to justify or feel ashamed of. Nav had similar experiences with his school’s GSA, explaining how it was a place that he felt he could go when he had no family to turn to.
- Create more accepting and open mindsets: Finally, the most important thing that we can do is listen to one another, value each other’s experiences, and keep an open mind. Many people that I’ve interviewed or spoken to myself have said that during difficult times when they felt that they were alone or not accepted, they found solace in people around them who were going through similar experiences. Finding an accepting community is one of the most important steps towards understanding and loving oneself. Support groups, GSA clubs, Pribe clubs, and other community run meetings create safe spaces where people can be themselves without feeling the need to justify themselves to others. Within these clubs, people find the stability and platform that they need in order to enter the world with the mindset of spreading awareness and creating an attitude of respect for human experiences. You can’t force someone to accept others or to adopt new ideologies, but you can share and put effort into understanding what a person has gone through and how it has shaped who they presently are.
We have to normalize LGBTQ+ because just as John Allen said, “Sexual orientation and gender identity traverse all boundaries.” These are not new concepts and we must keep each other aware in order to strive for the betterment of our global community. Each community intersects with another and John Allen suggests that we all get involved within local events and projects pertaining to different (social, ethnic, religious, racial, etc.) groups.
It’s important for people to step out of their comfort zones and immerse themselves in experiences that they may not otherwise encounter. Some easy ways for people to get more involved in their local communities and help spread awareness about LGBTQ+ equality are:
- Attend a local Pride March or Parade! There are always Pride Marches throughout the year in various states and countries. Check out the pride calendar to see where and when pride festivals near you are occurring.
- Visit your local Pride Center! I didn’t even know that the New Haven Pride Center existed less than ten minutes down the road from my house. Visiting the NHPC made me realize just how much goes on in the lives of the various communities surrounding me that I’ve been completely ignorant to. It’s easy to call or shoot one of the directors or board members an email or check their website for various gatherings and events.
- Take advantage of technology! Even if you can’t go out to Pride gatherings or centers, you can still easily click a follow button on social media sites or accounts such as the LGBT Foundation’s Twitter page. There are a large number of well-known LGBTQ+ individuals and allies on Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter who are constantly using their gloabal platforms to raise awareness for LGBTQ+ rights. You can even check out this list of this year’s best examples of LGBTQ+ community engagement. Even if you aren’t constantly examining these accounts, shows, or movies, casually scrolling through your social media feed and bumping into a new post relating to LGBTQ+ topics will help keep you informed and aware!
“Behavioral Health.” Behavioral Health | Youth.gov, United States Government, youth.gov/youth-topics/lgbtq-youth/health-depression-and-suicide.
“Facts About Suicide – The Trevor Project.” The Trevor Project, www.thetrevorproject.org/resources/preventing-suicide/facts-about-suicide/#sm.0001egtgwqu6vfdvzrt2fk4llc2f6.
Graybill, Emily C., and Sherrie L. Proctor. “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth: Limited Representation in School Support Personnel Journals.” Journal of School Psychology, vol. 54, 21 Nov. 2015, pp. 9–16., doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jsp.2015.11.001.
Higa, Darrel, et al. “Negative and Positive Factors Associated With the Well-Being of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning (LGBTQ) Youth.” Youth & Society, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Sept. 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4337813/.
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Snapp, Shannon D., et al. “Supportive, Not Punitive, Practices Reduce Homophobic Bullying and Improve School Connectedness.” Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, vol. 3, no. 4, 2016, pp. 416–425., www.apa.org/pubs/journals/features/sgd-sgd0000195.pdf.