Saturday, October 30, 2010

Interrupting Homophobia In Our Schools

By Janine Gates

How safe and welcome are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students in our schools? What can we as a community do to help make our schools safer and more welcoming?

These questions will be explored on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2:00 p.m. - 4:30 p.m. at United Methodist Church, 1224 Legion Way. The event is sponsored by Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) - Olympia.

Students and representatives from local schools, the Olympia school board, and the Office of Superintendent for Public Instruction will participate, according to PFLAG - Olympia board member Jeff Loyer. The discussion, which starts at 3:00 p.m., is part of PFLAG's usual monthly meeting. Refreshments will be provided.

The Olympia School District has a policy against harassment, intimidation and bullying. As reported under the policy during the 2009-10 school year, there were five school suspensions related to race, and one related to sexual orientation, according to Peter Rex, communication director for the Olympia School District. There were also seven reported assaults that may or may not specifically relate to that policy.

The school district is being proactive in reducing incidents. “Last year we used a portion of one-time federal stimulus money to do a district wide training called Positive Behavior Intervention Support (PBIS), which provides a way to recognize positive behavior. It’s used in a lot of districts to improve the school’s climate and recognize behavior when it falls outside the model. Now it’s being integrated into the schools,” says Rex.

A National Crisis

The recent suicides of several gay students around the country, including that of the Rutgers violinist, Tyler Clementi, has shocked and saddened many throughout the Northwest.

According to the National Runaway Switchboard, lesbian, gay, bi, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth are over five times more likely to have suicidal thoughts and they are over six times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth.

Nearly 60% of homeless and runaway LGBTQ youth have been sexually victimized, while 33.4% of heterosexual homeless and runaway youth have been sexually victimized. Also, LGBTQ youth use illicit substances more frequently than heterosexual youth and use more types of drugs than heterosexual youth.

Northwest Teachers Take Action

Several workshops at the NW Teachers for Social Justice conference held earlier this month in Portland addressed LGBTQ issues and emphasized the importance of interrupting homophobia and gender stereotypes at the elementary school level.

The conference, which gathered 800 participants, including several from the South Sound area, was sponsored by Portland Area Rethinking Schools, Olympia Educators for Social Justice, Puget Sound Rethinking Schools, Tacoma Coalition X, and Rethinking Schools Magazine.

LGBTQ children and teens tend to lack the support and coping skills to deal with harassment which may lead them to consider suicide. Often times, staff wish they can help students they suspect are gay, but know that they walk a fine line in approaching them to assist.

Workshops included role playing scenarios based on real accounts. Teachers expressed the need to learn strategies to address situations when they may suddenly hear a student say, “That’s so gay!” or know how to respond if one student calls another student “gay.”

One scenario, an incident which actually occurred to a second grade teacher, involved one child yelling, “You’re gay!” to another, and the other child yelling back, “You’re lesbian!” The class grew quiet, and the children looked at the teacher, awaiting a response. What to do?

Tactics to diffuse the situation and use it as a teaching moment were explored. Some teachers felt it should be dealt with as a regular conflict and take the kids aside later to discuss what was meant. Some teachers preferred to handle it right there in front of all the kids with open-ended questions that put the conversation back on the children.

Either way, if teachers feel they did not handle a situation well, it was suggested that it’s ok to talk about it with the children later, saying, “You know, something happened earlier today and let’s do a do-over. Let’s discuss it.” Teachers agreed that kids are very aware of silence, and that saying something is important.

Resources for conversations, suggested curriculum, picture books, and community organizations were also provided.

Teachers Coming Out

Students are not the only ones who are bullied, harassed or intimidated for being LGBTQ. Teachers also face the question of how to, or whether or not they should, come out to their students and colleagues.

As a teacher, how do you work with school districts that say they value the diversity of staff? To interrupt homophobia, education also needs to happen on an administrative level.

Teachers often find that principals don’t know how to handle teachers who want to come out. Oftentimes, teachers are temporary employees, and are afraid to come out for fear of losing their jobs. It’s a similar situation to the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Once teachers have more job security, they have more options and can enlist the help of their teacher’s union.

Jess Firestone, a second grade teacher in Oregon, has been out since she was 15. When she got married, she decided not to lie when people see her ring and ask, “What’s your husband’s name?” She says “Sara,” but it hasn’t always been this easy.

“Teaching middle school was too intense,” said Firestone while leading her workshop about interrupting homophobia at the elementary school level.

After an unpleasant experience, she transferred schools. At her new school, she wrote an introductory letter to parents just like straight parents do, making it clear she is gay, and has not experienced any problems.

One gay teacher in the workshop said she feels more scared being around younger kids, and their parents, because of the misconception that gays and lesbians are pedophiles.

“We need more straight allies,” said Firestone.

Above: Zena Britadesco, a K - 8 teacher in the Portland Public School system, is also the community education program manager for Transactive Education and Advocacy in Portland. She offered information to conference participants and presented a workshop called Transgender Youth 101.

South Sound Resources and Upcoming Opportunites to Get Involved:

PFLAG is the nation's foremost family-based organization committed to the civil rights of gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender persons. PFLAG promotes the health and well-being of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons, their families and friends through support, education and advocacy. PFLAG provides opportunity for dialogue about sexual orientation and gender identity, and acts to create a society that is healthy and respectful of human diversity. For more information at

Pizza Klatch
Pizza Klatch offers facilitated support for GLBTQ youth and their allies. The support is offered during high school lunch periods, with free pizza, to provide a convenient and safe forum for the discussion of topics important to these youths. There are currently four Thurston County high schools with Pizza Klatch groups: North Thurston, Timberline, Tumwater, and Avanti. The group provides pizza and facilitators once a week for each lunch period. The groups typically have eight to 20students per lunch.

To support gay teens, the GLBTQ community is looking for two or three more group facilitators for Pizza Klatch groups - preferably people who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bi, trans or queer. Groups are co-facilitated support groups for high school GLBTQ youth and their straight allies. The Pizza Klatch pays a small stipend for each week, and of course we provide pizza! A facilitator may be any age from 21 to 80. You don't need lots of experience with group facilitation, but you must be good working with youth and be mature and dependable. For more information, contact Lynn Grotsky via email at

StoneWall Youth
Stonewall Youth began in Olympia in 1991 as a series of community meetings to discuss the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, questioning, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQQIA) youth in the area. It is an organization of youth, activists, and allies that empowers LGBTQQIA youth to speak for themselves, educate their communities, and support each other. For more information, contact or 705-2738.

Stonewall Youth will be having an open house on Tuesday, November 16th from 6:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m. at 317 4th Ave, 4th floor. Explore their new space which they share with PiPE, UCAN, & Mpowerment, from 6:00 p.m. -7:00 p.m. and learn what's new with their individual organizations during a short informational program from 7:00 p.m. -8:00 p.m. Refreshments provided!

Stonewall Uprising: A Stonewall Youth Benefit Screening at the Olympia Film Festival will be Wednesday, November 17th at 8:00 p.m. at the Capitol Theater. Join Stonewall for the film screening, live youth performances from this year's Drag Show Extravaganza, bake sale, and more!

Stonewall Youth’s 7th annual Winter Gayla!
Fundraising Dinner and Auction, Saturday, December 4, 2010, 6:00 p.m., at the Loft on Cherry, 508 Legion Way. Tickets are $35 before November 20th, $45 after November 20th, or until sold out. Get a group together and buy a whole table for 10! This is a party to celebrate and raise money for the work of Stonewall Youth. Join Stonewall for an evening of delicious food, drinks, and entertainment with auction items, a raffle, a dessert dash, and a photo booth. Come dressed to impress!

Ticket price includes full dinner (vegan and gluten-free options will be available) and one drink ticket. Food is proudly catered by Mujeres Improving Job Abilities and Skills (MIJAS), a transitional restaurant conceived by a group of Latina women supporting women in crisis of domestic violence. Auction includes exciting items like massages, getaways, dinners, event tickets, art, and much more! Seating is limited and attendees must purchase online tickets in advance.

Stonewall is still collecting donations of various auction items if you have any items, services, or experiences you would like to donate. Please email Luna and Nicole at

Washington Safe Schools Coalition
The Safe Schools Coalition is an international public-private partnership in support of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth, and is working to help schools become safe places where every family can belong, where every educator can teach, and where every child can learn, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.

Need help with anti-gay harassment or violence at school in Washington State? The Safe Schools Coalition can help you problem solve, talk with your school administration or your family, help you make a police report, find legal help, or provide training for your Gay Straight Alliance, your student body or your staff. Call toll-free at 1-877-SAFE-SAFE (1-877-723-3723). A Safe Schools Coalition intervention specialist volunteer will get back to you within 24 hours. For more information, contact:

TransActive: Transactive supports children and youth of all genders. Contact them at: and

National Runaway Switchboard (NRS)
The NRS is committed to helping lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth get the assistance they need to be safe. Their hotline is 1-800-RUNAWAY. NRS also answers questions from parents who may be uncertain of what they can do to help a youth who has come out or is questioning their sexuality. For more information, go to