Colin Pearce, GLSEN, SD chapter (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network)
David Lyons, Jump-Start Adult Coordinator, GLSEN San Diego
Joey, San Diego high school student
Related Story: Survey: California's LGBT Students Feel Unsafe
CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition, the climate of acceptance is changing for LGBT students in California's high schools and middle schools. But it's not changing fast enough! That's one of the messages from a compilation. Data recently released by the gay and lesbian and straight network. Students in California are still hearing antigay slurs, being left out by their peer, and even suffering physical assaults based on their sexual orientation. Colin Pearce, welcome to the show.
PEARCE: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: David Lyons is adult coordinator for the network. Welcome to you.
LYONS: Thank you very much.
CAVANAUGH: And Joey is here, he's a 15-year-old student who has previously been subject to antigay slurs in school. And thanks very much for coming in.
JOEY: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Colin, the national school climate survey has been compiling for over a decade. What has changed over that time?
PEARCE: Well, things have changed slowly. We're seeing that this is really the first of the biannual surveys done where we've seen slight improvements in the climate. But by no means are the results acceptable. Schools nationwide and within California or San Diego are very hostile environments for a distressing number of LGBT students. They hear homophobic remark, they experience harassment, assault at schools because of their sexual orientation or how they express their gender.
CAVANAUGH: What is a day like for an LGBT student in a California school considering they may be subject various forms of discrimination?
PEARCE: Well, I think Joey will be able to talk from a personal standpoint about what it's actually like to be at school. But in terms of the survey and the results we're finding across the state and country, students hear antigay slurs, they hear "that's so gay" used in a derogatory way. They hear negative remarks about their gender expression. 80% of them are verbally harassed at school. 60% are physically harassed, and 40% are actually physically assaulted in the schools.
CAVANAUGH: Joey, let me did you to then. You now go to high school in San Diego. But you've had some experience that made you feel isolated, like a target. Can you tell us about that?
JOEY: I basically started going to high school like every other student. And I recently came out to all my friends. And all my other schoolmates, and I wanted to feel accepted. And just another common day, and all of a sudden you hear "that's so gay." And at first, I just thought it was another thing kids do, until I started hearing it a lot more. And I felt like it was directed toward me even though I know it wasn't because I felt like being LGBT there's something wrong with us, we're different, we're not equal with everyone else. And when I hear that's so gay, you're a faggot, stop acting like that, it makes me feel like I'm nothing, I'm less than everyone else because I don't get the same acceptance that a normal person would walking down the street.
CAVANAUGH: And this survey has found that a lot of LGBT students say they feel left out.
JOEY: Definitely, definitely. I feel left out sometimes. Being on a team at school, sometimes I feel left out because my teammates know that I'm openly gay and I'm out, and when they're talking about stuff that doesn't involve me, they go in the corner and talk about it over there, and I'm just sitting by myself not being able to interact with them.
CAVANAUGH: Have you ever felt physically threatened because of being gay?
JOEY: Sometimes I have, not really as much as being verbally threatened. But there's been a time or two where they said I'm going to beat you up because you're gay, and I don't like that.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Colin how is Joey's experience similar and how does it differ from what we would classify as bullying in a school setting?
PEARCE: I would say that it is bullying. But what's so different about the experience of LGBT students is if another student went to a teacher and explained what was going on, you would expect that the teachers or the schools would do something about it. And the majority of teachers don't take action. They don't respond. And young people see what goes on. And they see what doesn't go on. They know if they're in a classroom where someone has used an antigay slur and the teacher has heard it and has done nothing, it's that tacit approval that it's okay to do this. That's a big difference. The other thing -- and as a result of that, lots of the harassed students don't report the incidents to the educators. I think that what is also sort of a deeper and distressing to me situation regarding this is that a lot of LGBT students are not out to their parents. They feel that it would be equally hostile if they came out at home. And so when I think of these young students, they're bullied, alone, harassed, they can't even go home and tell their parents. So for those student, they don't have adults standing up for them. So it really is up to other parents, up to the education boards, to the principles, and to the teachers in each classroom to be the ones to step forward and to create an appropriate culture in our schools that means they're safe and inclusive for all students.
CAVANAUGH: Joe, did you feel that it was safe to go to one of your teaches, the teacher in your homeroom to tell that teacher the incidents that you shared with us?
JOEY: At first, I thought it would be an easy thing for me to do. But having the students saying derogatory terms in class, and seeing the teachers not react to it made me feel like the teachers don't care. So it makes me not want to go up to them and ask them if they can do something about it, knowing I can see them not caring and not doing anything about and the first time.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How does this kind of -- being the butt of this kind of behavior in school, how does that affect a student?
PEARCE: Some of the things that we see are because they don't feel safe or included, their grade performance is lower, they have a greater tendency to miss school. There's an alarming statistic that out of these surveyed, almost 1/3 of the LGBT students who were surveyed missed a day of school last month because they didn't feel safe going to school. So almost 1/3 missed because they didn't feel safe going to school. That has an enormous impact. It also means they're less likely to go onto further education, and it's not fair.
CAVANAUGH: One of the bright spots in your survey is that most kids who get harassed about their sexuality feel they have at least one supportive educator in their lives. How important is that?
PEARCE: Well, one of the good things about the survey is that it not only illustrates the hostile climate, but it's also enabled us to find out the kind of things that if they're in place make a difference. Having supportive educators in your school makes an enormous difference. Having one supportive educator on a school site can make a difference. A tipping point seems to be six. If we can get six supportive educators, that's one of the marks we look at. Encouraging, and empowering supportive educators, and also having schools that have supportive antibullying policies that actually enumerate LGBT students, that they should be protected. A third area is those schools that have a gay/straight alliance club. And the fourth area is in terms of inclusiveness. If an LGBT student sees themselves reflected in the lesson plans and in the curriculum, they're going to feel much safer and more inclusive.
CAVANAUGH: And Joey, do you have that one supportive educator?
JOEY: Yes, I have two openly out teaches. So when I come to them, I know that's where I'm going to get all my advice and 100% feedback on how to deal with bullying and get the support I need.
CAVANAUGH: David Lyons, let me bring you into the conversation. You work with one of the programing that's in place to empower LGBT students called Jump Start. It's a peer to peer group. Can you tell us how it works?
LYONS: Yes, we have students who are driven to be a catalyst for change in their own schools and community. And they join jump start, they have to apply, and we select them. We're two years strong now. And we teach them everything they need to know in regards to prejudice, LGBT 101, trans & LGBT history, and we teach them how to educator others. So we teach them these ways of presenting to others this information so they can teach their peers and the staff members as well as teachers. It seems to be much more effective that way because they're coming from the mouths of students, those who need these benefits in their school.
CAVANAUGH: How are schools responding to this program?
LYONS: You have some schools who are very supportive. There are some schools who have posters all over their campuses. We have a safe space kit where they'll have posters and stickers that they'll hang on their office to show that they are supportive of LGBT students, and is this a safe space for an LGBT student to come if they feel threatened or unsafe. In other schools however, there isn't as much open support. Schools typically have a GSA, a gay/straight alliance, which is a club where LGBT students and their allies can get-together and be supportive and rally for change. And a lot of schools do not have GSAs. A day of silence, is a sponsored holiday, a day of recognition to show the silencing of LGBT students in the past years of history. And you'll have schools who won't allow them to recognize them or promote that day of recognition on behalf of the students.
CAVANAUGH: Joey, Colin told us that some LGBT students just stay home, they don't want to deal with it, they don't want to deal with the harassment. Have you been through that?
JOEY: Yes, definitely. There's been times where I just wake up and I think of the day I had before. And I say to myself, I don't want to go through that again. I'm just not ready for it today. I'll go through it the next day, but just not today.
CAVANAUGH: Kids in middle school and high school are notoriously mean to each other. How do you get kids to change behaviors that seem to go hand in hand about that stage in their development?
PEARCE: Well, I think we tend to think about bullying as being children bullying other children. But we have to recognize that the culture of the school in which they interact, that culture is created and perpetuated by the adults. It's the School Board, the principles, and the teachers and parents involved in that school that create a culture where bullying is accepted. And although we do have a focus on protecting LGBT youth and making sure that schools are safe and inclusive for them, we also believe that it sends a message to students that your school needs to be safe and inclusive for everybody. So if we it improve the situation for LGBT students, all the students are going to benefit. If a student sees it's okay to harass one particular minority, that's a lesson for them that it's okay to bully a minority. So even if a parent thinks they don't have LGBT children and it doesn't impact them, it is going to impact them. And as we found out last week, you may not know that you have an LGBT son or daughter in your family.
CAVANAUGH: Well, we're here on the day that same-sex marriage is being argued at the U.S. Supreme Court. And attitudes about sexual orientation are evolving really quickly in this country especially among young people. Are you hopeful that the atmosphere in school will continue to improve for LGBT students?
PEARCE: We're definitely seeing improvements and commitments, commitments in the federal level, the state level. We've seen enormous improvements at San Diego unified school district. They passed an antibullying policy. The challenge is really to change the culture and not have it be an add-on program. It has to be a course-central theme of how we operate our schools that they're designed to be safe and inclusive for everybody. It shouldn't be an extra thing to do. It should be central to what you do.
CAVANAUGH: And Joey, as you work yourself through high school, are you also hopeful that things are going to be better when you're a senior than they are now?
JOEY: Yes, definitely. I've been watching the news when they talk about Prop 8, and being on top of all that as well, and it makes me hopeful that maybe one day, weville that equality. Especially by the time I'm a senior, I hope to see that improvement in my teachers and have us take the word back so it's not used as a derogatory term, and having the teachers stand up with us and promote equality.
CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you all, thanks very much.