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Sticks and Stones

Outright Vermont teaches kids that words do hurt


Published December 15, 2010 at 9:28 a.m.

It’s 9 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, and dozens of bleary-eyed teens are shuffling into Ryan Clements’ classroom. Normally during this period, they’d be learning about drugs and alcohol and how to make healthy decisions with them. But on this day, they have a special guest.

Saben Littlefield greets the class with a big hello. A few students mumble a response. Most are too interested in their giant bags of potato chips and colossal cans of iced tea to pay Littlefield much attention.

He introduces himself. A handful of students perk up. Then he tells them he’s from Outright Vermont. A couple more pairs of eyes look toward him.

Littlefield asks if anyone knows what Outright is. “Pop quiz time,” he says. The students shift in their seats — they didn’t know there would be a test.

Again Littlefield poses his question. No one hazards a guess.

“OK, so this will be your freebie,” Littlefield says. “I’m going to give you the answer to this one.”

The kids like the sound of that. The less work they have to do, the better. They listen as Littlefield explains that Outright Vermont works with youth ages 13 to 22 who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning or straight allies.

No one utters so much as a snicker as Littlefield informs them that Outright runs sexual health and wellness programs, a gender-based after-school program and antiharassment presentations, one of which he’s here to deliver. Again, not a titter from the bunch.

Littlefield, Outright’s education and statewide field manager, will give this presentation at Bellows Free Academy St. Albans three more times today. By the end of the day, he will have educated more than 100 students on the differences between sex and gender, the cycle of bullying, and the dangers of harassment. The following day, he will do it all again at another school.

By the end of 2010, Littlefield will have given this school presentation 146 times to nearly 3500 people. That number is set to grow in 2011. Requests from schools for Outright’s antiharassment workshops have more than doubled since 2008.

Vermont school administrators have been realizing that harassment based on actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity is pervasive and insidious, as well as a violation of state law (see sidebar on the difference between bullying and harassment). They’re becoming aware that students who identify as LGBT are harassed far more often than their straight-identifying peers. And students who experience that harassment are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, do poorly in school, and have thoughts of suicide.

The recent rash of widely publicized LGBT youth suicides has forced schools nationwide to take action. Administrators know they have to do more to make the school climate safe for all students, including those most at risk. In some parts of the country, the response may be glacially paced. Here in Vermont, that kind of outreach is already happening. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.

In 2009, the biannual Youth Risk Behavior Survey polled 11,247 Vermont students on a raft of topics, including physical activity, nutrition, and suicide and other self-harm. Of the respondents, 1 percent reported that they were gay or lesbian, 4 percent identified as bisexual, and 3 percent listed themselves as unsure of their sexual orientation.

The Department of Health, which conducted the survey, broke the results down by sexual orientation. For those who work with LGBT youth, what the survey revealed was distressing, though not shocking.

More than one in three LGB youth (the survey did not ask students to note whether they identified as transgender) reported having been harassed at least once in the past 30 days. That’s twice the number of their straight contemporaries. Nationally, the proportion of LGBT students reporting harassment is nearly nine out of 10.

Almost half of the surveyed LGB youth reported having been involved in physical fights, as opposed to slightly less than a third of straight students. Binge-drinking and drug-use rates were higher among LGB students, as were suicide attempts. One in four of them reported having been threatened or injured with a weapon at school — an experience shared by only one of every 22 straight students.

Melissa Murray, executive director of Outright Vermont, the state’s only nonprofit that advocates for queer youth, calls the figures “ridiculously skewed.” She attributes the results to a lack of support, both at school and home, as well as in the community.

“The biggest issue facing queer youth in Vermont is isolation,” Murray says.

To lessen that isolation, both geographical and social, Outright and LGBT youth have worked to establish Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA) in schools. Research from the national advocacy organization Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) shows that students in schools that had GSAs heard fewer homophobic remarks, felt safer, missed less school and had a greater sense of connectedness than did their LGBT counterparts in schools without GSAs.

Right now, nearly half of Vermont’s 61 high schools support a GSA. Murray says that number has increased “exponentially” in recent years.

But the organization of GSAs has met resistance. Last year, students at St. Johnsbury Academy successfully persuaded their administration to allow a GSA after having to “jump through a number of hoops,” Littlefield says. Similarly, students at Winooski and Colchester high schools had to push hard to get their respective administrations on board with the idea of a GSA.

Murray says some school administrators have asked that such clubs avoid the words “gay” and “straight” in favor of innocuous titles such as the “Human Rights Club” or the “Diversity Alliance.” Other schools have suggested GSAs be expanded to include students with substance-abuse issues, intimating that homosexuality is a problem to be solved. Alternate names and definitions are ultimately defeatist, argues Murray.

“They don’t have the visibility of ‘Gay-Straight Alliance,’” she says.

Littlefield, a 27-year-old with a baby face and an easy way with kids, has seemingly endless reserves of energy. He needs it to keep students — and himself — engaged in what can be difficult conversations.

Once Littlefield has finished his introductions at BFA St. Albans and informed the 40-odd students that their participation is required, he lays down a few ground rules. Sometimes, Littlefield tells students, when he explains to people he works with LGBT youth, they don’t want to talk to him. They don’t want people to assume they’re gay.

“So, we’re going to check our assumptions at the door,” he says. “What I mean by that is, just because you talk to me doesn’t mean you’re gay. And just because you’re silent doesn’t mean you’re straight. I want you to think about that, so we can have a really open and honest conversation about the stuff I’m going to present.”

BFA St. Albans is one of the more encouraging schools Littlefield will visit. It recently ranked as one of the safest schools in Outright’s annual Safe Schools Report Card, which rates all Vermont’s high schools based on four criteria (see sidebar). On the last report card, only 11 out of 61 schools met all four.

Littlefield’s first activity is called “Stand Up, Sit Down.” Littlefield asks the class a series of questions aimed at showing that most people have bullied or been bullied — or both.

“Stand up if you have ever put someone down who did not socially fit in.”

The majority of the class stands. Littlefield asks the class to look around.

“Stand up if you have ever made fun of someone different than you.”

Again, most of the class rises.

“Stand up if you’ve ever told a joke based on race, religion or sexual orientation.”

A surprising number of students admit to this.

“Stand up if you have ever verbalized a stereotype about a group of people.”

Hardly anyone remains seated. Littlefield’s line of questioning continues until he comes to the most personal query.

“Stand up if you yourself have ever been bullied or harassed.”

At this request, all but three or four students leave their seats. After they sit again, Littlefield asks the class to reflect on the exercise.

Many of the students say they feel guilty. Others say they’re surprised that everyone didn’t stand for every question. Some say they’re pleased to know they’re not the only ones doing the bullying.

What seems to surprise the students most is how many of their peers claim to have experienced bullying or harassment. And which ones.

“I didn’t expect some of these people to stand up,” one girl says.

Littlefield uses the exercise as a jumping-off point to discuss the cycle of bullying. Then he broaches the often-thorny topic of sexuality. He tells the students how youth who identify as LGBT are far more likely to be harassed than their straight classmates. He asks if this is surprising.

It’s not. “Why?” he asks.

“Because I expect that gay kids get more bullying,” one girl offers.

“Because I see gay kids get bullied more,” another student says.

“I would think it would be higher,” still another student volunteers.

This is the only time Littlefield discusses sexuality in the presentation, which may surprise observers. That’s intentional, he says. Speaking in more general terms helps bring more students into the conversation. And many students, Littlefield says, aren’t prepared to talk about sexuality in specific terms, because they’re still figuring things out.

Outright’s antiharassment presentations were born out of the organization’s school outreach of the early 1990s. At that time, the nonprofit’s school-based work was basic — a Gay 101 of sorts meant to teach that LGBT people aren’t sexual deviants, child predators or AIDS-infected monsters. A more formal antiharassment program was adopted in the late 1990s, funded by a Vermont Department of Education earmark secured by then-Gov. Howard Dean.

In 2000, when the flap over civil unions exploded into a full-blown culture war, Dean’s administration was pressured to cut funding to Outright and other organizations serving queer Vermonters. Without money, Outright’s antiharassment program fizzled.

Two years after the “Take Back Vermont” ire reached fever pitch, Outright was able to secure funding to get the anti-harassment workshops back on track. Kate Jerman, the organization’s former co-executive director, is credited with reviving the education program.

Jerman’s strategy was to “shoehorn” Outright into schools however she could. When an incident of bias flared up at a particular school, Outright offered to come in and provide training to prevent future issues. Often, its workers only got into schools on designated “diversity days.”

Initially, Outright met with vociferous resistance from parents and school boards. Jerman recalls its first efforts to get into the Williston schools in 2006. Some community members accused Outright of peddling condoms to kindergarteners and teaching kids how to have sex.

“They kept spreading the same misinformation. It was a total misrepresentation of what we did. It played on fears,” Jerman says.

Outright experienced similar opposition in other schools, most recently at Missisquoi Valley Union High School, shortly after the Williston episode. While such resistance has been difficult to defeat, Jerman says the larger issue remains that of indifference. Many school officials and parents still don’t see the need for education on issues of sexuality and gender.

And yet, LGBT youth continue to get tormented. According to a recent study by GLSEN, actual or perceived sexual orientation is one of the most common reasons why students are harassed by their peers — second only to physical appearance. Another recent study by researchers at Yale University found that LGBT youth received harsher punishments at school and in the courts than did straight teens, despite engaging less often in violence.

This fiscal year, the Vermont Human Rights Commission has received eight school harassment cases — twice the caseload of the previous year, says investigator Tracey Tsugawa. And the fiscal year has nearly seven months remaining.

Of those eight cases, five involve actual or perceived sexual orientation. Under the public accommodation law, sexual orientation is one of nine protected classes; the others are race, creed, color, national origin, gender identity, marital status, sex and disability. In Tsugawa’s 11 years with the commission, her school harassment caseload has never been higher.

However, none of the LGBT-related school harassment cases she has investigated involve openly gay or transgender students. This is surprising, Tsugawa says, considering that LGBT youth report more harassment than their straight peers. Plus, she just knows they’re being harassed.

But, says Tsugawa, they may be less likely to report it. In a GLSEN study, 62 percent of queer youth said they didn’t report harassment because they didn’t think anyone would do anything about it, or feared the situation would become worse if they came forward.

Many of the school harassment reports can be attributed to young people’s liberal use of the term “gay” to describe something that’s stupid, as well as their casual use of other gay slurs such as “fag” or “dyke.” Such words automatically turn a claim into a matter of harassment, Tsugawa explains.

“That’s the first thing that comes out of their mouths when there is somebody who is different, who they think is less than them,” Tsugawa says. “They’ll call them ‘faggot’ or ‘queer’ or ‘retard.’ It is not a good situation.” Reports of such language are increasing, she argues, not because kids are using the words more frequently, but because the people targeted by the language are more likely to come forward as homosexuality loses its stigma.

Perhaps more alarming than the continued use of homophobic language is the rise of cyberharassment, Tsugawa says. She recalls a recent case in which students created a website aimed at defaming an openly gay classmate. Another recent claim involved students who used a website to torment a classmate with Tourette’s syndrome. They called it (though they used the student’s real name).

Harassment is only going to get worse, Tsugawa warns, as technology becomes more prevalent in students’ lives.

“When you have the disconnect between the moral development of adolescence and their technological knowledge, there’s so much that happens that’s so inappropriate and harmful,” she says.

While instances of cyberharassment are likely to increase as educators and communities hammer out ways to address it, the overall school climate seems to be improving for Vermont’s LGBT youth — if not by miles, then at least by inches.

At a recent meeting of the Pride Alliance — Burlington High School’s GSA — six students engage in a lively discussion about the AIDS epidemic of the early 1980s and the proposed repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The group has about 12 members in all, students say, but so many are involved in other extracurricular activities that it’s hard to get them all to attend the meetings.

For senior Rocko Gieselman, school has become an appreciably more accepting place. The 17-year-old describes middle school — when Gieselman, who prefers gender-neutral pronouns, came out — as “total hell.” Girls regularly called Gieselman a “dyke” and threatened violence. Little information about sexuality was offered to students, and there was a lot of unfounded fear.

That fear, compounded by misinformation, led to Gieselman getting attacked by fellow students while walking the family dog. Today, at the high school, that kind of abuse is unlikely to happen, Pride Alliance members say. Gieselman and peers have worked to change the atmosphere, slowly but steadily. They rarely hear students say things such as “That’s so gay” — a measure of how far their classmates have come.

Plus, says junior Shell Pomerantz, many LGBT students at BHS refuse to remain hidden.

“We make ourselves pretty visible,” says the 17-year-old. “We’ve developed a little queer mafia. We’re like ninjas — we’re there all the time.”

Obviously, using Burlington as a benchmark of success in Vermont is like taking New York City’s cultural pulse to describe the entire country. But it’s a beginning. The new climate at BHS sets a goal for schools such as BFA St. Albans, which has a vibrant GSA and some supportive administrators, in spite of the region’s conservative bent.

Before ending his first presentation of the day, Littlefield leaves the students with a challenge.

“I can’t make your school a safer place for you to be valued for who you are. I wish I could, but I can’t. That is up to you all,” he says. “My challenge for you is this: In order to move to a place of where you are valued for being who you are, we need to do one thing today that’s different. So, one behavior gets changed. And if we all do it, that means that this school is 40 times safer today than it was yesterday. Who will agree? Who will start today making this school safer?”

The students murmur and nod before hustling out the door and on to their next class. Whether anyone will take Littlefield’s message to heart, only time will tell.

For more on bullying, click here to read Lea McLellan's article on "relational aggression."

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