Simon Mann, US correspondent
November 26, 2011 - 12:03AM
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/world/word-is-...#ixzz1ej0AfC9e
IN A gritty urban neighbourhood of Los Angeles, where gangs and guns often rule, lesbian and gay students talk of their local school as a haven that allows them to be themselves away from the sometimes harsh judgment of their families.
Predominantly Latino and Catholic, the students, who attend James Monroe High School in North Hills in the San Fernando Valley, draw strength from one another and from an alliance with straight kids with whom they meet regularly to promote friendship and acceptance.
"This is the most gay-friendly school I've ever attended," says 18-year-old Hugo Meza, a senior, or year 12, student.
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Adds Mary Grace Ylagan, also 18: "I became myself when I came out here, and people have supported me. They accept me for who I am. My family, they don't give me the support that I need. So I love being in school."
Another student says simply: "People are respected here for being who they are."
James Monroe's Gay-Straight Alliance is one of a network of thousands of student clubs across the US that are part of a concerted effort by educators and rights groups to push back against anti-gay harassment in schools, recognised as a key factor in youth suicide.
Here, the 2000 students in years 9 to 12 know what persecution is and why it is not OK, and find themselves, unwittingly, in the vanguard of California's robust efforts to eliminate discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students. Add a "Q", too, for those students who are questioning and have yet to discover their sexual identity.
"About 16 per cent of students across America have someone in their immediate family who's gay or is lesbian," says Dr Judy Chiasson, of the Office of Human Relations, Diversity and Equity in LA's Unified School District, which accounts for about 900 schools and 700,000 students, about 80per cent of whom are Latino. "Couple that with the 9 per cent of students who are gay ... and you're looking at a pretty substantial population."
Monroe is a model of inclusiveness that warms the heart of Chiasson, a former teacher, and Lewis Chappelear, a national teacher of the year finalist who has mentored its alliance over a decade and witnessed an evolving attitude of acceptance within the school.
A few years ago when the word "gay" was uttered over the public address system, Chappelear cringed instinctively. Now, word of alliance activities and the school's general anti-bullying message are routine in Monroe's lexicon.
Last year, the alliance invited students to pledge to make the world safer, launching their "pinkie promise" campaign in which students linked little fingers in a sign that they were on board.
Underpinning the pledge to prevent bullying, says Chappelear, was a promise also to be mindful of language. "As part of the pledge, you couldn't say, for example, 'That's so gay' and you can't say the F word [for faggot]," he says. In the past, students would argue that the terms were validated by TV and would protest: "I don't mean 'gay' gay."
But Monroe has re-engineered the meaning of cool: now, it's cool on campus to speak up for anyone who is being targeted, to be seen to be championing justice.
"In this school, it's now just totally uncool to say 'that's so gay' or to say 'faggot',” Chappelear says.
About 60 per cent of middle schools (years 5 to 8) and senior campuses in the immediate Los Angeles area have gay-straight alliances, according to Chiasson. Although not mandated, the district encourages them in every school amid a range of initiatives that have sprung from a 1988 resolution, so-called Project 10, calling for a safe and affirming environment in California's schools.
A just-passed state law heralds a further effort towards inclusiveness, the so-called FAIR Education Act, dictating the inclusion of LGBT people in future textbooks used by Californian schools from kindergarten to year 12.
The legislation, written into law by Governor Jerry Brown last July after a 49:25 vote in the state assembly, actually demands that the curriculum include "materials that accurately portray the role and contributions" of Pacific islanders as well as LGBT people and people with disabilities.
Some conservatives and religious opponents have objected, claiming the law has the potential to indoctrinate students to accept homosexuality, which many of their parents do not. But educationists counter that the law is not about teaching sex, but about recognising sexual identity in the same way that textbooks were rewritten in the 1960s to acknowledge America's civil rights history.
Support for California's law has come from far afield, too. "The only thing I, an ageing baby boomer, can recall learning in school about gay history is that if you were gay you were 'history', subject to being shunned or bullied by your peers," a senior Catholic educator wrote to The New York Times. "Kudos to California for bringing gay history out of the closet."
Even so, it could be four or five years before California's crippled budget allows it to recognise gay accomplishments in new textbooks, during which time detractors say they will campaign to have the law repealed. That won't discourage the alliance of gay and straight students at Monroe High, which recently celebrated an anti-bullying day in which students dressed in purple and danced through their lunch break.
On a national scale, Monroe's success may well be an exception, coinciding with an intensifying debate in the US over bullying in schools. Surveys suggests that most American students hear homophobic remarks frequently, if not daily, while at school, and eight in every 10 LGBT students reported having been verbally harassed in the past year. Absenteeism and poor academic performance among LGBT students are attributed often to bullying, with increased levels of victimisation more likely to lead to higher levels of depression and anxiety.
Part of the national fightback has involved the "It Gets Better" campaign to show LGBT teens that they are not alone. High-profile and other Americans have contributed video messages of support, including one from President Barack Obama and a follow-up put together by gay and lesbian White House staffers, both of which are available on YouTube. Meanwhile, 2000 schools across the country have taken up an anti-bullying pledge supported by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.
The actions go further than protecting LGBT students because, as Chiasson notes, "straight-identified males who are the target of anti-gay harassment have higher levels of distress in being called gay than do gay-identifying students". The education network recently sounded out students about harassment in schools and decided bullying most often focused on a student according to physical appearance and body size "and whether a student was perceived to be, quote-unquote, 'masculine' or 'feminine' enough", executive director Eliza Byard says.
"I think there's a common misconception that dealing with LGBT issues in K-through-12 schools is about ... promoting someone being lesbian or gay," she remarked recently on talkback radio. "Primarily, it is about reducing the sea of anti-LGBT sentiment that fuels a lot of bullying that has nothing to do with a specific personal animus against a gay individual. It's about the kind of language that fuels the problem."
While James Monroe High School may not be perfect — truancy remains an issue in a poor community where students are often called upon to help out at home or in a family business — it is doing plenty right in the eyes of its 100 or so Gay-Straight Alliance members, some of whom are unable to discuss their sexuality with family. That disconnect can have devastating effects: statistics suggest that LGBT children rejected by their families have suicide rates eight times higher than students generally.
"I think it is difficult with all families, but especially Hispanic families, Catholic families, because they always bring up the Bible," says one student. "They will always say, 'The Bible says if you're gay you're going to hell.' And I always say 'Yeah, but the Bible also says don't judge."'
Says 18-year-old Evelyn Corona: "Most people have been bullied at some point in their lives. So to be in a group that can make a difference is very satisfying."
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/world/word-is-...#ixzz1ej0LlKka