(Crystal A. Proxmire, orig. Between the Lines, March 21, 2013)
Oakland University’s conference area was packed with counselors, teachers and school administrators for the second annual SOGI (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) Issues in Education Conference earlier this month. The daylong series of speeches and workshops explained several topics that affect LGBT students and provided resources for those who want to make school environments more affirming.
Among those presenting was an administrator from Dublin Schools in Ohio who partners with the American Institute for Research to do trainings around the country for educators. Principal Dustin Miller’s workshop focused on strategies to help enhance conditions for learning by LGBT students. He discussed the 10 Standards of Practice from a recently published book Improving Emotional and Behavioral Outcomes for LGBT Youth: A guide for Professionals. The book focuses on the key pieces organizations may want to consider when looking at inclusiveness.
As he explained each component, Miller gave examples that some in the audience hadn’t considered, including taking care to not assume that a boy may be interested in girls.
“One thing that makes me itchy is when there’s a boy in the office for picking on a girl and the principal asks, ‘Do you like the girl?’ That’s a common response to those situations, but what does that do for the student? That question slams the door shut and puts him in a cage. He thinks ‘Oh, I am supposed to like the girl,’ and it causes confusion or isolation if he doesn’t.”
Miller said that in his experience, everyone comes to these issues with good intentions, and that most things that cause oppressive feelings are never intended to be hurtful in the first place. One example he pointed out is when teachers have artwork on their wall that shows hetero-normative boy-girl interaction, like the common photograph of a little boy in overalls kissing a little girl. While the intention is not malicious, it can make students who are LGBT or questioning feel at odds with expectations.
Instead Miller recommends more inclusive artwork, or art that is more gender-neutral, such as a poster in the hallway of his school, which is a close up of two hands, held together where the gender is not obvious.
Attendees were provided with a copy of an assessment survey that American Institute for Research came up with to give administrators and individuals a good starting point for evaluating where they are in terms of creating a welcoming environment where students feel empowered to grow. More information on this publication can be found at AIR’s website at http://www.air.org/focus-area/human-social-development/index.cfm?fa=viewContent&content_id=1969.
It wasn’t just administrators and grown-ups doing all the talking. Micaela Dunbar-Gaynor and Destiny Douglas, co-presidents of the Novi High School GSA were also on hand to talk about their experiences running their school’s inclusivity-focused organization. Mainly they gave tips for others who may want to start a GSA in their school, including the need for goals, consistency and a structure where older students mentor the younger ones.
Dunbar-Gaynor and Douglas were freshmen when the GSA started as an interest group at their school. It took two years before it was finally approved as an official club. Through their four years at Novi High School they learned about public speaking, organizing and standing up for themselves and others through the older students in the group. Now, as they prepare to move on to graduation and college, they are working to train the leaders who will take their place.
“We have layered leadership,” Dunbar-Gaynor explained. “The two upcoming presidents are younger students we’re training. We have them run meetings and we’ll watch and take notes and give them feedback on how they’re doing. That way we’re slowly integrating them into the leadership role.”
Both young women have experienced taunting, but have learned to stand up for themselves. Dunbar-Gaynor, who is an ally, said sometimes other students make assumptions about her because of her leadership in the GSA.
“I face a little confusion, and people are apprehensive about asking. But it’s an important cause and you just need to be strong so that other allies can be strong too. When we have more allies, more people will get it,” said Dunbar-Gaynor.
Douglas has gotten better at helping other kids understand the hurt they cause when they use gay slurs or treat people differently. “It depends on the situation, but pretty much in general you say ‘Hey, watch what you say,’ but you explain to people you don’t know who you will affect or offend so be respectful of others.”
Dunbar-Gaynor added, “‘That’s so gay’ phrase is used a lot and young people don’t even know what it means. People just say what they hear. Once you educate them about what it means and the history, it makes some people not use it any more.”
The Novi High School GSA has helped create a more welcoming environment for everyone. When they started in 2009, only about 10 percent of the teachers would post a “Safe Space” sticker on their classroom door. Now they estimate that it’s up to 90 percent.
But the path has not always been all that easy. In 2010 they tried to convince the school board to add inclusive language and information into the health curriculum. “A few students came and talked to the board. We talked about why it is important to have lessons that are relevant to us,” Douglas said. “Then there was a line of kids who stepped up and came out to the school board.” The school board was not accommodating.
Successes include having inclusive discussions about bullying and suicide prevention, and holding fundraisers to raise money for the Ruth Ellis Center in Detroit.
Bill Harrison, a social studies teacher and GSA advisor at Dearborn High School, attended the conference to learn more about what other educators were doing to increase inclusiveness and watch former students give presentations.
The Dearborn GSA started nearly a decade ago, and has had a relatively smooth ride. “One thing that surprised me when we started the group was that no one objected,” Harrison said. “I’m hearing about the problems at Rochester Hills and Troy and I’m really surprised because we don’t really have a problem here.”
To Harrison the benefit of a GSA is obvious. “Anytime you have a GSA in schools you tend to see the student population in general feels safer. People that are not LGBT still benefit from less bullying and more acceptance of everyone.”
He said that most recently Dearborn High School has benefitted from having a GSA because when talks about bullying came to the forefront of education discussion, they were already equipped with bullying awareness and experiences. “We already know the risks of bullying – risk of suicide, missing school. When there was a large push for bullying awareness we were able to piggyback on the LGBT issues.”
Two hot topics during the conference were inclusivity in sex education and health classes and inclusivity in school rest rooms. Janet Lane, a teacher in the Ann Arbor schools district was among the attendees. She is part of a volunteer discussion group in her community that is looking at how to encourage inclusive health lessons.
“What we’ve found is that teachers aren’t sure where the boundaries are of what they can talk about,” Lane said. Added to the complexity of the sex education conversation is the fact that “there is not standard curriculum. But there are stand-alone lessons and supplemental materials that teachers can get.”
She said, “anecdotally we know that youth in sex ed classes who are LGBT do not get as much out of the classes because they feel like it doesn’t apply to them.” Lane said that while there may not be concrete answers, there are many groups looking at how to make health class more inclusive. “People are hungry for ideas,” she said.
Inclusive restrooms for transgender students was another area of concern for teachers and administrators. Miller spoke about this problem in his 10 Standards of Care discussion. While there is a push for gender-neutral facilities, administrators need to consider how to do this without compromising student safety. At Miller’s school they turned a multi-stall restroom into a gender-neutral one, but switched it back after a female student went into the room and was followed, unwelcomed, by her ex-boyfriend. While no physical contact took place, the experience was unsettling and parents for both students were called in and had reasons to defend each of their children’s positions. Single-use restrooms may be a more practical option.
This was the second year for the SOGI Conference. For information on the SOGI initiative at Oakland University, visit http://www.oakland.edu/SOGI.