Conference Panel Discusses Safe Schools for Gay Youth

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Titled “Controlling Sexuality through Violence, Shame and Cultural Oppression: Implications for Human Rights,” the University of Utah’s annual Tanner Human Rights Center Conference on Feb. 24–26 addressed a number of topics surrounding anti-gay and anti-transgender violence, including legal prohibitions of same-sex marriage ad public shaming of non-straight individuals.

One panel addressed a topic that has long been at the forefront of gay and transgender activism in Utah: preventing violence and discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth.
Held Feb. 25, “Breaking the Cycle: Prevention and the Next Generation” focused on threats to the health of gay, lesbian and bisexual youth poised by such things as school bullying and anti-gay cultural practices, as well as ways in which these practices can be halted. The panel was moderated by University of Utah psychology professor Don Strassberg and featured fellow U psychology professor David Huebner, City University of New York psychology professor Margaret Rosario and Rose Ellen Epstein, the Utah Pride Center’ Transgender Youth Program Coordinator.


Rosario began the panel with a presentation titled “LGB Youths: Their Health and Stress,” in which she discussed the results of several studies about the health of gay, lesbian and bisexual adolescents that derived their participants from the general population, rather than specifically selected groups of such youth. She limited her study to non-transgender sexual minorities, she said, because little research has been done into the health concerns of transgender youth.

Overall, she said that gay, lesbian and bisexual adolescents were twice more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to have substance abuse disorders, poor body image, and to engage in sexual behaviors that put them at high risk for contracting sexually transmitted infections. Further, she said that queer youth were far more likely to have diagnoses of mental illnesses like major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, and two to seven more times likely to have attempted suicide. Indeed, she said that 21-35 percent of gay, lesbian and bisexual youth in all studies she considered reported having attempted suicide in the last year, as opposed to four to 14 percent of heterosexual youth.

To explain these health disparities, Rosario introduced the audience to the concept of “gay-related stress,” which is caused when people who are or are perceived to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender experience verbal, physical or sexual attacks, and when they internalize the negative social messages that motivate these assaults.

“Victimization and rejections can be overt or subtle, can happen by omission or commission and can occur across many settings,” including family, social and cultural settings, she said.
After experiencing such stressors, Rosario said that many youth turn to unhelpful or damaging practices in order to cope, including drug abuse, sex and cutting class.

“Truancy is a coping strategy that unfortunately in the long run will not benefit them as they fall behind in their academic work,” she said. “[Strategies like this] indicate the failure, if you will, of our schools and our families to take care of our children.” To help these youth, Rosario encouraged the audience to think about several subjects, including how racial and ethnic issues tied into gay-related stress, and the relationship between stress and health.

As a Utah Pride Center employee who works directly with youth, Epstein said that she has firsthand knowledge of the damage socially encouraged violence does to Utah’s gay, lesbian, bisexual youth and transgender youth in particular. In order to help youth create social and emotional support networks, Epstein said the center has created a number or programs for queer youth, including: FAME, an HIV-intervention group for gay and bisexual boys;  Genderland, a weekly program for transgender and gender variant youths; TransAction, a youth-lead group focused on social justice for transgender people; and drop-in center that its clients quickly named the Tolerant Intelligent Network of Teens, or TINT.

“It’s a safe space for youth to express themselves and explore their identities, which obviously is a very natural part of adolescence but something that LBTB youth don’t have a chance to do,” said Epstein, citing, for example, the ability of gay, lesbian and bisexual youth to talk about their crushes as easily as their heterosexual counterparts can.

Additionally, Epstein said the Center is especially proud of the cultural competency classes it is providing for people who work in the fields of foster care and juvenile justice, in order to show that queer youth are in these systems and that their needs are often different from those of straight non-transgender youths.

“[For example we’re] providing cultural competency training to therapists who want to work with transgender young people, or who want to know more [about the issues they face] because they’ve heard there’s a need,” said Epstein, citing the fact that many transgender people need to get a letter from a therapist before they can get sexual reassignment surgery or go on hormones.

“I think the training program is one of the most exciting programs we do because we’re able to have an impact outside of the Pride Center in the broader community,” she said. “I think we’re helping to change the experiences the k ids have across the state.”
Huebner agreed with Epstein. “I don’t believe [anti-gay victimization] is inevitable, that’s the reason we’re talking about this today,” he said.

In his presentation, “Anti-gay Victimization in Schools and Adolescent Risk Behaviors,” Huebner presented some hypotheses on the reasons why victims of anti-gay harassment and violence often engage in destructive behaviors such as drug use and unprotected sex.

“I don’t believe that kids get bullied at school and [therefore decide] to have sex without a condom. That doesn’t make sense,” he said “There’s something going on in the space between victimization and engaging in a risk behavior.”

One model Huebner presented was behavioral science professor Richard Jessor’s Problem behavior theory, which suggests that youth who feel uncommitted to such “norm-enforcing institutions” as schools, families and religious groups become increasingly committed to peers who are engaging in risky, damaging behaviors. Since queer youth who fear bullying at school do not see school as safe, said Huebner, they are not able to commit to their school work.

In order to break this pattern, Huebner said that schools needed to enact anti-bullying codes that include gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender children. He added that studies have found that schools with these inclusive policies have become safer for students of all sexual orientations. 
“It’s not surprising, not a radical assertion,” he said.

Huebner also said that anecdotal evidence exists to suggest that schools with gay-straight alliances also have less anti-gay bullying, though he stressed that no scientific study had yet been conducted to validate this. He suggested, nonetheless, that the mere existence of a resource to help gay and transgender students could play a factor in lessening bullying, even if students do not take advantage of that resource.

“I’m hoping as we increasingly do research like this that documents that GSAs are helpful for our kids we can bully the government into allowing us to have them,” said Huebner, referring to attempts by legislative bodies (including the Utah Legislature in the mid-1990s) to prohibit GSAs on the campuses of public schools.

A half hour question and answer period followed, in which audience members (several of them University of Utah faculty and community activists) asked the panelists about such things as the feasibility of getting Parent Teacher Associations to advocate for safer schools or creating schools that accepted only gay and transgender students.

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