UOTeachOUT Leadership Lunch – Opening remarks

As promised I have posted here my opening remarks from the TeachOUT leadership lunch along with the three videos I showed during my portion of the talk…

“Because the WHOLE school should be a SAFE PLACE.”

In the fall of 2010-2011 the nation was called to attention by over a dozen nationally publicized suicides of LGBTQ youth who were all reportedly bullied, harassed, and assaulted in their schools.

This new media coverage and national awareness was heightened by the death of college freshman Tyler Clementi.  This young Rutgers student was harassed and humiliated in his own dorm room by his roommate and another student.  Within the first weeks of school Tyler took his own life.  As the media grabbed onto this story, California middle schooler Seth Walsh was among many other suicide deaths reported on that were directly linked to anti-gay bullying and harassment in schools.

As coverage continued into the fall Seattle journalist Dan Savage took to the internet and started an “It Gets Better” campaign to tell LGBT youth that life would get better, “The minute gay youth walk away from high school.”  

After Dan and his partner posted a YouTube video, thousands of people great and small came out of the woodwork to post a video to YouTube telling LGBT youth to “Hang in there, it gets better.”

In reality, LGBT youth will need to do more than just “Hang in there” to survive a public school education.  Over 20 years of research consistently confirm that 80% of lgbt youth are consistently verbally harassed at school, a minimum of 40% are physically assaulted at school. In terms of hostility, LGBTQ are 7 times more likely to be threatened or injured with a weapon that their peers WHILE at school.

In considering the institutional nature of this hostile educational setting close to 20% of LGBT youth report hearing these remarks from faculty and over 80% report that faculty and staff do not intervene when anti-gay remarks are made.

One third of gay students miss an average of a day of school per month because they are unsafe at school.  LGBT youth represent up to 40% of homeless youth.  And these children are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide.

And who can these youth look up to as role models.  Just who are the trusted adults Obama suggests these students seek out?

That’s correct.  Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender teachers’ employment rights are only protected in 12 states in this country including here in Oregon.

And this professional discrimination against LGBT teachers goes on even as we know from recent studies that depression and other mental health issues, school absences, and suicide ideation among LGBT youth are decreased in places where there is a supportive educational environment for these children.

Just two weeks ago researchers from Columbia University published a study of 31,000 Oregon 11th graders which indicated that the many negative outcomes LGBT youth face are significantly decreased in positive environments.

And what were the criteria for a positive and potentially life saving environment?
The researchers scored 34 of Oregon’s 36 counties on how supportive of gays and lesbians the environment was based on

1.) the proportion of same-sex couples in the community;
2.) the proportion of registered Democrats in the community;
3.) whether schools had gay-straight alliances;
4.) whether schools had anti-bullying and antidiscrimination policies specifically protecting lesbian, gay and bisexual students.

 The number one indicator of a safe and positive environment within this study was the proportion of same-sex couples in the community – OUT adults role models.  This criteria speaks directly to these two LGBT teachers you just saw hiding behind handkerchiefs.

In January 1, 2008 the Oregon Equality Act, Public Law Number 100, Oregon SB 2 (2007) went into effect. The bill was designed to end discrimination based on a person’s real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity in areas such as employment, housing and public accommodation.

Therefore it is no longer legal to discriminate against an Oregon educator for their presumed or proclaimed sexual orientation or gender identity.  Yet the subtle and sometimes not so subtle silences permeate the K-12 education system suggesting to educators that it is considered ‘unprofessional’ to acknowledge that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or a transgender person as well as a teacher within the community.

Professional discourses yet suggest that for a LGBT teacher to acknowledge their family, their partner, and their life would be ‘inappropriate’ at any level of education, and particularly ‘inappropriate’ at the elementary level of schooling.

In effect k-12 teaching operates as a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ environment even as that “Telling” would reduce anti-gay and gender bullying and violence in schools and quite possibly save the life of a marginalized and isolated gay youth.

And so we are at a crossroads as education leaders.  Will we continue to accept and in fact demand professional excellence from our LGBT colleagues while simultaneously pressing them into shaming silence in front of all of the students’ watchful eyes?   Will we wait for this maligned minority group of professionals to somehow self-advocate this situation away while we go about the daily business of ignoring this brutal crisis among our students. Or will we move together as a professional community to advocate for these professionals as full colleagues and peers in the hopes that ALL Oregon schools will one day be described as positive environments.

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