LGBT youth, advocates plan for back to school

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

LGBT youth and advocates at every level are busily preparing for a safer, more equal school year.

In Wisconsin, the 13th Annual Leadership Training Institute, a four-day camp begins Aug. 10, presented by Wisconsin’s Gay, Straight Alliance for Safe Schools.

GSAFE booked the camp at the MacKenzie Environmental Education Center in Poynette, where 35 students will get training through workshops, team-building exercises and discussion forums “to build a team of strong GSA activists in Wisconsin and help transition GSA leadership down to younger students,” said Tim Michael, GSAFE GSA outreach manager.

The camp, said Michael, “trains current GSA students to return to their schools in the fall with the skills, motivation and support they need to be leaders.”

Last school year, Wisconsin had 143 active GSAs in high schools and middle schools.

“Most of these GSAs are in public schools, and with 426 public school districts in Wisconsin, that means that about one in three school districts has a GSA,” Michael said.

Expanding the number of GSAs is a goal for 2012-13.

Establishing safe zones at schools is another goal.

Last year, GSAFE worked with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network to send safe-space kits to every GSA in Wisconsin.

For the 2012-13 school year, GLSEN launched a nationwide campaign to encourage alumni to send safe-space kits – each pack- age costs $20 – to every middle school and high school in the United States.

GSAFE also offers to assist educators and administrators in creating safe-school zones.

“We often hear from students that it makes a huge difference when a teacher establishes a safe zone in their classroom from day one, making clear their expectations for respectful behavior and spelling out what kind of language will not be allowed in their classroom,” Michael said.

He added, “If a school district is interested in learning more about what that looks like, they can contact GSAFE and we would be more than happy to assist them with that, or set up a safe-zone training for their staff.”

It’s important for protection and policies to be consistent in a school building. “We believe that anti-LGBT language and behavior should be addressed consistently throughout a school building, and we hope that school staff include conversations about how that will happen at the start of the school year,” Michael said.

The GSAFE representative identified several other major efforts for the Madison-based nonprofit in the 2012-13 school year:

  • Strengthening regional work. “We are looking to build stronger infrastructure and relationships in key regions of Wisconsin,” Michael said.
  • Strengthening racial and economic justice by establishing programs and staff positions “devoted to working with students of color and low-income youth who are also LGBTQ” and  “incorporating racial and economic justice into all of our work.”
  • Advancing educational justice so that youth of color, low-income youth, and youth with disabilities all thrive. This work includes helping to build a statewide educational justice coalition to build community support for statewide and school-district level educational justice policy.”

On a national level, the National Education Association also is focused on educational and social justice in 2012-13. At            the union’s            summer assembly, NEA executive director John Stocks challenged educators to become “social justice patriots” and “valiantly fight every day to make America live up to its promise.”

“NEA members keep standing strong, keep fighting for justice, keep fighting for our students,” Stocks said, rallying the teachers returning to the classrooms for a new term.

The 2012-13 calendar, depending on the outcome of the November elections, also may include congressional action on several education reform bills.

One measure, H.R. 998, or the Student Non-Discrimination Act, would establish a federal prohibition of discrimination in public schools based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. It would provide legal remedies, modeled after Title IX.

Openly gay U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., is the bill’s sponsor in the House, while Minnesota Democrat Al Franken has introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

In April, the president endorsed the measure, along with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who said, “Bullying can no longer be seen as a normal rite of passage. As a country, we must all work together to take action against bullying and improve the safety climates of our schools and communities. That’s why I support the Student Non-Discrimination

Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act.”

Duncan was the keynote speaker at the Education Department’s third annual bullying prevention summit.

Held Aug. 6-7 in Washington, D.C., the event also featured speeches by Maryland first lady Katie O’Malley, White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett and Cynthia Germanotta, mother of musician-activist Lady Gaga.

Backing at school

The following groups offer support and advocacy for LGBT students in Wisconsin:

Gay, Straight Alliance for Safe Schools: Promotes safe schools for LGBT middle schoolers and high schoolers in Wisconsin, especially with support for gay-straight alliances.

OutThere: Based in Madison, OT supports LGBT adults ages 18-24.

Proud Theater: Promotes self-expression, supports LGBT youth in Madison.

Teens Like Us: Supports Madison LGBT youth.

GALAXY: Supports LGBT teens ages 14-19 in La Crosse.

Gay Youth Milwaukee: Supports LGBT Milwaukee youth.

Project Q: Supports LGBT youth in Milwaukee.

Students for a Fair Wisconsin: Promotes young LGBT adults, sponsors fairness campaigns.

College Groups: Marquette University Gay/Straight Alli- ance, St. Norbert College Rainbow Alliance, UW-Eau Claire Spectrum, UW-Green Bay Sexuality and Gender Alliance- Fair Wisconsin, UW-La Crosse Pride Center, UW-Madison LGBT Campus Center, UW-Madison Ten Percent Society, UW Law School QLaw, UW Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,Trans- gender Alumni Council, UW-Milwaukee LGBT Resource Center, UW-Oshkosh LGBTQ Resource Center, UW-Park- side LGBT Resource Center, UW-Parkside Rainbow Alliance, UW-Platteville Alliance, UW-Stevens Point GSA , UW-Stout Out @ Stout, UW-Superior Queer and Allied Student Union and UW-Whitewater IMPACT.

For the record

Wisconsin law bans discrimination and harassment based on real or perceived sexual orientation, but not based on gender identity or expression.

In 2010, the state also enacted anti-bullying legislation requiring districts to develop an anti- bullying policy or adopt the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction policy.