April 20, 2018
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Campaign aims to set up ‘safe spaces’ for gay Maine students

By Meg Haskell, BDN Staff

The teenage years are tough on many youngsters as they respond to their changing bodies, explore their emerging interests and begin to navigate the adult world on their own.

But for kids who know or begin to suspect that they may be sexually attracted to members of their own gender, the rocky passages of adolescence can be especially treacherous. In addition to coming to terms with what often feels like a fundamental but culturally taboo aspect of their makeup, surveys show they often endure an ongoing barrage of verbal, emotional and physical harassment that can erode their self-esteem and sideline their long-term aspirations.

That’s why youth advocates such as retired psychologist Peter Rees of Ellsworth are happy to support a campaign to establish adult allies and “safe spaces” in every public high school and middle school in Maine. The Safe Spaces initiative is being promoted by GLSEN — the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network — a private, nonprofit agency headquartered in New York. The organization has identified the entire state of Maine, along with the cities of New York and Los Angeles, for the first phase of a national blanket distribution of “Safe Space” kits to schools.

“I am pleased and impressed with it,” Rees said of the plan in a recent interview. “It leads schools in a step at a time.” While some schools have been reluctant to specifically uphold the rights of gay or lesbian students or those who are questioning their sexual orientation, Rees said the GLSEN approach allows a school to adopt a low-key endorsement that nonetheless speaks clearly to vulnerable students.

According to GLSEN executive director Eliza Byard, Maine is small enough to manage the comprehensive school distribution and also has a strong network of advocacy agencies.

“The work goes beyond the kits,” Byard said. “In Maine, we have great capacity to offer follow-up training and support for schools.”

With two regional chapters of GLSEN in the state, in Ellsworth and Portland, and other statewide advocacy organizations such as Equality Maine and PFLAG — Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays — as well as the civil rights teams already present in many schools, Byard said Maine is well situated to model Safe Spaces. Other states where GLSEN is preparing to unroll the Safe Spaces campaign include Idaho, Colorado and Oklahoma, she said.

Each GLSEN kit consists of a handbook for school administrators, teachers and staff; a handful of small, colorful door stickers featuring the familiar gay pride rainbow; and two rainbow posters promoting the important role schools play in providing a safe and welcoming environment for all students. That may not seem like the makings of a social movement, but 16-year-old MaKayla Reed, a junior at Ellsworth High School, says it is a start. Her school adopted the Safe Spaces approach about two years ago.

“It’s been very effective,” Reed said in a recent interview. “Students have been able to open up to their teachers, and teachers have been able to question the bullying that goes on in the classroom.” Officially, Ellsworth High School has a zero-tolerance policy toward bullying of any kind, she said. But GLSEN has taken that protection a step further, using the simple presence of the Safe Spaces sticker to identify teachers who are supportive of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students and attuned to the challenges they face daily in and out of school.

“The safe space sticker on a classroom door says to students, ‘It’s OK to come in here and talk to me,’” Reed said.

According to psychologist Rees, students who are thought to be gay may experience a range of verbal, physical and psychological abuse during the school day. Public name-calling using derogatory or obscene language is common, he said, but students also may be shoved into lockers, have their faces pushed into their lunch trays and endure other physical assaults.

Perhaps most devastating, he said, gay students may be completely shunned by their peers, excluded from virtually all classroom, athletic and extracurricular groups. The same treatment is often extended to students who are simply suspected of being gay. For emotionally fragile adolescents, he said, the results can be tragic.

“They can be driven to despair,” Reed said. “Some of them try so hard to be un-gay … to convince themselves and the people around them that they’re not gay.” Students trying to escape the stigma of being thought gay may engage in harassing other gay students and often are driven into sexual promiscuity with members of the opposite sex, he said. Very often, he said, their academics suffer as well, further compromising their self-esteem and their futures.

“If you’re being harassed, you spend too much time watching your back to worry about your grades,” he said.

As schools receive their kits in coming weeks and consider whether to participate in the Safe Spaces program, Maine lawmakers likely will be presented with at least one proposal to clarify the role of schools in protecting all students from bullying. Rep. Donald Pilon, D-Saco, said recently that language is still being drafted for a proposal to strengthen schools’ response to students who complain of being harassed or bullied, whatever the reason. Pilon said the impetus for his proposal is the recent case of a female student in Massachusetts who took her own life after school officials failed to respond to her concerns that she was being harassed online.

“I want to be sure the schools in Maine have the tools they need to prevent something like that from happening here,” he said.

A spokesman for the Department of Education said last week that all Maine schools already are required to have an “anti-bullying plan” and are free to adopt the Safe Spaces program or not. “Certainly, all students need to be safe at school and to feel safe at school if they’re going to be successful,” said David Connerty-Marin. “In the same way that kids can’t learn if they’re hungry, it’s hard for them to learn if they don’t feel safe.”

Rees said gay students face unique challenges in acclimating to their sexuality, including usually not having gay parents to help them navigate a hostile world and the reality that most people don’t realize until adolescence that their emerging sexuality runs counter to socially accepted norms. By then, he said, many youngsters have already absorbed the societal message that homosexuality or other unconventional orientations are abhorrent, making it that much harder to accept their own sexuality.

In addition, he said, conservative organizations and politicians often speak disparagingly in public about the issue of sexual orientation, lending an air of legitimacy to the prejudice and discrimination the gay community wrestles against.

For all these reasons and others, Rees said, it is essential for schools to provide a safe and supportive environment for all students, including — and specifically — gay students.

Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, said any legislation seeking to strengthen school safety should benefit all students and respect parental rights.

“But as an organization with ‘Christian’ attached to its name, there should never be any question that anyone would turn a blind eye” to the issue of student harassment, he said.

Conley said recent political changes in Maine, including the 2009 overturn of the state’s same-sex marriage law, have galvanized gay rights organizations. “These organizations are well-organized and well-funded,” he said. “Politically, you get a lot of bang for your buck in a little state like Maine.”

Although GLSEN was disappointed at the overturn of Maine’s same-sex marriage law, Byard said the Safe Spaces campaign does not come in response to political trends and should not be affected by the recent elections that established a conservative Republican governor as well as a GOP majority in both the House and Senate for the first time in 30 years.

“This is a simple thing that schools can do to make a profound difference in someone’s life,” she said. “I hope the idea that students should be safe at school and able to learn is not an issue that is bounded by political ideology.”

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