Protectors of youth

By Todd Henneman

Originally published on Advocate.com September 11 2005 11:00 PM ET

In April 2004 at
Poway High School in conservative San Diego County, a
16-year-old student walked into the building wearing a
T-shirt with the message "Homosexuality is Shameful."
The attire was bad enough, but Tyler Chase Harper
chose to wear it on the Day of Silence, an event
during which students across the country show support for
their gay and lesbian peers.

Harper—who
was suspended and later sued the school district—held
a religious rally in 2005, which was sponsored by the
conservative Christian group the Alliance Defense
Fund.

Yet the zealots
were outnumbered. About 220 Poway students participated
in the Day of Silence in 2005, roughly four times the number
who took part the year before. “They wanted to
show they don’t agree with Mr. Harper,”
gay junior Norm Waters said at the event.

Poway High School
officials were next to face the fire. Two gay students
came forward with claims that they repeatedly complained
about the harassment they faced and that the school
did nothing about it. Both were verbally threatened.
Joseph Ramelli was spit on, punched, kicked, and had
his car vandalized. He and Megan Donovan, both now 19, left
the school following their junior year and enrolled in
an independent study program before graduating. They
also filed a lawsuit against the school district for
failing to protect them.

In June a jury
found the district negligent and awarded Ramelli $175,000
and Donovan $125,000.

Such triumphs for
gay and lesbian students would have been unthinkable
even a decade ago, says Kevin Jennings, executive director
of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network,
which was instrumental in the San Diego County
victories.

“This was
an issue that was on nobody’s agenda in 1994,”
he says. “LGBT groups didn’t talk about
schools. People at schools didn’t talk about
LGBT people. There was a real void. But there were a lot of
people, gay and straight, who either had suffered the
effects of homophobia in schools or were seeing the
effects and wanted to do something about it.”

More than any
group, GLSEN is credited for bringing a message to schools
that gay and lesbian students need to be not only protected
but accepted. The organization founded some of the
earliest gay-straight alliances. It also trains
teachers how to stop harassment, provides classroom
materials, and releases valuable data on harassment and
school districts. The group also documents the
experiences of LGBT youths in coordination with other
groups, including the National School Boards Association.

Research such as
the biannual National School Climate Survey provides
hard numbers that help persuade school boards,
superintendents, and principals to address the
harassment of gay youths and provide sensitivity
training to teachers. “Our public school systems are
much more willing to change if there’s data
supporting the need for change,” observes Tracy
Phariss, cochair of GLSEN Colorado and a gay high school
teacher.

New
York–based GLSEN has grown steadily during the past
decade. It boasts 52 chapters in 27 states and the
District of Columbia—plus at least 3,000
gay-straight alliances now registered with them in schools
across the United States, compared with just 150 in
1997.

Jennings never
anticipated that he’d be leading such a group.

In 1990 he was an
openly gay high school history teacher in Massachusetts
when the straight daughter of a lesbian parent walked into
his classroom. She asked for help in forming a
gay-straight alliance. Soon after Jennings helped form
the GSA, the Republican governor asked him to serve as
chairman of the state’s education committee on gay
and lesbian youths. Strangers across the United States
began calling for advice. So in 1995, Jennings formed
the nonprofit Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Teachers
Network, which in 1997 dropped “Teachers” from
its name and replaced it with
“Education” to reflect the involvement of
students.

Mainstream media
took little note of the organization until 1997. Then,
almost overnight, GLSEN zoomed onto the national radar. In
March of that year GLSEN held its first national
conference, in Salt Lake City, where a school district
had banned all non-curricular clubs in hopes of
preventing a gay-straight alliance from forming. And that
summer President Clinton invited 12 people, including
Jennings, to talk about gay issues at the White House.
Suddenly, national media as diverse as Fox News and
Time magazine were quoting GLSEN leaders.

“It was an
amazing moment when I realized, Wow, I literally
have the ear of the president
,” says
Jennings. “It made me realize we weren’t
this tiny little group anymore.”

GLSEN’s
number 1 goal: Stop anti-LGBT bullying and harassment.
“There is still a social acceptability to
anti-LGBT language and bullying in schools,”
Jennings says. “And to us, that is
unacceptable.” GLSEN has launched its
“20 by 10” program in hopes of getting 20
states to adopt antibullying policies that include
sexual orientation by 2010. Only eight states have
such laws today. And as part of the Teach Respect campaign,
the group is placing public-service announcements on radio,
on TV, and in print about the harmful effects of
bullying and harassment.

“One of
the things that we found was that students don’t use
this language because they’re violently antigay
but because they don’t think it hurts
anyone,” Jennings says. “We’re trying
to put voices of real people out there who can say it
does hurt.”

Yet as GLSEN
expands its influence and ability to raise money, there are
the inevitable questions by former officials of the group
about how it’s spending its money. “I
think a lot more horsepower needs to be on the policy
side,” says Louis Thomas, associate professor of
economics and strategy at the Wharton School of the
University of Pennsylvania and a GLSEN board member
from 1998 to 2004. “More resources and time need to
be spent on the policy side as opposed to
fund-raising.” For example, he says,
it’s more difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of
name-calling bans than to judge the success of
policies intended to decrease dropout rates of gay
students.

Thomas
isn’t the only one to leave the GLSEN fold. Of the 24
employees listed in the 2001 staff directory, only two
remain. “I think it’s strange that in a
four-year period there has been almost 100%
turnover,” says Ben Prayz, the former deputy
director, who left in 2001. “I don’t
know what it means, but it doesn’t seem good.”

Jennings
disagrees. “As the organization matured, [it] changed
from being a start-up, which requires one kind of
staff, to being an institution,” he says.
“You have a staff now that is older and has a lot
more work experience.” Meanwhile, he adds,
other employees gained valuable experience and were
wooed away, “a natural evolution of these
people’s careers.”

As it hired new
staff—and, last May, moved into a new national
headquarters on Broad Street in Manhattan—GLSEN
strove to become more racially diverse. People of
color make up 40% of its staff, a vast change from
just a few years ago. “I have been admiring how GLSEN
has incorporated more folks of color,” says
Jenesha de Rivera, who worked there from 1997 to 2000.

GLSEN also is
changing how it works with its local chapters.

“It’s become clear that the number of chapters
has outstripped our capacity to support them,”
says deputy executive director Eliza Byard. The
organization plans to hire more staff dedicated to helping
chapters, almost all of which are run by volunteers.
The headquarters staff also will handle fund-raising
mass mailings, with chapters handling more targeted
local mailings.

The changes come
with a price tag. Chapters will be expected to turn over
a percentage of their donations to the national office.
Initially, they will send a 5% program fee based on
their receipts. “The amount of money chapters
put in will be a lot less than what it costs,” says
Byard, who adds that donations earmarked for a local
chapter still remain there.

Many people
prefer donating to the local office of a national group
because they want their money to be used in their
communities, says Chuck McLean, vice president of
research for GuideStar, which tracks charities. But
national offices often handle projects that could not be
provided by local chapters, he adds.

“In
theory, if we support them, they’ll have more staff
to support us,” says Joe Bento, a gay high
school teacher in Washington State and education and
training chair at GLSEN’s Puget Sound chapter.

There’s
more than enough to keep both local chapters and the
national office busy. Last year GLSEN released its
first “State of the States” report,
which summarized how effective state laws are in protecting
LGBT students. All 50 states and the District of
Columbia were given letter grades based on six
criteria: statewide safe-schools laws, statewide
nondiscrimination laws, support for education on sexual
health and sexuality, local safe-schools policies,
general education issues, and existence of laws that
stigmatize LGBT people.

A stunning 42
states received failing grades. Mississippi ranked dead
last.

“The vast
majority of students do not have legal protections against
anti-LGBT bullying and harassment,” the report
stated. “Only eight states and the District of
Columbia currently have statewide legal protections
for [LGBT] students.… Only California, Minnesota, and
New Jersey include protections based on gender
identity or expression. More than 75% of…47.7
million K-12 students in the U.S. go to schools that do not
include sexual orientation and gender
identity/expression as statewide protected classes
alongside federally mandated protections based on religion,
race, and national origin.”

But Byard remains
hopeful. “Ultimately, we hope GLSEN will put itself
out of business by getting this issue embedded in
people’s understanding of what it is to provide
a good education. In the meantime, we need to take
steps to ensure we will be around as long as needed to keep
this on the front burner.”