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Protectors of

Protectors of


GLSEN, the leading national group focused on protecting LGBT youths in schools, just turned 10. As its influence grows, so do its growing pains

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."

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Todd Henneman