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It Gets Better

JJ Kahle works to eliminate homophobia and transphobia from our educational environment as headlines throughout the United States painfully remind us, the consequences of the educational community turning a blind eye to bullying and harassment of students are starkly inadequate, negligent, and at times, fatal.

JJ Kahle is being honored as a Champion of Change for her work ensuring safety, dignity, and equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, as demonstrated by her inspiring video entry in the LGBT Pride Month Video Challenge.

I am humbled by the designation, “Champion of Change,” and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to all those heroes—both recognized and unsung—who have laid the groundwork. The greatest heroes of all are the beautiful GLBTQ youth I have come to know in my life. They are so strong and brave and they persevere. They have been my greatest teachers. I thank my partner and my boys for their love and support of me.

I am heartily appreciative of the President’s statement on his belief that all Americans deserve the same rights and privileges, regardless of their sexual orientation. As an educator, I extend this ideal to the belief that ALL students deserve a safe and supportive school environment in which to learn and grow. In our nation’s schools, it is vital that educators be directed and given the necessary training to insure that ALL of our children, including gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, are safe and can thrive in our schools. It is imperative that ALL schools, private and public, independent and parochial, face this challenge head on.

As a teacher, I have seen the changes that have been made, the progress we’ve experienced in the way we talk about and regard gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer (GLBTQ) individuals in schools. At the same time, it is gravely important that we recognize how far we have to go before we can say we have eliminated homophobia and transphobia from our educational environment.

As headlines throughout the United States painfully remind us, the consequences of the educational community turning a blind eye to bullying and harassment of students are starkly inadequate, negligent, and at times, fatal. Many students suffer while adults either do nothing or are forced into silence by restrictive policies that warn them to remain neutral on issues related to the sexual orientation and gender identity of their students.

The tragic consequences of this type of “neutrality” bear out the grim statistics that have changed little over the years. Nearly 9 of 10 high school students hear epithets like “faggot” or “dyke” frequently (GLSEN Executive Summary, 2009 National Climate Survey). Gay and lesbian youth are over 4 times as likely to attempt suicide. Focus on transgender youth, and the outlook is even bleaker. A recent survey found nearly 41% of transgender people have attempted suicide. (The rate is 1.6% in the general population). Trans youth are much more likely to experience poverty and homelessness. While transgender youth fare far worse than their lesbian and gay brothers and sisters, things are even worse for trans youth of color (Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 2011).

As daunting as those statistics may be, there is another recent study that bears citing. The Family Acceptance Project did a longitudinal study of GLBT young people, and was able to verify the correlation between accepting behaviors and rejecting behaviors and young people’s relative ability to survive and thrive. Simply put, the study found that LGBT children who live in an accepting environment are much more likely to succeed and have a more positive outlook on life. Conversely, LGBT children in rejecting environments exhibited much higher risk behaviors and were more likely to fail or achieve poorly in school (The Family Acceptance Project, 2009).

I am extremely fortunate, for I teach at a school that has made my work relatively easy. When I arrived at The Blake School in 1998, policies were in place that explicitly enumerated sexual orientation as a facet of human identity that Blake not only protected, but also welcomed. In the past 14 years, things have evolved tremendously. This work has included the formation of a Gay Straight Alliance, or GSA. We have active GSAs at the Upper and Middle schools. We also conduct weekly confidential GLBTQ student support groups.

A very important part of the work and most recent addition is the GLBTQ Family Support Group. This is a group meant for Blake parents who have children who identify as GLBTQ, or who themselves identify as GLBTQ. We meet monthly during the school year. A high point of my summer was the morning “tailgate party” in my school parking lot before the GLBT Pride Parade in Minneapolis. It was a beautiful thing to see parents, children, alumni and faculty eating donuts, drinking coffee and getting their rainbow costumes ready to spectate and perhaps even to march in the parade! Many GLBTQ Blake students and alumni consider themselves very fortunate for having such a learning environment. They tell me how grateful they are because they know the “real world” can be a difficult place. I am glad they feel that way, but I believe that ALL students should have such a place to learn and grow.

A popular campaign aimed at GLBTQ youth claims “It Gets Better.” Let’s go one step further. Let’s all pledge to MAKE IT BETTER.