OUT expands as need increasesPost-election fears emerge
Rockland — The following is the first of a three-part series on OUT Maine: its need for expansion; some youths', families', and allies' involvement; and training being conducted across Maine to assist communities and schools in protecting the rights and safety of all students.
Eighty percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning, or LGBTQ, youth in Maine experience some form of harassment based on their gender expression. That is why, according to its staff, OUT Maine needs to reach more places in the state.
Latest Youth Health Survey results
Newly released results of the 2015 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey indicate: -- self-harm has increased for all youth from 2013, going from 12 percent to 13.8 percent for heterosexuals; from 40 percent to 45.3 percent for gays/lesbians; from 50 percent to 57.1 percent for bisexuals; and from 27 percent to 32.6 percent for those who are questioning or unsure. -- suicidal thoughts decreased slightly dropping from 12 to 11.5 percent for heterosexuals; from 40 to 37.8 percent for gays/lesbians; from 50 to 49.1 percent for bisexuals; and from 27 to 25.5 percent for questioning or not sure. -- suicide attempts increased among all except gay/lesbian youth: rising from 7 to 8 percent for heterosexuals; dropping among gays/lesbians from 21 to 20 percent; going from 25 to 28 percent for bisexuals; and from 16 to 17 percent for questioning or not sure. -- bullying on school property is high among all youth, being experienced by 21.8 percent of heterosexual youth; by 39.9 gays/lesbians; 43.9 percent of bisexuals; and 31.7 percent of those who are questioning or not sure. OUT Maine, formerly OUT As I Want To Be, is a nonprofit organization founded in 1996 as part of Coastal Outright. Now in its 20th year, the organization provides support and empowerment for LGBTQ youth under the age of 22 as well as their allies and families.
"Our main purpose is to assure them that they are not alone in their struggle," Jeanne Dooley, executive director of OUT Maine, said.
Beginning as a volunteer-run program based in Rockland, OUT expanded its scope from a weekly drop-in center to providing training and education to schools, clergy and social service agencies across the state.
Dooley explained it is critical that schools, clergy, social service agencies and other providers understand the challenges faced by these teens and have the tools and referral sources to support and empower them and their families.
"Those providers are the ones who will see these youth in their daily lives," Dooley said.
For many youth, growing up can be a difficult process -- between increased responsibilities, the onset of puberty, and life in general -- it can be a daunting task. And talking through the issues can help.
Some youth are labeled at-risk if they come from a broken home, live in poverty, or are being abused at home. Add to that the label of being perceived as "different," and the stakes get much higher.
"The community wants help supporting our youth, but we need help to broaden our horizons," Sue Campbell, program director of OUT Maine, said, adding that the lack of available staff, volunteers and funding has created a backlog of requested trainings for providers -- who serve as a critical resource for these youth.
"We have people on a wait list to do training," Campbell said, adding that some of those situations are time-sensitive, as it may be a case of a youth in crisis who is thinking of harming themselves.
According to a 2013 National School Climate Survey, a biennial survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, "a startling 8 out of 10 LGBTQ Maine youth experience regular verbal harassment based on their gender expression, with two to three times the rate of suicide thoughts and attempts of heterosexual teens in Maine."
"Rural, isolated LGBTQ teens are particularly vulnerable, reflected in Knox County having one of the highest rates of teen suicide attempts among this group," according to the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey in 2013.
Based on these statistics, GLSEN states "It is critical that Maine school leaders, education policymakers, and other individuals who are obligated to provide safe learning environments for all students take the following steps:
-- implement comprehensive school anti-bullying/harassment policies;
-- support Gay-Straight Alliances;
-- provide professional development for school staff on LGBT student issues; and
-- increase student access to LGBT-inclusive curricular resources."
Campbell said 25 to 40 percent of homeless Maine youth are LGBTQ, and lack of support is the number-one reason for suicide among them.
Although OUT's work is primarily to support LGBTQ youth, the training it does benefits all youth in schools, she said.
"If we can help stop bullying or harassment through the formation of GSTAs [Gay Straight Transgender Alliances], that's great," Campbell said. "But having allies is very important."
OUT's "small but mighty" reputation has grown so quickly that the one and a half people conducting the training, coordinating events and writing the grants are in need of assistance -- from volunteers and financial support.
Campbell and Dooley said they receive regular calls from rural schools seeking assistance in addressing various situations -- most recently, an influx of elementary-age transgender students.
OUT has trained more than 1,500 providers in the last 18 months, in the Midcoast and around the state.
"Schools want to be on board, but they don't always get it right," Campbell said. "There are no guidelines."
OUT's vision targets areas such as creating "safe spaces" in the community and schools, building a strong and educated provider safety net, and providing education and support for parents and families.
Safe spaces are places where youth can explore and express their identities, find support, have confidential discussions, and be free of judgment -- such as GSTAs.
"Having GSTAs in the Midcoast high and middle schools will improve the school climate for close to 7,000 Midcoast youth -- not just LGBTQ," Dooley said.
Oceanside High School recently revitalized its GSTA with OUT's support. When it was first instituted a couple of years ago, the level of tolerance was at an acceptable level, but as the program weakened, so did the tolerance.
"We need to increase tolerance for diversity," Dooley said.
"Our goal is to expand into the rural regions throughout Maine," Campbell said, "because there are kids who are isolated and there are so few resources."
Recent state data estimates there are 6,000 to 8,000 LGBTQ middle and high school students in Maine, and a large part of the rural youth population, particularly those under age 16, remains outside the reach of these programs, primarily due to transportation limitations, according to OUT.
Therefore, OUT intends to continue to reach these isolated youth via the power of the internet, which has and will provide more open dialog to let them know they are not alone.
"It's not that we know more now [about LGBTQ lifestyle], it's that adults are more aware," Campbell said. "Years ago, it [homosexuality] was thought of as a phase -- something one would grow out of."
And there is a big difference between sexual orientation and gender identity, she said.
Sexual orientation is who one is attracted to. Gender identity is how an individual views themselves. With advances in technology and a better understanding of how the human body works, it is now medically possible to change one's gender -- which adds even more questions to the mission of OUT.
Believing that it truly "takes a village," Campbell said it is not just support from the family that is needed, it is support from all aspects of a child's life -- school and community especially.
"Kids who have supportive families are 50 percent less likely to harm themselves," she said, but the next-safest place -- school -- has a very high percentage of bullying incidents.
As a case in point, after a two-year court battle, the Brunswick School District paid out $125,000 to settle a human rights lawsuit filed by the family of a former student who had been bullied because he was perceived to be gay.
According to an article in the Portland Press Herald Nov. 17, the Maine Human Rights Commission found "that the administrators failed 'to look at the overall picture of what was happening ... and allowed a hostile education environment to persist.'"
"Not only are our teachers educating our children, but they are providing a whole other facet of services," Campbell said. "Some that they are not yet trained in."
The Brunswick lawsuit prompted the creation of a GSTA in the school -- something OUT hopes to establish in every mainland school in the Midcoast.
Whether it be homophobic comments on social media, direct comments, or any form of bullying or harassment, anyone should feel free to report incidents of discrimination and expect that some form of discipline will take place.
However, according to Dooley, some kids are simply told to "suck it up and deal with it" by their peers.
The GLSEN state snapshot of 2013 revealed among students who reported incidents of harassment or assault to school authorities only 33 percent said it resulted in effective intervention by staff.
"These are our kids," Dooley said, adding that the labels like LGBTQ only create another challenge for them. "The state of affairs is pretty pathetic," she said, regarding the challenge of making more visible the issues these youths are dealing with -- especially post-election.
"It's the 'Trump Effect,'" Dooley said, explaining that now some youth are saying whatever they want to say because their parents are saying whatever they want to say "and there's no filter anymore."
It is no secret that the Republican party has an anti-LGBT platform -- one which poses a "threat to the progress made during the Obama administration's legacy," according to a recent CNN article.
The article also touched on Vice President-elect Mike Pence's "support for so-called 'conversion therapy,'" which would seek to change gay and lesbian people's sexual behavior.
An article in Time Magazine said Pence is a "self-described 'Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order'" and outlined some of the positions he has taken relating to LGBT issues:
-- believes being gay is a choice and "keeping gays from marrying was not discrimination, but an enforcement of 'God's idea.'"
-- opposed a law that would prohibit discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace.
-- favored the longtime military policy of not letting soldiers openly identify as gay, because "he did not want to see the military become 'a backdrop for social experimentation.'"
-- he rejected the Obama administration directive on transgender bathrooms "to allow students to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with."
Since the election, bullying and harassment have increased, Dooley said, as evidenced by the reporting of such instances in a number of rural Maine schools.
"We think that what we see on the national news isn't happening here in Maine, but that couldn't be farther from the truth," Dooley said.
Dooley said some of the instances of verbal bullying result from the perception that someone is LGBTQ with no factual basis. "But once the perception is out there and labeled, it just snowballs from there," she said.
Knox County has one of the highest rates of teen suicide in the state of Maine, Dooley noted. "Our area has limited infrastructure to deal with these kids," she added. "There's no place for them to go," thus the high incidence of drug addiction, homelessness and dropping out of school.
"In my mind, we are a community, and as a community, you come together to help those who need it," Dooley said.
"We are the only community-based organization in the state with paid staff that does this kind of rural work," she said, noting that OUT has youth from as far away as Machias traveling down to its programs.
However, the $130,000 annual budget -- covering two salaries, office rent, insurance, program costs, transportation costs, etc. -- now must double in order to meet the need.
Dooley said that since the election, news reports indicate that national organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union or ACLU have received more than $7 million in increased donations, yet OUT Maine has not seen any increase in its donations.
"While the work of the ACLU is critical at the national level, OUT Maine's work directly influences our local climate, for youth and our comunities," Dooley said. "We would love to see local people who feel energized by the election and wanting to help make the choice to support OUT Maine," she added.
"We are an amazingly lean machine for what we are producing," Dooley said. She said OUT is figuring out how to charge for its training, as most schools do not have money in their budget for it, but that will not stop the organization from helping build strong relationships and creating safe spaces for youth.
Dooley said there are six members on the OUT board and added, "We really need others that are going to really dig in and help." She said the board is amazing and that she continues to look around to see what connections she can bring to it to move it forward and help with the infrastructure-building.
One of OUT's partners is the First Universalist Church of Rockland. It holds a program called "Our Whole Lives," a course on sexuality, at the OUT office monthly.
"We have a really good relationship with the church," she said. "I really value it in so many ways."
"We are trying to build a safety net where people have the basic information and know where they can get help if they need it," Dooley said. "That's really what this is about."
In her ideal world, Dooley said she would like to get rid of the label LGBTQ.
"The bottom line is, they are just our youth," she said. "And we need to create an environment for our kids to be whoever they are."
Courier Publications reporter Beth A. Birmingham can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 125 or via email at email@example.com.