Teaching tolerance saves lives
Rockland — This is the final segment of a three-part series on OUT Maine: its need for expansion; 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, according to statistics released by the 2015 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey.
"Making a difference in a child's life can save a child's life," Sue Campbell, program director for OUT Maine, said at a training session held Feb. 3.
"We live in a small, rural area where there are strong religious beliefs," Campbell said, adding, "That may impact the child as well." She said although culture has changed a lot, there are still people, including parents, who are not willing to be supportive and accepting.
Many of the nearly 40 attendees were astonished by the 2015 MIHAS statistic on suicide attempts among bisexual teens — 57.1 percent, up from 50 percent in 2013.
Campbell explained that is because "they are too straight for a gay group or too gay for a straight group," leaving them with nowhere to belong.
During a training session at the First Universalist Church on Broadway in Rockland, attendees came from Trekkers Inc., the Department of Health and Human Services, Penquis, some private mental health agencies, and others eager to learn more about supporting and empowering LGBTQ youth and their families.
Whether a person identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning or any of the many other alternatives, "Nobody gets to tell you what you are or how you feel," Campbell said. "It's an individual and very private understanding."
"Queer," "dyke," "faggot," "homo" are a few of the terms used in the past, and still today, to describe those who differ from the norm.
One attendee asked why there have to be labels, anyway.
"Wouldn't it be nice if we were all just 'humans,'" Campbell said, adding that labels are not always bad; they also give LGBTQ youth the language to identify where they are in the spectrum of life.
Another attendee said having the various terminology to identify with actually assisted a youth she was working with. It helped her "realize they are not alone during this hurricane of emotions they are going through."
The word "queer" seemed bothersome or somewhat derogatory to some, but Campbell said youth are taking it back as an umbrella term for LGBTQ, so that as they journey through their experimentation and discovery of who they are the label doesn't have to change as well. She noted that sexual identity can be very fluid for some adolescents.
She said there should be consistency in communicating acceptance, noting "words have meaning," especially on forms, posters or signs that surround youth in their everyday environment. Campbell asked how many of the attendees have another space besides "male" or "female" on forms where they work, and was pleasantly surprised at the number of hands that went up.
Terminology is key, and understanding what words to use is vital in conveying a message of affirmation and support, she said.
"Meet youth where they are," Campbell said, explaining the importance of listening to young people and how they identify themselves. She stressed the need to pay attention and use the appropriate pronoun — "she" or "he" are key. However, some youth who do not identify themselves as male or female may prefer pronouns like "they," "them" and "their."
Campbell said that creates conflict in some minds, as we were taught those pronouns are plural. "But if that is what the youth prefers, we have to respect it," she said.
Jill, a transgender female, asked how to handle it when one mis-genders a person, to which Campbell said, "We are all human," and suggested asking the youth for clarification, because, "I want to support you where you are."
Campbell said the key to understanding is being genuine and asking if one is in doubt. For instance, the sex or gender of an individual does not have the same definition. Defining one's sex is biological, whereas gender can be understood to have several components, including gender identity and gender expression.
"Gender identity" refers to how a person feels about him or herself with regard to their own sense of being male or female. "Gender expression" links to an individual's physical characteristics, behaviors and presentation, such as appearance, dress, mannerisms, speech patterns and social interactions.
The definition of "lesbian" is "a person who is female-identified and who is sexually and emotionally attracted to other females" and "gay" usually refers to a person who is male-identified and who is sexually and emotionally attracted to other males. However, the definition of "gay" also refers to "a person who is emotionally and sexually attracted to some members of the same sex" and may be used as an umbrella term.
Identifying as" transgender" means the person does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. In speaking on the topic, Jill clarified, "Just because you're a transgender female doesn't mean you like males."
Campbell agreed and explained, "It's a completely separate thing ... your sexual orientation is very different than your gender identity."
"It's got nothing to do with who you may or may not be attracted to," she added.
Testimonials regarding OUT and its importance
Sarah Woodman, project coordinator for Penquis Homeless Youth Outreach in Knox and Waldo counties shared:
"I have worked locally with youth ages 12 to 21 for the past five years, and a huge part of my job is helping students feel comfortable. I want to make sure I am up to date on terminology so I am hopefully familiar with and open to a wide range of identities. I want the youth I work with to feel respected, safe, and welcome when they are with me.
"I actually felt relatively aware of a lot of the gender/sexual identity terminology presented in the training because of my own interests in feminism, sexuality, and intersectionality in social justice. However, I was able to take the information and resources provided and have a great conversation with my coworkers who were a little more out of the loop.
"We broke down some of the sexual and gender identity terms and this is absolutely a reason I would recommend this training to others. I think the more familiar people are with different terminology and identifiers, the easier it is to understand there's more to human gender and sexuality than normative binary systems, and the easier it is to communicate with others in a respectful manner.
"I think two of the most helpful parts of the training for me, and the most impactful pieces, was the data of the link between sexuality and self-harm/suicide in youth in Maine. It's very clear from looking at this data that breaking down barriers in communication, and supporting all youth is not about being 'politically correct'; it's truly about protecting the physical and mental health and well-being of all Mainers. I also appreciated the one-sheet of rights for transgender students — a huge step in being an ally for transgender students in schools."
Meredith Lynt of Trekkers Inc. said:
"We identified that our staff could use some more tools and resources to ensure that the relationship building work we do with young people and their families is as inclusive as possible.
"The more inclusive our language and policies are, the more likely we are to attract and retain youth in our long-term approach to mentoring. ... Our team left inspired and more aware of the unique challenges facing LGBTQ youth.
"I think the most important thing we learned, collectively, is that identifying yourself (or your program) as a safe place is really important. We want students to feel seen for who they are."
"Although we are doing all this work creating a strong safety net, our youth are still finding it difficult," Campbell stressed.
Most LGBTQ youth receive added support through their school's Gay-Straight Alliance, also known as a GSA or GSTA organization. These are student-led clubs that focus on making the school environment a safer place for all students, regardless of their sexual orientation
A study by the University of British Columbia in 2014 reports that "LGBTQ youth and heterosexual students in schools with anti-homophobia policies and GSAs had lower odds of discrimination, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts, primarily when both strategies were enacted."
In fact, "the odds of homophobic discrimination and suicidal thoughts were reduced by more than half among lesbian, gay, bisexual boys and girls compared to schools with no GSA."
Linda Gould, GSTA adviser at Mount Desert High School, said her school is consistent in its response to harassment, from administration to staff across the board. She added, "The trouble my kids have is, many of them come from difficult home situations, and come to school to feel safe."
Gould said kids come to MDI from various sending schools and some are better than others at creating truly safe spaces. "Kids are very quick to realize when 'this school is safe for everyone' is just lip-service and they won't be protected."
She said some students bring their past experience with them, which makes it more difficult for them to feel comfortable in reporting harassment. "Once we hear about it, we deal with it," she said.
Melora Norman, GSTA adviser at Oceanside High School, said although the group is not very big, the students who do attend the meetings feel that their "presence sends a message to kids, letting them know that there is help and support here if they need or want it."
Jennifer True had organized the first GSTA at Oceanside a few years ago, but it was dropped as OUT was formed and kids tended to go to drop-in sessions there. "The kids have more support with the presence of OUT than they had before," True said.
Campbell praised the providers and supporters who attended the training, telling them they matter because they are trusted, informed, they know the youths' strengths and challenges, and provide a safe, neutral ground for the young people.
"It's all about trusting the 'journey,'" an attendee who is the mother of a transgender youth said.
For more information about OUT Maine, finding resources, to volunteer or make a donation, visit outmaine.org.
Courier Publications reporter Beth A. Birmingham can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 125 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.