Empowering Gay Teens

Rockland County group assists young gays, lesbians and trans youth

Homophobia still permeates New York State high schools, but resistance to it is growing and becoming more effective, according to participants in a statewide conference.

The number of high schools with gay-straight alliances (GSAs) is increasing but the student groups are a recent innovation and most schools do not have this extra-curricular activity. The addition of a carefully thought-out plan for providing safe space to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning (LGBTQ) teenagers and their straight friends can make a positive difference for all students, said the organizers of the seventh annual Youth Empowerment Conference held in Stony Point last weekend.

A slap in the back of a head with a murmured “fag” and getting tripped or shoved is still common in hallways, reported the high school students. More overt intimidation is apt to occur outside the high school. While almost no students use racial slurs, cries of “faggot” or “homo” occur daily. Nobody at the conference expected big changes in the near future, but everyone believed that positive steps could be taken now to alleviate the pain and ease the feeling of vulnerability.

The conference, sponsored by the Community Awareness Network for a Drug-free Life and Environment, or CANDLE, a Rockland County non-profit agency funded by government and private funds, drew students from as far west as Rochester and as far east as Long Island. During the weekend, they attended sessions on topics like “Healing Hate in the Hallways,” “Is Your Relationship Healthy?” and “Coming Out to Yourself, to Others and to the World.”

The object of many of the discussions focused on facing disappointments and pain openly rather than to pretend it doesn’t exist.

The reasons for joining a GSA are varied; a straight student might have a relative who is gay, perhaps a parent. Other students simply appreciate the difficulty facing sexual minorities. The LGBTQ students usually join to meet others. While some students guard their privacy in these matters, for others the decision to come out is accompanied by a political urge to dispute the negative views of homosexuality, and a feeling of pride that comes from genuine acts of self-discovery.

The teachers and adults who attended the conference aim to harness this energy. For example, in Ossining High School, all students are given a stake in the National Coming Out Day held in October by the sponsors of the event there urging everybody to come out and tell each other who they really are. Some students come outs as artists; others tell their classmates for the first time they are gay. But the lesson is always focused on appreciating individuals’ diversity.

The keynote speaker at the conference said that GSAs and similar programs “end the cycle of isolation.” Craig A. Bowman, executive director of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition, a Washington, D.C. lobbying group for young sexual minorities, sees the development of safe spaces as a remedy for the despair and loneliness that often bedevils the adolescents confronting issues of sexual identity. He believes ending the isolation will reduce drug and alcohol abuse, risky sexual behaviors and suicide among young adults coming out.

Properly structured youth programs enable adolescents to come out in an atmosphere free of the drugs, alcohol and promiscuity of big city life, Bowman said. Instead of going to gay bars because they have nowhere else to socialize, the goal is to equip teens to make sensible choices when confronting adult temptations.

CANDLE is a “primary prevention agency” in Rockland for preventing smoking, drinking and drug abuse, said Joanne Goodman, the program’s director.

“Our work with LGBT youth is an extension of that,” said Goodman, speaking of the prevention efforts, acknowledging, “it’s taken a long time for people to see the connection.”

CANDLE provides programs at all levels, including kindergarten where it helps children learn conflict resolution and other behaviors that make schooling, playing and learning easier. The Common Threads programs works in public and private schools with LGBTQ students and their straight allies, while Trust meets weekly in the evening to provide a space outside of school.

The creative use of health and anti-drug funds by CANDLE is one example of how even during a conservative era money can be found to help at-risk youth including teenagers who are members of sexual minorities.

The organizers insist that half the students who join the GSAs are straight. One Rockland high school student said simply, “I am an artist. I have lots of friends who are gay.” He was facilitating the “Legal Graffiti” workshop where a large canvas was stretched, and attendees were invited to paint one section. The purpose was self-expression and the painting might or might not deal with sexual identity issues.

Among suburban counties, Rockland has taken a clear lead in dealing with LGBTQ youth and their straight friends. Although no groups from New York City attended this year, other successful programs participated. The program in Ossining is run by Ray Bagnuolo and has 15 to 25 student members. Although Bagnuolo is openly gay, he said the GSA is not primarily about gay and lesbian issues. Instead, he aims “to embrace all those people who are marginalized and were trying to find acceptance in broader society.”

Similarly Diane Gonzalez, a middle-school teacher in Rockland, focuses on the issue of bullying and offers lessons to other teachers on “Making Schools Safe for LGBT Youth.”

Most of the 90 students who attended the conference are active in their school group, but a few students came to the conference hoping to learn how to form a GSA. Two students from Eastridge High School in Rochester were making their second visit. They had yet to find a teacher willing to advise the group, and found the school administration unhelpful. As a result, they believed that issues of sexual identity simply weren’t “discussed” at their school leaving some students to find their own way without any assistance.

Even in Rockland County, some high schools have no GSA and new ones are still forming. Goodman admitted that some school districts find ways to discourage these programs.

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