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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Anti-Gay Bullying is Killing Our Kids

By Steve Charing

South Carroll High School in Sykesville, MD held a "Unity Day" on March 26 to celebrate diversity. Included in the program in front of the entire student body was a presentation on lgbt issues by members of PFLAG that focused on the consequences of hate speech, hateful words and bullying.

To amplify the point, the presentations were followed by students’ writing insulting words on pieces of paper, like ‘faggot," "that’s so gay," "homo," etc. and proceeded to shred these epithets in the hope that the symbolic gestures would lead to permanent eradication of the vile language and the pervasive bullying that continues to exist in schools.

As well received as this demonstration was, apparently not all were happy about the event. A Mt. Airy woman in a letter to Gazette.com called the shredding of paper an "empty gesture" and stating that "words kill" is a "platitude." She wrote, "Words do not kill. Behavior kills."

Oh really?

Recently two suicides related to anti-gay bullying were tragedies that could have been avoided. An 11 year-old boy, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, hung himself on April 6 in Springfield, MA. His suicide comes about a year after eighth-grader Lawrence King was shot and killed by a fellow student in a California classroom, allegedly because he was gay.

A little over a week later a second suicide—also by hanging—took place in Georgia by fifth-grader, Jaheem Herrera. "He was bullied relentlessly.

They called him gay and a snitch," his stepfather told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
"[Jaheem's best friend] said, 'He told me that he’s tired of everybody always messing with him in school. He is tired of telling the teachers and the staff, and they never do anything about the problems. So, the only way out is by killing himself.' "

Although neither student identified as gay, both students endured anti-lgbt bullying until they couldn’t take it anymore. And in both cases, the schools did not act on complaints.
Ironically, the suicides occurred in a month in which schools around the country participate in "Day of Silence" events to draw attention to bullying in the schools.

This effort has been promulgated by GLSEN—the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. A leader in anti-bullying education, GLSEN presents statistics that show how acute bullying is in schools—especially against LGBT students.

In a 2007 National School Climate Survey, 86.2% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 44.1% reported being physically harassed and 22.1% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation. 73.6% heard derogatory remarks such as "faggot" or "dyke" frequently or often at school.

More than half (60.8%) of students reported that they felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation, and more than a third (38.4%) felt unsafe because of their gender expression. 31.7% of LGBT students missed a class and 32.7% missed a day of school in the past month because of feeling unsafe, compared to only 5.5% and 4.5%, respectively, of a national sample of secondary school students.

These numbers cannot be ignored.

"Anti-LGBT bullying affects all students, gay and straight alike," says GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard, Ph.D. "Bullies learn from an early age that anti-lgbt language is one of the most effective ways to torment their peers. And far too often, schools fail to address the problem."

GLSEN proposes a four-pronged approach to address anti-lgbt bullying and harassment. They recommend that schools adopt a comprehensive anti-bullying policy that includes in the categories sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.

They encourage required training so that school staff can be well equipped to respond to anti-gay name-calling, bullying and harassment in an effective and timely manner.

GLSEN supports student efforts, such as establishing Gay-Straight Alliances in the schools to help prevent anti-gay bullying.

And lastly, GLSEN recommends that age-appropriate, inclusive curricula be instituted to help students understand and respect difference within the school community and society as a whole.

"These two tragedies highlight the need for schools to do more to make sure their hallways and classrooms are safe for all students," says Byard. "Education, community and federal leaders need to come together and find solutions to the endemic problem of bullying in America’s schools. We owe it to our children to do everything we can to make sure they are safe in school."

Otherwise, young lives are being cut way too short.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Parenting a Trans Child (Special Guest Post)

By a Parent of a 15 year-old Trans Child

You have no idea
When you bring that beautiful little bundle home, you have no idea what surprises it will bring. Listen and watch and allow. Gender identity and fluidity start to show up very early. Separate sexual orientation and gender identity in your head. They are different. We saw our child’s actions as behavioral choices that needed to be addressed for his safety. We did not get that his behavior was a matter of gender identification and self-expression. And this early misunderstanding caused a great deal of pain.

It’s unfortunate that gender identity can surface right along with the terrible 2s. Because we saw much of his behavior as willful, we actively discouraged his variant self-expression, and with the full support and help of a psychologist who obviously did not understand gender identity.

By the time he was six, my happy baby had become so angry and hurt, he threatened suicide. Back to the mental health profession we went. This time he was diagnosed with anxiety. A correct diagnosis, but another missed opportunity to identify and support his gender variance.
The key is this: You cannot make your child more comfortable with one gender or another.

That’s already been done. It’s built into the brain. Designed by God. The only power you have as parents is also the most important, and that is the power to make your child feel comfortable and celebrated or embarrassed and shameful.

Get ready for preschool, bullies and well-intentioned adults
Be upfront with providers. Tell the day care manager the truth and that you expect full support. Educate those who will care for your child. Bring resources; contact
PFLAG to give a presentation. If you get resistance, find a new provider. You have more power here than you will ever have in public schools. Use it and enjoy it.

Bullies, if they haven’t already, will come out in preschool and will be an active and hurtful part of your and your child’s life, probably forever. Just as the parents of minority children teach their kids how to navigate in a world full of bigotry, you will too. From overt hate crimes to subtle, pernicious two-faced false support, you, your family and most especially your child will see it all. Do what you can to protect your child. More importantly, do what you can to prepare your child to deal with it.

If you haven’t already, you will now find adults who will attempt to "teach" your child the proper, acceptable behavior for his or her gender. This will range from frightening to punishing or even threatening. The most egregious of these well-intentioned adults are the sports coaches. They are the only adults still allowed to bully our children. Don’t tolerate it. One of the most important gifts I gave my son was lambasting a coach who was trying to "toughen him up" with verbal and emotional abuse.

Marital health and managing the great divide
If there exists a set of parents who agree on how to raise the most mainstream and conforming child, I have yet to meet them. The stress of raising a child with gender variance can and does rip families apart. One study claims 40% of trans kids are kicked out or run away. Don’t try to do this alone: PFLAG, therapy, support groups, good friends, a stiff drink once in a while. Use them all. Guard against sacrificing either your child or your marriage. You don’t have to understand or agree with your spouse. You do have to keep the child out of the middle, and you do have to treat everyone with respect and demand they do the same. A safe and nurturing childhood is a precious thing, and it must be protected. A healthy marriage is also a precious thing, something to last long after the children are grown and gone.

Schools, teachers and guidance counselors
I thank God that we have the dedicated educators and guidance counselors that work in our schools as part of the village that is raising my child. They are some of the most caring and hard-working professionals. But you have to be prepared: the system is bigger and more powerful than the individuals in it.

We found an undercurrent of bigotry painted over socially correctness. I don’t mean to be critical. I don’t think any individual has meant to be hurtful. I think we live in a binary society, and I think teachers, coaches and students don’t understand. I doubt that gender variance is part of their training. They mean well; they love kids. But until you get educated on this issue, you’ll likely do more harm than good.

Finding providers educated on gender
Telling your story. Again and again. That’s what it takes. By the time puberty came along and gender arose again in our house, we were in the hands of a wonderful therapist who recommended we see someone with experience. We had decided to put my son on puberty blockers, so I was looking for two trans-friendly providers: a psychologist and an endocrinologist.

The search was far more painful and difficult than it should have been. I started with our pediatrician, who had never encountered this before, so he wanted to learn more. That led him to the head of pediatric endocrinology at the state university medical system, who told him that my kid needed be in the care of a psychologist and a team to help him. But he could not recommend one. Nor did he offer to research to find someone.

Meanwhile, our family therapist had recommended two providers in the next city. Both were fully booked. They gave me more names of people who gave me more names. And I told my story, again and again. Finally we found a psychologist in our city, but he didn’t get teens and transition issues. Next provider was an hour away, but he had experience with trans kids. He is working out, and is helping our kid find his way through this. Then came the search for an endocrinologist. The first one, also an hour away, did not take insurance and wanted $400 for the initial consultation, with no guarantee to treat my kid. Finally I found one in our city. He charges me a $10 copay, and treats me and my son with respect.

Safety and decision-making
Get real and get there fast. The statistics are against you. Your child is at higher risk for depression, suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, violence and premature death. Your job is to make sure your kid knows how to be safe. Make sure your kid knows about hate crimes. Make sure he or she never goes out without friends near by. Alone is vulnerable. During the teen years, be so careful of parties. Be so careful of drinking. Booze makes for bad decision-making. Parties and high-testosterone sporting events need to be attended with caution. I am not saying lock your child in a closet. I am saying be careful and teach your child how to be.

Finally, hold yourself gently
Raising a child who is trans or gender variant is difficult. It’s scary. It’s more than you bargained for. It’ll likely be more than you comprehend. So please hold yourself gently. Forgive yourself for not knowing; for not understanding. Hold your spouse gently. But mostly hold your child gently, so very gently. Because the world will not, even if it’s just the world of preschool and play dates. And finally, if you are involved with a family on this journey, if you’re a teacher or an administrator or a provider, please be gentle; please be kind; please get educated. You simply have no idea how much it will mean to them.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Legislature's Trans-gression

The General Assembly shamefully failed to act on transgender protections.

By Steve Charing

The just concluded 2009 Maryland General Assembly grappled with a slew of thorny issues. Lawmakers faced contentious debates on such matters as the death penalty, saving the Preakness, public utilities, the state’s precarious fiscal situation and many more. They even managed to squeeze in the passage of speed cameras "near" school zones and construction sites during the 90-day legislative session.

But a bill to outlaw discrimination in employment and housing on the basis of gender identity and expression never saw the light of day. As was the case last year, it died in committee.

Despite placing a high priority on this important piece of legislation by Equality Maryland—the state’s principal LGBT advocacy organization—and the multi-faceted strategy it employed to make this bill advance and succeed, it appeared that it was doomed from the outset.

Equality Maryland laid much of the blame for the failure of the measure on Senator Brian Frosh (D-Montgomery County), the liberal chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee for not allowing the bill to come up for a vote when he had the power to do so.

Does Sen. Frosh truly believe that transgendered individuals should be discriminated against? I doubt it. Moreover, a transgender anti-discrimination bill had passed in his own Montgomery County.

But the way Senate politics are played, legislators who have aspirations for rising to leadership positions generally have to tow the line. And when the current Senate president, Thomas V. "Mike" Miller (pictured)—the longest serving leader of a state legislature in the nation and hence one of the true powerful forces—does not want a bill to come to the floor for a vote, a would-be successor not only must tow the line, he most certainly cannot cross it.

Political observers theorized that Brian Frosh may have eschewed an up-and-down vote in committee for that very reason.

People are still uncomfortable about transgendered individuals. Accordingly, many politicians are as well. Trans-issues are not as easy to explain to folks in the way that being gay or lesbian can be explained, although there remains an incredible amount of education needed on that front.

The arguments surrounding transgender protections render the issue contentious, and according to Dan Furmansky, former Equality Maryland executive director who was a legislative consultant during the session, "Key Democratic leaders view it as a political issue too hot to handle rather than an opportunity to address pervasive bias against a group of individuals who truly need anti-discrimination protections."

To be sure, Republican committee members tried to attach dubious amendments to the bill and Sen. Frosh claimed he was waiting for the House of Delegates to act first. Furthermore, "public accommodations" was stripped from the original bill to make it more palatable to waffling legislators. But this was pure gamesmanship, and the never-ending pursuit of political cover in the absence of courage won out at the final bell.

In my interview with Dan Furmansky, he noted that "Sen. President Miller is generally known as Democratic Party-power focused, not issue focused… He is concerned about what is politically palatable for the Democratic Party…I think [pro-LGBT] advancements are possible during his tenure if he believes it is ‘time.’"

But when will that be, if at all?

The time was clearly not now, as Mike Miller did not want to bring this issue for a vote primarily because of the controversial nature of it. And Brian Frosh complied.

The upshot of this political cowardice is that a transgendered person can be fired from his or her job simply because of who the person is even though it has nothing to do with work performance. A transgendered person can be kicked out of his or her apartment for simply being trans. Alas, discrimination is still alive and well in the free state of Maryland.

Many transgendered people struggle in trying to reconcile their mind with their birth body. They are more at risk for homelessness, poverty, bullying, suicide, victims of violence and other forms of discrimination than the remainder of the LGBTcommunity.

Yet I believe the elected officials overestimated the backlash if such a measure passed. Governor Martin O’Malley would have likely signed the bill into law as he sent letters of support to both committees involved and signed a similar law as Mayor of Baltimore.

In 2009, I’m banking on the fact that less and less people are inclined to allow discrimination to take hold in this very blue state. More grassroots efforts are required, though, to educate a public not familiar with trans-issues and ultimately the politicians will follow.

And to avoid yet another trans-gression, more sympathetic candidates should be sought to run against our opponents.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Lousy Leadership Marginalizes GOP

Letter Published in the
April 9 Issue of the Baltimore Sun

Paul West is suggesting that the luster may be coming off the Democratic Party and that the GOP could be making a comeback so soon after the 2008 election ("Washington watches for the Democratic tide to start ebbing," April 4).

In doing so, West ignores the fact that polls continue to show that party affiliation strongly favors the Democrats and the same could be said about the effectiveness of fundraising efforts.
Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the trend for young voters continues to move towards the Democratic Party, which solidifies their election chances for years to come.

And one cannot brush off the lack of leadership within the Republican Party as West appears to have done. After eight years of Bush-Cheney at the helm, the GOP is frantically searching for a leader that can appeal to voters beyond the Southern and evangelical base. So far, no one with those credentials has emerged.

Steve Charing
Clarksville, MD

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Youth Are Showing Us the Way

By Steve Charing

The burst of energy displayed by the young people who participated in the protest of the homophobic, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church on March 30 was breathtaking. They demonstrated against the Fred Phelps-led hatemongers who had marked Towson High School for its Diversity Club and Gay-Straight Alliance. Phelps, himself, was absent, but a handful of his family members brandishing absurd, hate-filled slogans on their familiar placards did the deed.

Aside from students from the targeted school, kids from other high schools in the area as well as local colleges voiced their opposition to hate. And they did it loud and clear. Even straight "jocks" from Towson High School—a group that in years past wouldn’t ordinarily be expected to join forces with the pro-LGBT demonstrators—supported the cause openly.

While other groups participated, such as PFLAG, church organizations and an assortment of adults bent on social justice, the youth stole the show. They enthusiastically cheered at each passing car that honked its horn in support. They shouted down the Westboro clan on the other side of York Road. They publicly voiced their opposition against hate and expressed their affirmation towards love and equality. They support gay rights in all forms and did so with fervor.

All told, around 300 people overwhelmed the 6 Westboro crazies both in numbers and passion.

Back in November, there was a nationwide protest of the passage of Proposition 8 in California. Locally, a thousand people gathered outside Baltimore’s City Hall on a rain-threatened Saturday to plea for marriage equality and express their outrage aimed at the California results (photo).

There were many adults there to be sure, and a significant number of them were straight allies. But there were also plenty of college students who descended upon the War Memorial Plaza in clusters from all directions like an invading army. Waving colorful hand-made posters displaying pointed messages, these youthful protestors surprised even veterans of demonstrations of yore with their verve and commitment.

The center of gravity for LGBT politics and activism is steadily shifting to the youth. This is not just manifested by the increasing number of young LGBT people who are coming out at a faster rate than in previous generations. It has been bolstered by an astounding number of youth who simply shrug off the existence of LGBT people as no big deal.

Although much of these changing attitudes by straight youth can be attributed to their expanding exposure to lgbt peers, the more welcoming culture with which these people are in tune, reinforces their beliefs. For example, the role MTV has played for the past two decades in enlightening the youth of this country concerning LGBT issues cannot be understated.

The network’s programs routinely depict LGBT youth as ordinary people with the same family, social, economic and psychological issues facing all teenagers. This season’s run of Real World was so well done, that in the show’s later episodes, it was difficult to notice that the "house" included a gay man, a bisexual woman and a transgendered woman living with five straight peers.

The gay element eventually played a subordinate role when other weighty matters took over, like how one of the cast members was facing an uncertain future as he was recalled for another tour of duty in Iraq.

As the episodes rolled along each week, the ultimate conflicts weren’t between gay and straight and straight and transgender or even gay and transgender; they existed among each other regardless of who they were. Gay, bisexual, transgender? Oh yeah, so what.

This is the attitude that is prevailing among young people today. A straight kid may argue with a gay kid, but odds are, it has nothing to do with sexuality. Conflicts centered on sexual orientation do exist, of course, but to a lesser degree.

Of course, there still are incidents of bullying and epithets like "that’s so gay" in schools. But the trend is definitely moving in a favorable direction.

Politicians would be smart to take notice of these shifting attitudes. The youth have been swelling the voter ranks and affecting elections. The Obama phenomenon brought more young people into the political process than any time since the 1960’s.

Elected officials who experience trepidation about supporting equality based on gender identity or are skittish about conferring rights to same-sex couples are doing so at their peril. The old-time attitudes are dying off. The new generation of kids—gay and straight—will show us the way and those backward-thinking politicians the door.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Hundreds Protest Anti-gay Church

By Steve Charing

TOWSON, MD—An hour before the planned protest by representatives of the Westboro Baptist Church on March 30, there was relative quiet. An occasional airplane flew overhead, and the sound of the chilly wind gusts whipping through the leafless branches of the trees that surround Towson High School briefly interrupted the serenity.

The thousand or so students at the 60 year-old, brick and stone, 3-story structure were still in their classes anticipating the final bell. But it was not a normal school day on this particular Monday.

Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, which is notorious for its anti-gay, anti-American vitriol and led by its patriarch flame-thrower, Fred Phelps, chose Towson High School to unleash its toxic venom.

The extremist group targeted this school because, like so many other schools around the country, it has a gay-straight alliance or GSA. It also boasts a diversity club, and a website that emphasizes tolerance and diversity as part of the school’s mission statement.

When officials at Towson High learned of the impending Westboro protest, the school sought to minimize the students’ exposure to the predicted taunts and insults shouted at them by the extremists. School officials prepared the students and parents with a letter. Club meetings and sports practices were rearranged so that as many students as possible would not exit the building at the time of the Westboro demonstration.

Moreover, Baltimore County police were in full force and did not permit any demonstration within a few blocks of the school. The Westboro clan was forced to protest at the intersection of York Road and Hillside Avenue, so exiting students did not have to hear any rants that said they are doomed to hell and other such epithets.

In the meanwhile, counter-protests were being planned by a variety of groups. Among those were the Central Baltimore County Democratic Club, the new Baltimore County chapter of PFLAG, Bel Air Unitarian and The Presbytery of Baltimore.

In addition, area schools, such as Towson High School, Dulaney, Carver, and Friends School, as well as Towson University and Goucher College mobilized anti-hate demonstrators to protest the Westboro demonstration.

The six weary-looking Westboro bunch did their thing for over a half-hour. They paraded along the prescribed area carrying their usual assortment of scathing messages on sticks while under the watchful eyes of the police and Silent Witness—a group carrying rainbow umbrellas—who also acted as a peaceful buffer.

The pro-LGBT crowd on the other side of York Road was building with each passing minute. Many carried hand-made signs decrying hate and advocating unity and love. Students from nearby Towson University, an assortment of religious groups and curious onlookers joined the ranks and signaled their support for the anti-Westboro demonstrators. They lined the side of the road, for at least a two-block length.

This is what the Westboro group wanted: a reaction so strong that the media would cover it and give attention to their unpopular cause.

Marilyn, a member of PFLAG-Baltimore County who has a gay family member, hopes that the overwhelming opposition to the Westboro clan would help get rid of them. "Goodness, I hope that we are able to drive groups like this away from our whole country," she said. "We have to be here to respond to their hate. It’s evil, and we don’t want people to hear their message."

With each passing car that honked its horn in support of the counter-demonstrators on busy York Road, and there were scores of them, the mainly young crowd cheered loudly.

Bradley Bolin, the secretary of the Towson University Queer Student Union and a junior, was emboldened by the turnout. He mentioned that when he was in high school and he tried to start a GSA, he didn’t receive the level of support he would have liked from the community and local colleges. "Now that I’m in college I want to show my support for the youth and try to do something that’s right."

Bradley acknowledged that anti-protests give Westboro Baptist Church what they want. "I’m not concerned with what they want. I’m more concerned about the youth and what THEY want," he explained. "I want to stand up for the people who can’t fight by themselves."

As the Westboro group was nearing the end of their allotted time, amidst the honking horns and competing chants, a surge of Towson High School students eventually showed up following dismissal. These new forces swelled the crowd to near 300 according to some estimates.

"They [Westboro Baptist Church] have the right to protest," said Charlie, a senior at the school and is straight. "But nobody in the school supports their beliefs."

Joey, a straight junior at the school supports gay people and opposes those who spread hatred. Mike, also a junior and a member of the school’s wrestling team, says he has gay friends, and several of his fellow teammates joined in the counter-demonstration.

Another Towson High student Beth said "I don’t care what sex you like, everybody is equal and God loves everybody."

Hannah, who is also straight, says "Love is beautiful, and I don’t think anyone should protest against it. I knew there would be so many protesters on our side, but not their side."

And that certainly was the case on this otherwise chilly, quiet Monday.