Embracing Your Teens Sexual Orientation

130403133347-young-lesbian-couple-bed-horizontal-large-galleryWhen I worked as a high school mental health counselor, I worked with a lot of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens who struggled with telling their parents about their sexual orientation.

Many of them felt like they had to keep their sexual orientation a secret which of course caused them a lot of anxiety and even depression.  Most of all, they were terrified of not being accepted by their family.

Some of them were so scared that they would be disowned by their parents that they contemplated suicide. This was especially true when the youth came from a really religious family/background.

Luckily none of my students ever went this far, but I did help do grief counseling at a high school after a teen committed suicide due to the guilt and fear he felt about being gay and not being able to come out to his parents.

Some  of the teenagers I worked with turned to drugs and alcohol to deal with their feelings. while others turned to self-injurious behaviors like cutting themselves or acted out behaviorally (running away, skipping school, etc.).

Whenever I could, whenever a teen was ready to come out, I always encouraged them to bring their parents in for a family session. Many of them were too afraid to talk to their parents alone and wanted to do it in an environment where they felt safe.

Unfortunately this was something that rarely happened as many of the teens hadn’t yet worked up the courage to come out to their family.

However whenever it did happen, I always discussed the session beforehand with the teen so that there would be no surprises.

I wouldn’t tell the parents anything the teen didn’t want me to tell them, and I always encouraged the teen to lead the conversation while I would be there primarily as guidance and support.

Most of the parents who came to these family sessions already had some clue that their child wasn’t heterosexual. Many more were in denial. Luckily only a very few were visibly upset or angry.

What I wanted the parents to understand is that they didn’t make their child gay nor can they make them not gay.

This was especially true for male students. Sometimes a single mother would blame herself for not making her son “a man” or the father would blame himself for not being “tougher” on his son.

Parents do not make their children gay and “praying the gay away” or “reparative therapy” only works to temporarily change a child’s behavior at best, while risking permanent damage to  their self-esteem and mental health.

It doesn’t work.

Parents often feel angry, sad, and scared when they find out their child is gay. For many of them, they have to grieve over the loss of their ideal child. Maybe little Johnny is not going to marry Suzy and have 2.5 kids. Maybe Little Johnny will marry Billy and they will adopt 2.5 kids.

Many of them fear what their child will have to deal with from society on top of any other prejudices they may already be predisposed to (i.e, being Black and gay). It’s important that parents surround themselves with supportive people including support groups like Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).

While it’s important for the parents to get support, it’s most important that the parents support their child.

The world can be tough enough for the LGBT community, but it’s even tougher for those whose parents reject them.

The teens I’ve worked with who fared the best mentally and emotionally were the teens whose parents supported them when they came out despite their own personal and religious views.

With the support of their parents it made it easier for them to deal with any other negativity they had to face such as depression and bullying. It also allowed them to blossom into the amazing young people they already were.

In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, being homosexual was once listed as a mental illness. We now know that it is not. It is not something to be cured or prevented. It doesn’t go away if we ignore it.

Get over it.

Embrace it.

Day of Silence

Boy-with-duct-tape-over-his-mouth-MG-9920Did you know that today is the Day of Silence? If you didn’t know, don’t feel bad because I was just educated about this last year by some of my students.

What is the Day of Silence? The Day of Silence is a nation wide, student led movement to bring attention to anti-gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) bullying, harassment and name calling in schools.

Students across the nation from middle schools to colleges take a vow of silence to represent the silencing effect bullying and harassment has on LGBT students and those believed to be LGBT.

The event is sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Student use their vow of silence to speak up against anti-LGBT bullying and harassment.

I spoke with some of the LGBT students in my school who are planning on participating in the Day of Silence and they are all extremely passionate about it. All of them have been bullied, harassed, felt ostracized or misunderstood in someway and all want to stand up to against those who choose to treat them different from other people just because of their sexual orientation.

Many of them have gotten their straight friends to also participate in the Day of Silence by wearing duck tape (they chose red) around their mouths and not speaking all day. That’s a powerful statement and one I support wholeheartedly.

Often LGBT teens and  young adults feel so alone. This show of solidarity and support is extremely positive.

While students are encouraged to remain silent throughout the day, GLSEN doesn’t encourage classroom disruptions and makes amends for students to talk in class if a teacher insist that they answer a question. However, they also encourage students to talk to their teachers ahead of time for more positive and understanding results.

The day is supposed to be a positive educational experience, not a day of interruption. It’s a silent protest against the harassment and bullying that causes way too many LGBT students to miss school, have poor self-esteem and substance abuse problems, and even attempt and complete suicide each year.

I wrote a previous post about how young is too young to discuss sexual orientation which talks about the importance of the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) and other support groups on campuses for LGBT students and those who support them. The Day of Silence is a powerful way to help other students and school administrations recognize the needs of LGBT students.

The Day of Silence doesn’t stop at the end of the day. GLSEN hopes that those who participate in it will continue to draw attention to the plight of the LGBT student body and community in positive ways and encourages schools to implement solutions that address anti-LGBT bullying and harassment.

GLSEN recommends schools:

  • Adopt and implement a comprehensive anti-bullying policy that enumerates categories such as race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and gender expression/identity.
  • Provide staff trainings to enable school staff to identify and address anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment effectively and in a timely manner.
  • Support student efforts to address anti-LGBT bullying and harassment on campus, such as the formation of a Gay-Straight Alliance.
  • Institute age-appropriate, factually accurate and inclusive curricula to help students understand and respect difference within the school community and society as a whole.

I know first hand from working with many LGBT students the painful affects that bullying, harassment and name calling can have, especially when they feel like they can’t voice their concerns to other heterosexual students, adults, teachers and their parents.

I encourage all of us, even if we can’t participate in the Day of Silence, to find one way we can stand up against bullying and harassment in any form, against any person, even if it’s as simple as intervening when we see it happening instead of  watching in silence.

How Young Is Too Young For Students To Discuss Sexual Orientation

istock_000009080325large-gay-pride-2009-news1Here in central Florida there has been an ongoing debate about how young is too young for students to discuss sexual orientation at school, especially when that orientation is different than the perceived norm.

Bayli Silberstein, a student leader at Carver Middle School in Leesburg, Florida wants to create a gay-straight alliance (GSA) at her school to combat ongoing bullying. “The bullying at our school has gotten out of hand, and somebody needs to do something about it,” stated Bayli.

While to me this sounds like something positive and something that should have been supported, the principal immediately shot it down and county administration put up a resistance so tough that they threatened to disband all groups if they had to in order to keep the GSA from being allowed to form.

They are taking so long to deliberate on allowing the GSA to form, while groups such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, an explicitly Christian organization, has been supported for years.

The fact that the administrative body is taking so long to deliberate on letting the GSA form, to me is even further evidence that groups like the GSA are needed. If the kids who are in need of support don’t feel supported by the very administration that is supposed to support and protect them, how are they supposed to feel supported and protected among their own student body?

Under the Equal Access Act, schools can not pick and choose which groups to allow to form on campus based on what they think students should and should not discuss:

 “schools may not pick and choose among clubs based on what they think students should or should not discuss. If a public school allows any student group whose purpose is not directly related to the school’s curriculum to meet on school grounds during lunch or before or after school, then it cannot deny other student groups the same access to the school because of the content of their proposed discussions. The Act specifically provides that a school cannot deny equal access to student clubs because of the ‘religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.’” 

GSAs are student organizations that are made up of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender students and their straight allies. The groups purpose is to advocate against bullying, discrimination and harassment.

Theyare made up of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students, along with straight supporters, who advocate for putting an end to bullying, harassment, and discrimination against LGBT and other students.

According to a  2009 survey by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education network,  “84.6 percent of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 40.1 percent reported being physically harassed and 18.8 percent reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation.”

A lot of the bullying that goes on against LGBT students have Christian beliefs and teachings at it’s source and Christian groups are almost always very supported on school campuses.

Here in Florida, the ACLU has been successful numerous times over the years in helping students form GSAs on school campuses.

For example, in 2008 in Okeechobee, Florida,  a  judge ruled that schools must provide for the well-being of gay students and cannot discriminate against the GSA. The ACLU of Florida also succeeded in helping students at Booker T. Washington High School form a GSA after initial efforts were fought against by the administration.

At the high school I work at there is no GSA or LGBT clubs and it’s not because administration hasn’t allowed it, but because students haven’t attempted to form one. I think this is largely because sexual orientation is not discussed, yet admittedly, it appears to be pretty accepted on campus. Many of the LGBT students I talk to are “out” and have never told me they felt uncomfortable or bullied on campus.

While working on this post, I spoke with a 15 year old, openly gay student who says he knew he was gay in elementary school, but only really knew in middle school. He personally thought that having a GSA in middle school was too soon because he thought too many people were still unsure of their sexuality, but he also admitted that having a GSA in his middle school would have helped him with issues such as bullying and coming out to his family.

On other school campuses and in middle school in particular, being a LGBT student is likely much more difficult for several reasons.

Often times, school administration and school board members are not comfortable with the thought of students discussing sexual orientation. They are also often uncomfortable with discussing acceptance and respect for students of different orientations.

However, discussing topics that are uncomfortable, out in the open, is how change gets started, not by censoring students to avoid discomfort. That’s how the culture of secrecy and bullying is allowed to flourish.