Ask anyone in North Carolina and they will tell you that Chapel Hill-Carrboro is one of the progressive centers of our state, and have been leaders in gay rights. Both towns have openly gay mayors. Carrboro and Chapel Hill began offering domestic partner benefits to town employees and partners in 1994 and 1995, respectively, long before gay marriage or civil unions were recognized in any state, and Orange County was one of only eight counties in North Carolina to vote against Amendment One, the NC Constitutional Amendment banning same-sex marriage. Which is why I was surprised and horrified when I read that someone had spray painted homophobic slurs on the side of one of our public high schools. And they timed it so that it would first be seen by students in the school's Gay-Straight Alliance who were meeting at the school to carpool to the NC Pride Parade in Durham. Someone in our accepting town went out of their way to threaten teenagers, just to make them feel unsafe.
Sadly, this kind of harassment is nothing new to students who identify as lesbian, gay, or transgender, or even those students who are perceived to be. This kind of pain and humiliation is constant. In the 2013 National School Climate Survey from the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Over 71 percent of LGBT students report hearing "gay" used in a derogatory way frequently or often, and 64 percent heard other homophobic remarks. And these slurs aren't only coming from other students, who can try to blame it on youth and bad judgment. Over half of LGBT students report hearing homophobic slurs from teachers or other school staff.
And it doesn't start end with words that are hurtful. Fifty-five percent of LGBT students feel unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation or expression. Nearly a third missed at least a day of school in the previous month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable. They are avoiding the very place that should be educating them and preparing them for the world outside. We can't reach and help these students if they do not feel safe with us. But we are not giving them enough reasons to trust us and feel safe with us. Thirty-six percent have been physically harassed at school, and a full 16.5 percent have been physically assaulted. More than half never reported this harassment and assault, because they felt it wouldn't make a difference, or could even make their situation worse. And they felt this way with reason, as 61 percent say the school staff did nothing in response when they did report an incident.
These students who have been harassed and assaulted are more likely to suffer from depression and low self esteem, have lower grade point averages, and are less likely to go on to any post-secondary education. The effects of what they face in school are real and follow them for their whole lives. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that gay and lesbian students are more than twice as likely as their heterosexual peers to have attempted suicide. And among transgender youth, the CDC reports that up to a quarter of all transgender youth attempt suicide, though more research needs to be done to more accurately know exactly what the numbers are.
So what can we do? We cannot possible look at statistics like this and think we can just keep doing what we are doing. And we can't say it isn't happening where I live, but is only happening in more "backward" places. It happens everywhere, and we are all responsible to fight against it. Our students deserve schools and libraries that are safe places. In my first semester of graduate school, the PhD student who was teaching my young adult literature class announced on the first day that when she worked in a middle school library, she had three words that were verboten, and all of her students knew it. They were "gay," "ghetto," and "retard." Her kids never used that language in her library, and when someone did, all of the other students called them out. She wasn't afraid to bring it up, and she didn't quietly try to stop people from using those words in a derogatory way. She said it out loud to everyone so it would be known that hers was a safe space. We have to be willing to stand up for these kids, not only after they have been harassed or assaulted, but before it happens so the perpetrators know it will not be condoned.
Once the kids feel safe, and are willing to come to us and into our spaces, we have to provide them the information they need--about their development, their health, and their social lives. And we need to insure that we are never the problem. It is hard to think through everything you say, but we have to make sure that the words we use are not negatively affecting our students.
We have a long way to go to make sure all of our students feel safe and welcome, but it is possible. When we understand what the students face, we are in an even better position to fight against it to ensure they can receive the education they need, in a safe way.