February is Black History Month, and it makes me very motivated as an activist for LGBT rights. As a GLSEN Ambassador, I think it’s important this time of year to reflect on how we as a society treat other people regardless of their race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.
As we all know, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought endlessly for something he truly believed in: equality and freedom for African-Americans. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a living inspiration, and now that he is gone, his legacy still remains today in society and within me.
In my early childhood I participated in a school play which told the story of Rosa Parks, and at that time we also learned about Dr. King through reading some of his inspiring speeches. This would be the first time I ever came across the story of Martin Luther King, and it was also the day that I found a new role model. Being so young and clueless at the time, I didn't know much about the real world, particularly the history of prejudice against African-Americans and how poorly they were treated.
However, learning about Dr. King taught me that it is very valuable to spread love and to treat everyone with kindness. This inspired me because growing up I was always a happy kid, and now that I am an adult, I can see that society needs so much improvement when it comes to treating all our citizens equally.
Dr. King was a strong believer in standing up for yourself and teaching others to do the same. Since I first learned about him, I have been inspired by how one man tried to change the world. I try to apply Dr. King’s message to my work as an LGBT activist by being open-minded, and treating people with kindness, equality and respect, even if they do not always treat me the same way.
Dr. King taught me to always be the better person, and influenced me to change the world one man at a time.
Dustin Gallegos is a high school senior and a GLSEN Student Ambassador.
Assembly Bill 1266, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in September, took effect January 1, allowing transgender students to fully participate in activities, facilities, and programs based on their gender identity. An opposition group, Privacy For All Students (PFAS), collected signatures during the fall to put the matter before voters as a referendum on the 2014 ballot as an attempt to overturn the measure. According to a representative sample of the signatures collected across the state, PFAS came up 22,178 short of the 504,760 qualified signatures needed for the referendum to be placed on the November 4 ballot. However, a sample count between 95 and 110 percent of the target number triggers an automatic full count of all submitted signatures, under state law. Currently, counties are conducting the raw count, and county registrars of voters have until February 24 to complete their full check of all submitted signatures.
Here’s looking at AB1266: past, present and future.
Introduced in February 2013 by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (CA-17) and co-authored by Senators Mark Leno (CA-3) and Ricardo Lara (CA-33), the School Success and Opportunity Act (AB 1266) makes clear the obligation of California schools to allow transgender students to participate in all school activities, programs, and facilities. It is designed to spell out the requirements of existing federal and state law in California statute so school administrators, educators, parents, and students understand their obligations and rights. Those requirements are that all students in California be allowed to participate fully in school so they can thrive and achieve academic success. It restates existing state law prohibiting discrimination against transgender students in public education and permitting students to participate in sex-segregated facilities and activities based on their gender identity.
While existing California law already broadly prohibits discrimination against transgender students, AB1266 makes sure that schools understand their responsibility for the success and well-being of all students and that parents and students understand their rights.
GLSEN and several coalition partners of AB1266 including Equality California, Transgender Law Center, Gay-Straight Alliance Network, National Center for Lesbian Rights, ACLU of California, and Gender Spectrum have been working over the past year to advocate and support for the passage of this legislation. GLSEN and its California chapters produced several action alerts and supported oral testimony from Eli Erlick, one of GLSEN’s Student Ambassadors. Thanks in part to these efforts, the bill passed through the Education Committee 5-2, the California Senate with a 21-9 vote and the State Assembly with a 46-25 vote. Once it moved to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk for consideration, coalition partners geared for a similar campaign to ensure he supported and signed the bill. On August 12, 2013, Gov. Brown signed the bill.
Opposition and Referendum
Unfortunately, the legislative process wasn’t over once the bill became law. After AB1266 became law, opponents, including an anti-LGBT coalition called Privacy for All Students, filed for a veto referendum to overturn the law. A referendum refers to a group that opposes the new law and is able to collect enough signatures within the statutory time frame to place that new law on a ballot for the voters to either ratify or reject. The minimum number required for a California referendum is 504,760 valid signatures of registered voters. The opposition submitted 619,244 unverified signatures by the November 8 deadline.
On January 8, California completed a review of a random sample of the signatures. The state does the scientific sampling so as not to expend unnecessary resources verifying every signature if it’s not necessary. The sampling led to a projection of 482,550 valid signatures. While the total does not reach the needed threshold to qualify, it is within the range that the state considers necessary to trigger a full recount.
The full count must be finished by election officials no later than February 24.
GLSEN and its California chapters will continue to work with state partners to ensure that all students in California have equal access to education opportunities, and that districts and school leaders protect the safety of all students. We will continue to engage our constituents, schools and districts to ensure that students and educators have the support needed to ensure that all California students are able to attend school without discrimination or harassment.
Are you attending the 26th National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change this week in Houston? Make sure to stop by GLSEN's table and workshops throughout the conference!
Here's a schedule of where you can find us:
When you are young and queer in Mexico, coming out is not an option.
I was born and raised in Durango, a relatively conservative state in which the mere topic of homosexuality is rarely discussed. Like most kids, growing up, I didn't know what being gay really meant. I was simply told that this was a very bad thing, a way for Satan to separate us from God, and that I didn't have anything to worry about, because I wasn't “one of them.”
As I grew older, homophobic slurs became a staple of everyone’s vocabulary. I never knew anyone who was out, and no one in my grade ever mentioned any sort of doubts about their sexuality. As far as everyone was concerned, we were all straight. During my time there, many of my teachers felt the need to express their opinions and it was not uncommon for them to say hurtful things about LGBT people. For example: “Even though you should be respectful, this is wrong and you should not do it.” Or: “Let’s face it; humans live their lives looking for excitement. Once you feel like you've tried everything and you are bored with your life, people become gay, which is why there are so many gay celebrities.”
This was widely accepted by my classmates. It created an extremely unsafe environment, where bullying and harassment towards members of the LGBT community were seen as normal and acceptable.
When I got to tenth grade, I decided to move to the United States, looking for a more diverse and accepting place to live, and to this day, that has been the best decision I have made. The first time I walked on campus, I noticed a bulletin board for my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. I was very surprised by it, but I couldn’t have been happier. As I walked around campus, many doors had Safe Space stickers. Later that same day, I got to meet my adviser, who is an openly gay man, and I learned that he was just one of many in our school. These things may have seemed small for a lot of people, but they meant the world to me. I had never heard of anything like this before, but I immediately knew that I had finally found a place where I could be safe.
Today, I am incredibly grateful for both of my experiences. Being in Mexico was hard, but it taught me a lot about what it means to be queer, and it made me more sensitive to other people's identities and their struggles. It helped me become stronger, and gave me something to fight for. I will be graduating from Rutgers Prep this June, and I am really happy to be a part of this community. Attending a school that allowed me to be who I am helped me to form a strong identity, and to become a much happier person.
Paulina Aldaba is a high school senior at Rutgers Prep and a GLSEN Student Ambassador.
With GLSEN's No Name-Calling Week now in full swing across the country, I find it amazing to reflect on what this event has become in its 10th anniversary year. In 2004, when we launched the first year's activities, we had no idea what it would become. We only knew how critical it was to begin reaching students in the younger grades with LGBT-inclusive messages and curricular materials, to address the cycle of name-calling and disrespect before it escalated to the kinds of violence we'd documented taking place in K-12 schools. Many attacked us for daring to say anything about LGBT issues in materials for younger students, even though it was crystal clear that the problems we raised were old news by the end of elementary school.
After the first year, reports from the field let us know that we'd struck a chord and made a difference. An evaluation of Year One participation found that a majority of students who had taken part in No Name-Calling Week activities reported experiencing, witnessing and perpetrating less name-calling at school afterwards. And the event kept growing, with more and more schools getting their whole communities involved by the time of our Year Four evaluation.
I found it thrilling to see how this crazy idea was turning into a powerful reality. Perhaps the most precious -- and painful -- validation of our commitment came from the words of students themselves. In 2004, The Misfits author James Howe visited Merrill Middle School in Des Moines, Iowa, winner of the first No Name-Calling Week lesson plan contest. In the wake of his visit and speech to the school, he received a flood of messages from Merrill students.
James wrote to me and my colleagues in the most bittersweet terms as he shared the students' words. They were so hard to read, yet gave such concrete confirmation of the importance of this new initiative.
Sometimes I go to the bathroom after lunch and cry like there is no tomorrow. Every night before I go to sleep I cry until I fall asleep. There's been so many times where I didn't want to come to school.
The whole time I've gone to this school I have been called a faggot, been sexually harassed by another student, been asked if I was a girl, and been shunned. I have considered suicide many times.
I was one day being kind of mean to someone to get a lot of laughs and I just realized that this person I was treating like a bug had feelings, too. I wish I would've said sorry.
I liked your speech. It made me think hard. I know that I hate being made fun of and you made me realize that I shouldn't call others names because it really tears them down... Thank you for helping me make a difference.
Their experiences and their commitment to making a difference made me cry.
Over the years, No Name-Calling Week has reached tens of thousands of K-12 classrooms, and is becoming an established part of the school calendar. We've seen concrete progress in reducing the rates of victimization that LGBT students face in school, and we've been able to turn our attention to the positive side of the equation -- celebrating kindness and fostering a culture of respect. That is truly a joy. And as in each of the years over the last decade, I hope GLSEN's No Name-Calling Week and all of our partners in it continue to set kindness on the march, until every corner of every school is illuminated by its warmth.
Eliza Byard, Executive Director
Originally published on the Huffington Post Gay Voices.
Jewlyes Gutierrez, an open transgender student in Contra Costa County, has been the center of constant harassment and bullying by her peers. Gutierrez has been charged with misdemeanor battery for defending herself against a physical attack by three girls at Hercules High School that took place on November 13. The dispute surrounding the incident has fueled national headlines and sparked an online petition in support of Gutierrez. Family members and supporters are encouraging the Contra Costa County Superior Court to drop the criminal charges against the transgender teen.
Whether the students targeted this girl because she is transgender or for some unknown reason, filing charges against her sends the wrong message to LGBTQ youth. Putting an already vulnerable person through criminal prosecution does not solve the problem. We must look into what the causation for the attack was and start there. Because the school administration did not properly address the situation and no necessary action was put in place to safeguard her, Gutierrez was forced to take matters into her own hands. No student should be in fear of their physical safety due to who they are.
Violence against LGBTQ youth is a serious problem. As a student who lives and attends school in Contra Costa County, I found it worrisome to hear the news of an individual being a victim of bullying and facing harsh penalties for standing up for herself, with no similar claim taken against the attackers. It is already difficult for any student to stand up against bullies. Tackling violence in schools is not a ‘first step’ that has the potential to launch more conversation; it is, right now, an eclipsing step, that has allowed us to overlook the core causes of harassment faced by LGBTQ youth.
No youth should feel the need to use brute force to protect themselves. School should be a safe and inclusive environment for every student. Hopefully Gutierrez will find justice, but sadly her situation is all too similar to the many struggles faced by LGBTQ youth across the nation. This incident serves as a teachable lesson to value and respect all individuals regardless of their sexuality or gender identity and expression.
Matthew Y. is a high school junior and a GLSEN Student Ambassador.
GLSEN student leaders all over the country continue to make a difference even after they graduate from high school. One former Ambassador has brought his story to a national public service campaign to help students across the country who have faced similar challenges.
Characters Unite is USA Network's public service program advocating for an end to social injustice and cultural intolerance. The campaign invites athletes, actors and other public figures to speak about causes that matter to them, such as religious tolerance, diversity, and ending violence and hate crimes.
In a recent video for the campaign, Joey Kemmerling, a former GLSEN Student Ambassador, sits down with NFL player Victor Cruz to talk about the bullying he faced for being gay. Kemmerling, 19, tells Cruz about coming out in middle school and facing harassment from his peers, particularly in locker rooms and in school sports, and how school administrators didn't take any actions to help him.
"When I was 13, I knew that I was gay and I told about five people, but overnight it went from five people to the entire school knowing. I didn't realize that until I walked into the locker room and everyone stopped and stared at me," he tells Cruz. "After I came out, the locker room was the last place I wanted to be."
Cruz, a wide receiver for the New York Giants, faced discrimination growing up for his mixed-race heritage. He gave Kemmerling a tour of the Giants' locker room, and the two talked about how it felt to grow up feeling cast aside from their peers -- and how speaking out has helped them overcome problems from their pasts.
"It means so much more to me now to know that I'm here and to know that I can share this moment, which makes it that much better," Kemmerling says. "I found a voice and I overcame it, and I'm taking the next step on my journey."
Cruz was clearly touched by Kemmerling's story.
"More and more players want to make a change and want to step out and be a voice," he tells Kemmerling. "Hearing your story honestly has changed my life and changed my outlook."
We're so proud to work with Joey and see how far he's come. Make sure to check out the video!
What’s in a name? It’s a loaded question for the students of Goodkind High School, who refer to their Gay-Straight Alliance as the Geography Club to keep it a secret from the rest of their school.
Opening in theaters Friday, “Geography Club” is a new film that tackles anti-LGBT bullying through the eyes of students determined to make a difference in their high school. The movie is an adaptation of Brett Hartinger’s novel of the same name. Among the talented cast are Nikki Blonsky, best known for her role as Tracy Turnblad in the 2007 musical film “Hairspray,” and Alex Newell, who came into the spotlight recently playing transgender teenager Unique Adams on “Glee.”
GLSEN had the amazing opportunity to talk to Nikki, who performed at GLSEN’s Respect Awards – New York in 2011 and has been an active supporter of LGBT rights throughout her career. We spoke with Nikki on the phone about her own experiences with bullying, her connection to the cause, and how she prepared for her role as a punk-y lesbian teenager. Interview has been edited and condensed.
GLSEN: What about this movie first caught your attention?
Nikki Blonsky: I read the script and I said to myself, “This movie is so different. This movie is what kids need to see now.” This movie stands for everything I believe in. My gay fans have been extremely supportive of me – all my fans have – but I wanted to do this in honor of them. I wanted to step in their shoes for the movie and portray somebody in their community, to say I got as close as I could to the experience of living life as a lesbian.
Did you have any discussions with the other actors about the issues that are covered in the film?
We did. The night before we were going to start filming, I called the girl who plays my girlfriend, and I had only met her once before. I said, “I just want to talk to you about tomorrow. I want it to be really authentic. This isn’t about two women or two men, it’s about two people loving each other. So if we can find that love for each other just as humans and portray that, then I think we’ll be golden.” I told her we were an open book from here on out. From that day on, it was easy-breezy with her on set.
What was the most memorable part of working on the movie?
My look is very different in this movie. Between the cornrows and the leather jacket and the hoops and the Doc Martins and the chains, it’s nothing I’ve done before, and that’s thrilling to me. But probably my favorite part of this movie is sticking up for the kid who gets bullied all the time. I get right in front of the football players’ faces and give them a little bit of my mind, That, and learning the play the guitar in two days. I’m not Carlos Santana, but I learned a few things.
Can you describe your character, Terese, and how she fits into the story?
Terese is Min’s girlfriend, and they create this boring-sounding club called Geography Club because they figure nobody will want to join it, but that’s where all the LGBT kids are. Terese creates this really hard shell with the way she dresses, and the way she gives this look in her eye. She’s so afraid of people cracking that shell and seeing the soft, lovable Terese that’s inside, and I think that’s absolutely what so many kids do nowadays. I think Terese’s role is to protect the kids in the Geography Club and also to protect herself and her heart, and to show people not to judge a book by its cover.
Has bullying ever affected you? How?
I was bullied my entire school career, from elementary school all the way up – middle school was probably the worst time of my life – and I still get bullied to this day. I get mean-tweeted all the time, whether it’s about my weight, my height, my this, my that. A long time ago, my grandma taught me that people make fun of you because they’re insecure with themselves. When people mean-tweet me or when somebody says something to me, I don’t even respond. No matter how hard we all try, we’re not perfect, we’re never going be perfect. And if we were perfect, what fun would that be? Normal’s no fun.
Did you bring any of that experience to your portrayal of Terese?
I brought that all to my character. When people say mean stuff to me [as Terese] or look at me weird, I give them this attitude, like, “Who gives a crap about you, anyway? What horse did you ride in on?” She doesn’t have time for them and neither does the school. She never verbalizes it, but she looks at them and her little snark and giggle is more than they can handle.
Given your experiences, what advice would you give to kids who are bullied?
When somebody pushes you up against a locker or says something bad to you, just look at them and laugh them in the face. That will piss them off to the highest extreme. It’s telling them, “Your words don’t bother me. You’re wasting your breath.”
Your character in the film is afraid to come out. How do you think that will resonate with viewers?
Way before this movie, my closest cousin visited me while I was doing Hairspray. He said, “Hey, can I talk to you about something?” We went in another room and he said, “You’re the first person I’m telling because you’re the closest person to me. I’m gay.” And I hugged him, and he said, “Are you OK with it?” I said, “Are you kidding me? I love you and I want you to live the best, happiest life you can. I don’t care who you decide to partner up with, I just want you to be happy. If anything, I will hook you up with one of the most beautiful dancers in the movie.” Coming out is a scary thing. I couldn’t imagine doing it myself, but the people who do show us what real strength is and real courage is.
Why is it important to you to speak out about anti-LGBT bullying?
There have unfortunately been so many kids not knowing where to turn, not having an ally or anywhere to go to talk about these issues. When Geography Club comes out, I feel if everybody watched it the first week of high school, it would make things so much easier for the next four years. I think that kids just need an outlet, and parents could be a little more vocal with their kids. I’ve always been extremely vocal with my parents; I talked to them about every single thing, and I still do. You can still have your privacy, but talk to them, because they’re the ones who have been there since the beginning and they’ll be there till the end.
What message do you hope audiences will take from the film?
I hope audiences take away that love isn’t about gender. I hope audiences realize that this goes on in schools every single day across the nation and the world, and we need to stop it. And I think audiences, even adults who bully other adults, need to realize we have one shot at life, so why would you waste your time bullying another person? And it’s a funny movie at the same time. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll want to see it again.
That’s true! And there aren’t many movies out there like it.
That’s what I’m so proud about. People are finally taking this seriously and saying, "Hey, it’s a movie about today’s generation, we’re going to put it on a big screen." Everyone in a movie theater is going to see two guys kissing, two girls kissing, so what? That’s today’s generation. I’m so proud to be a part of this movie because I think it can do so much for this generation. I just hope everybody watches it. If every single person who sees it takes a little bit from the film, we’ll have done our jobs.
This August, GLSEN Student Ambassadors attended a screening of HBO's new documentary "Valentine Road." We invited them to share their experiences and reactions to the film as it is released to general audiences.
Have you ever seen a film that moves you so much, you leave the room a different person?
That is what happened to me this past August when I had the opportunity to watch HBO’s documentary “Valentine Road.” This film follows the aftermath of the murder of Lawrence King, a 15-year-old student who was killed by one of his classmates in 2008.
Watching this documentary was an extremely emotional process for me. In my life, I try and surround myself with supportive people. My friends and family help me feel safe, and I cannot imagine where I would be without their support. Knowing that a kid was brutally murdered as a result of homophobia and transphobia is heartbreaking, but it all gets worse once you see the people who disagree. Valentine Road showcased all sides of the story, from his friends and supporters to the prejudiced teachers, jurors and members of the community who believed Larry deserved his death. I was angry and sad, but also very inspired.
Larry’s death was a tragedy, and sadly it is only one of the many that happen every day around the world. And that is why we need to keep working every day to change the hearts and minds of those who still believe that being who you are is wrong. After watching “Valentine Road,” I wanted to make a change, and I knew that this was not going to happen unless I worked hard every day.
Sadly, we still live in a world full of hate, and this is why watching this documentary is a must for everyone. As horrifying as it can be, it is important that we all know such crimes occur, because looking the other way won’t make them go away. So, understanding that this film is very emotional and crude, I believe that everyone should watch it, and I strongly encourage anyone to see it with a proper support system in place. This film changed me for the better, and I am so thankful I had the opportunity to watch it.
Paulina Aldaba is a GLSEN Student Ambassador.
This August, GLSEN Student Ambassadors attended a screening of HBO's upcoming documentary "Valentine Road." We invited them to share their experiences and reactions to the film leading up to its official release.
Stunned. Appalled. Riveted. Frightened. Enraged. Energized to demand change.
I experienced all of these feelings and more during GLSEN’s Student Ambassador Summit in August while viewing the groundbreaking documentary "Valentine Road," about the senseless murder of young Lawrence King. As one of the first youth to see this emotionally charged film before its official release on October 7, I had a unique glimpse at its extremely disturbing and sensitive material.
No matter how much the subject matter horrified me, I am definitely changed for the better having seen the depths some can go to punish alleged violations of gender roles and expectations, even those of a 15-year-old child. It has given me even more drive to rectify King’s death and make sure that such a purely homophobic/transphobic murder may never occur again.
As angry as I was to see many of the testimonials of prejudiced teachers or jurors and the results of the trial of Larry’s killer, the film did not simply blame Brandon McInerney for his crime. Instead, the documentary chose to analyze the story from both sides of the gun, providing a complete tableau of the factors which contributed to Larry’s murder. It left no stone unturned, addressing homophobia and transphobia, racial prejudice, class, abusive histories, family and community support, mental illness, school violence, the failings of the “justice” system, safe schools legislation, and the complications of age in the eyes of the court, among other issues.
"Valentine Road" is a must-see for GSAs and other similar school or community clubs. However, the nature of the film is wrought with emotion and sensitive material. In fact, I was so affected that I cried in the theater, and I was most certainly not alone. Thus, GSAs should be careful before showing this powerful film to students. A safe space filled with ample amounts of tissues, love, and support is required before anyone sees the film.
Most of all, I deeply recommend that a time be provided to discuss its themes and details, whether that be directly following the film showing or a week or more afterward, though, frankly, I would recommend both. This way, immediate reactions may be shared in addition to feelings that emerge after an audience has had time to process the film.
This documentary empowered me to continue my crusade to support LGBTQ* students in and out of our nation’s schools, and I am thankful to have seen it. Please consider watching it to learn more about the life-and-death situation of bullying and discrimination facing LGBTQ* students, the brief but impactful life of Lawrence King, and what you can do to make a difference for students at risk.
Liam Arne is a GLSEN Student Ambassador.