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.
I have been outraged the past couple of weeks as I’ve learned about a smear campaign directed at a Colorado transgender student. As you might expect, the made-up accusations originated with an anti-LGBT organization and its allies in conservative media.
When I asked the student’s mother what GLSEN could do to help, she said the thing her daughter needs most right now is support. She asked if GLSEN supporters would be willing to send her daughter messages of encouragement.
It is the least we can do. I hope you’ll take a minute to send the student a message of support.
Part of what makes this story so heartbreaking is that this student’s school experience could have been one of hope and progress. School is rarely welcoming for transgender students, but the girl’s school district has offered support at every opportunity.
When a small group of parents objected to the student using the girls’ bathroom, the school held firm. So the anti-LGBT Pacific Justice Institute stepped in and made up a story that she was harassing girls in the bathroom. Conservative media like Fox News then spread the lies.
According to the school district and fellow students, the accusations are completely false.
Anti-LGBT extremists will stop at nothing – including attacking an innocent teenage girl – to roll back any progress for LGBT students.
Some media have since fully recanted their stories, but the girl has had to live with the harassment the stories have generated. She has even received death threats simply because she wants to be able to be herself and be safe in school.
If you’re as outraged and heartbroken as I am, I hope you’ll take a minute and send her a message of love and encouragement.
Please help us show our friend she’s not alone.
Now that the school year is in full swing, we'd like to discuss one of the aspects of inclusive curriculum that we get asked about the most: the importance of incorporating lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues in sexuality education. Providing LGBT youth with accurate and useful information that is relevant to their sexual health and development is critical, particularly given the sexual health disparities widely reported for LGBT youth, such as increased rates of sexually transmitted infections. Perhaps these disparities are caused, in part, by the type of sex education LGBT youth receive (or don’t receive) in school. Researchers and health education experts alike have highlighted how sexuality education in U.S. schools often stigmatizes LGBT people and issues or excludes them altogether. For example, in our National School Climate Survey (pdf), we found that only 4% of LGBT students were taught positive information about LGBT people or issues in their health classes. And teachers in some states (i.e., Arizona, South Carolina) and individual school districts are explicitly prohibited from even mentioning any LGBT-related content in a positive way, if at all.
Here we lay out five possible approaches to inclusion of LGBT people and issues in sexuality education – four that are seriously flawed and one that is truly inclusive. Which type have you seen practiced at your school or at schools you have attended?
The Ignoring Approach. The curriculum ignores the existence of LGBT people and non-heterosexual behaviors completely. Not only is there an omission of LGBT people and related topics, but heterosexuality is put forth as the norm and only conceivable option. Given its focus on marriage (almost exclusively defined as between a man and a woman), abstinence-only education often falls into this approach (for more on abstinence-only sex education and how it affects LGBT students, check out p. 50 in our National School Climate Survey (pdf).
The Demonizing Approach. The curriculum includes, yet demonizes, LGBT people and non-heterosexual behaviors by either explicitly teaching that that homosexuality is wrong or implicitly communicating that being LGBT is undesirable and unacceptable. For example, some curricula equate homosexuality with child sexual abuse or insinuate that gay men are responsible for the AIDS epidemic.
The Stigmatizing Approach. In this case, the curriculum may not outright condemn LGBT people or any non-heterosexual feelings or behaviors, but mentions LGBT people only when discussing risk behaviors (e.g., those related to HIV or other sexual transmitted infections). This portrays LGBT people as dangerous and their sexual behaviors as risky and abnormal.
The Transgender-Excluding Approach. The sex education curriculum may include LGB people and non-heterosexuality in an affirming, respectful manner, and yet still exclude transgender people and issues completely, negating their existence and value.
The Truly LGBT-Inclusive Approach. This approach includes and infuses LGBT people and issues throughout the sex education curriculum. It does not assume heterosexuality in its definitions of sexual activities or discussions of romantic relationships. It challenges the gender binary (i.e., that there are only two genders, male and female, and that are mutually exclusive) and pays more than token attention to transgender people and concerns. It avoids relegating LGBT issues to “special topics” and instead includes discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity throughout the curriculum. Unfortunately, this is the least common type of sex education provided in our schools today.
GLSEN believes that sexuality education must be truly LGBT-inclusive. This would benefit not only LGBT youth, but also provide non-LGBT youth with an opportunity to dispel myths about issues of sexual orientation and gender and broaden their understanding about LGBT peoples and communities.
If you want to learn more, these five approaches to LGBT-inclusion in sexuality education are discussed in more detail in our recent book chapter on LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum.
Today kicks off Ally Week! You may be asking, why we love allies to LGBT youth. Here are some answers we got!
We love allies because:
1. Everyone can be an ally to someone else.
2. They use their privilege for good.
3. They choose to learn about other identities, power, privilege and forms of oppression.
4. They stand up for what's right even when it may not be popular.
5. They recognize our awesomeness.
6. They join us in solidarity.
7. Our allies are important in reaching equality.
8. They're part of our chosen family.
9. They restore our spirits when we feel down.
10. Their love and support make us feel warm inside.
11. They make safe spaces even safer.
12. They offer their voice where ours can't be heard.
13. They remind others to use appropriate language around or about us.
14. Together, we can make change happen!
Become an ally.
Organize Ally Week at your school.
Learn how to become an even better ally.
Educators often worry about “saying the right thing” when confronted with conversations that they might not feel entirely comfortable engaging in with their students. A teacher once described to me how these moments made her feel like she was walking on “squishy ground.” A student “coming out” is one such moment that may create a heightened level of anxiety for you as an educator. While each such conversation is unique, there are some simple pointers that may help the ground feel less “squishy” and will ultimately help the student feel more supported. Since it’s National Coming Out Day, we wanted to share these with you as well as encourage you to learn about these in greater detail on pages 14-15 of GLSEN’s Safe Space Kit.
When a student comes out to you and tells you they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) your initial response is important. The student has likely spent time in advance thinking about whether or not to tell you, when and how to tell you and it’s likely that they chose to tell you because they see you or already know you as a supportive ally - so congratulations and thank you for being that person in the first place! So, here are some things to remember when a student comes out to you…
Offer support but don’t assume a student needs any help.
Be a role model of acceptance.
Appreciate the student’s courage.
Listen, listen, listen.
Assure and respect confidentiality.
Remember that the student has not changed.
Challenge traditional norms.
Be prepared to give a referral
Of course, it’s equally important to avoid saying things like: “I knew it,” “Are you sure?” “You’re just confused,” "It’s a phase – it will pass,” “Shhh, don’t tell anyone,” or “You can’t be gay/lesbian – you’ve had relationships with members of the opposite sex.” These kinds of questions or statements are simply not appropriate and will not help the student feel supported. Instead, ask questions that demonstrate understanding, acceptance and compassion such as "have you been able to tell anyone else?" "Do you need help of any kind?" or "Do you feel supported by the adults in your life?" Again, the Safe Space Kit has other suggestions for these moments and for many other ways you can demonstrate that you are a supportive ally to your LGBT students.
Above all, remember that when a student has made the decision to come out to you, they've probably chosen to do so because they trust you. It is important to reassure them of that trust by engaging in this moment with respect, dignity and (as with all you do as a supportive ally), with affirmation.
Happy National Coming Out Day...or any coming out day!
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.
In honor of World Teachers’ Day (October 5th), Education International (EI), the global association of national education unions, launched its “Unite for Quality Education” campaign today with simultaneous events at UNICEF in New York and UNESCO in Paris. This new mobilization effort calls upon member unions, governments and civil society to demand a free, high-quality education for every student. GLSEN applauds EI’s new campaign and we are particularly heartened that one of its key pillars is to promote supportive and safe environments for teaching and learning.
At the launch event at UNICEF this morning, speakers from around the world talked about how one supportive educator can make a world of difference in the life of a student. GLSEN’s two decades of experience underscore how true that is for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth here in the United States. And, since 1999, the GLSEN National School Climate Survey has consistently shown that when an LGBT student is able to identify supportive educators in their school, it benefits their individual well-being, their sense of belonging in school and their academic achievement. When educators intervene when hearing anti-LGBT remarks, when they intervene in the face of bullying or harassment, when they include positive representations of LGBT people, history or events in the curriculum and when they support a school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, they help to create an affirming learning environment for LGBT students. These supportive actions by educators can also promote a message of respect to all students, LGBT and non-LGBT alike.
GLSEN’s programmatic priorities reflect the importance of supportive teachers. Our professional development trainings for educators provide educators with the knowledge of LGBT student experiences and the skills to create safer and more affirming classrooms. Our curricular resources on LGBT issues provide materials for teachers to present positive and accurate representations of LGBT people, history and events. Our Safe Space Campaign is designed to make those supportive educators visible to LGBT students everywhere in the United States.
This past June, GLSEN, in partnership with UNESCO, convened an all-day meeting of activists and scholars from across the world to strategize about how to coordinate our collective resources and knowledge to reduce homophobic and transphobic prejudice and violence in schools globally. In honor of World Teachers’ Day, I would like to highlight some of the important work our partner organizations are doing with and for educators:
South Africa: GALA (Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action) and UNESCO will be hosting a colloquium: Transforming Classrooms, Transforming Lives: Combating Homophobia and Transphobia in Education in November in Johannesburg. The event will provide an opportunity for educators, policymakers, researchers and activists from across Southern Africa to discuss the scope and impact of homophobia and transphobia in the education sector.
Poland: Kampania Przeciw Homofobii (Campaign Against Homophobia) recently conducted research on student and school staff on attitudes regarding homophobia in school and found that 8 in 10 teachers in Poland (82.6%) believe that the topic of homosexuality and homophobia should be present in the school curriculum and about 8 in 10 (77.7%) reported that they do discuss LGBT issues in class.
Brazil: Through their Gênero e Diversidade na Escola (Gender and Diversity in School) professional education program, CLAM (Centro Latino-Americano em Sexualidade e Direitos Humano) has trained over 35,000 educators across Brazil.
Australia: Safe Schools Coalition Victoria (SSCV) is a coalition of schools and individuals working toward safer educational environments for the whole school community. SSCV offers a myriad of training opportunities for educators, including their recent workshop: Beyond the Gender Binary: Creating inclusive environments for transgender and gender diverse students, staff and families.
We at GLSEN applaud the work of all our partner organizations across the globe working on LGBT issues in education. And moreover, we honor all educators everywhere who are making schools safer and more affirming for LGBT youth.
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.
Each year, we select a group of outstanding students from around the country to serve as GLSEN Student Ambassadors. These hard-working and enthusiastic young people help advance our work by sharing their stories and advocating for LGBT issues in K-12 education in all forms of media. Please click to watch this video and meet our nine newest Ambassadors for the 2013-2014 school year.
In August, our Student Ambassadors (pictured below) traveled to Los Angeles for a four-day media training summit. There they attended workshops and coaching sessions to learn how to interact with the media and gain the skills needed to return to their hometowns and begin sharing their stories and working towards creating safer schools in their communities.
Please join me in welcoming these exceptional students to the GLSEN family!
P.S. The Student Ambassador program is just one of the many GLSEN programs supported by your gifts. Thank you!
P.P.S. Two of our Ambassadors, Liam and Paulina, will be participating in the State of Out Youth town hall next Tuesday to discuss the most pressing issues facing LGBT youth. The event will be held at the New York Times Center and you can RSVP to attend or watch the live webcast.
With the start of October, many parents across the country will be attending Back-to-School Nights at their children’s schools. The start of the school year can prompt lots of excitement as well as stir up anxiety, not only for students, but for their parents as well. For LGBT parents in particular, this season may be a time of trepidation, as they may be wondering whether their family will be treated equally and with respect: will the emergency contact forms allow for more than one mother? Will their student be the only child with two dads? Will LGBT parents be included in books and lessons about families?
You may or may not be familiar with GLSEN’s report (produced in collaboration with COLAGE and Family Equality Council), Involved, Invisible, Ignored: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Parents and Their Children in Our Nation’s K-12 Schools. The report examines and highlights the school experiences of LGBT-headed families using results from surveys of LGBT parents of children in K-12 schools and of secondary students who have LGBT parents. Findings reveal that LGBT parents may be highly engaged in their child’s school, even if they sometimes encounter non-welcoming environments.
LGBT parents said they were highly involved, as LGBT parents were found to be more active in their children’s education than the general population of parents. For instance:
- 94% of LGBT parents had attended a Back-to-School Night or parent-teacher conference in the past year, compared to 77% of a national sample of K-12 parents.
- 41% of LGBT parents of a high school student said they were members of their school’s parent-teacher organization, compared to 26% of the national sample of parents.
Nonetheless, LGBT parents often said that they felt invisible in their child’s school.
- 15% said their child’s school didn’t acknowledge their family type at least some of the time.
- 32% said that their child’s school was “not at all” or only “a little” inclusive of LGBT families (see chart below).
Finally, some LGBT parents said that they felt less than welcome or even ignored in their child’s school:
- 16% said they felt they could not fully participate in their child’s school community.
- 12% said they did not feel comfortable talking to their child’s teacher about their family.
It’s important that schools are welcoming to ALL families. For resources about including LGBT families in schools, see GLSEN’s Ready, Set, Respect! toolkit for elementary schools or its Unheard Voices lesson plans for secondary schools.