Monday, December 26, 2005

Top story/issue of 2005: LGBT youth, schools, Zach Stark and the ex-gays

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I have covered so many LGBT issues, news stories and events on my blog this year (even though this did not start until July) that I have had a hard time trying to choose which story is worthy of receiving "top story of the year". Instead of choosing just one post or story, I have chosen a large and broad issue I have covered over and over again on my blog: Gay youth & teens. Along with this is the ex-gays' attack on gay youth and the story of Zach Stark, a 16 year old boy from Bartlett, Tennessee, who was forced into an ex-gay camp by his parents. Picture of Zach Stark from his MySpace profileZach Starke's story first broke into the blogosphere (and later into the mainstream media) through two posts he made on his blog during the summer. In those two posts, Zach (pictured right) related his confused emotions, feelings and thoughts on how his parents found out about him being gay and later told him that he would be attending an ex-gay camp, known as "Refuge". The camp is run by the ex-gay group Love in Action and is an affiliate of Exodus, International. The first time I covered his story on this blog was near his release from the camp (see post). I had begun to cover his story, however, on my original blog. Zach's story exploded into the LGBT news and then later into such news outlets such as The New York Times, NBC's Today Show and other major newspapers and television networks. His story even reached as far as the national youth radio of Australia. The Reverend Jerry FalwellThe ex-gay movement which Zach found himself wrapped up in received the support of the infamously anti-gay minister, the Reverend Jerry Falwell (pictured left). Rev Falwell, while preaching at the Exodus International conference held near Asheville, NC, during the last weekend of July, "endorsed the forcing of gay teenagers into "reparative therapy" at centers such as Refuge" and also "dismissed psychologists’ claims that consent is fundamental to a healthy counseling relationship and that parents should not force their gay kids into therapy" (see post). At that time I gave a little commentary on the ex-gay movement and the Rev Jerry Falwell:
Falwell has gone and done it again. After opening his big, fat mouth after September 11th, blaming the tragic events on gays, feminists and the ACLU, Falwell is going about his old tricks again. Who should know better about therapy and forced therapy upon youth: The Reverend Bigot Falwell or the American Psychological Association? Also, who knows better about sexual orietnation and the science surrounding it? Just because some people may believe homosexuality is choice does not make it true. The Church once insisted that the earth was the center of the universe, despite science's claims to the contrary. I wonder when the Church will have to apologize for the actions of bigoted leaders like Falwell in the future just like it has apologized for the actions of the leaders in Galileo's day? How much proof do you need people? Do we have to wait five hundred years before we realize, "Ooops... Looks like we were wrong... gay people are born that way." Wake up and smell the coffee!!! While you're at it, start treating ALL of God's beautiful children equally and fairly.
After he came out of the camp, Zach posted yet again on his blog stating, "This isn't going to become my life. I won't let it. There's more to me than this... Those of you who really know me, know that homosexuality was always there but it didn't run my life, and it will not now." From all appearances (although Zach has not confirmed this publicly) the "ex-gay" camp which tried to convert him into being straight had no effect on Zach's sexual orientation (big surprise). The camp might have made him more aware, however, that there is more to life than sexual orientation or to whom one is or isn't attracted. I followed Zach's story carefully, posting on my blog with every new update about him and his situation. I continued to follow the story after he was released from Refuge and carefully watched the unfolding controversy regarding the State of Tennessee's investigation of Love in Action and the national debate on ex-gays and gay youth sparked by Zach's experience. As an extension of my focus on Zach's story, which is a reflection of the experiences of thousands of gay youth across the nation, I also posted routinely on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education and School System. When the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (or GLSEN) released its survey of LGBT youth and schools within the State of North Carolina, I contacted the Board of Education and followed up with posts on the various Board members' responses. Out of all of the Board members I received a response from two and also a response from the Superintendant (see post). WS/FC School System LogoI also regularly updated on general LGBT youth issues involving the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School System and tried to tie in other stories with the current situation within the district. For years local community members, including myself, have been pushing the Board of Education to add sexual orientation and gender-identity to the system's non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. Of course, the Board has yet to take any action on the issue and has continued to ignore the harassment and abuse of LGBT youth. R.J. Reynolds High SchoolIn the past five years (almost six) with my experience of working with the Winston-Salem chapters of GLSEN (which no longer exists) and PFLAG, as well as with my high school advocacy experiences with the gay-straight student group at R.J. Reynolds High School, my passion to protect LGBT youth within the schools and my stance on such issues has been clear: All youth, regardless of sexual orientation or gender-identity/expression, should feel comfortable, safe and accepted while attending the educational institutions in which they have been forced to attend by law. No student should have to fear going to school and every student should feel as though there teachers, administrators and faculty and staff persons are open to them and willing to help them. While the great majority of teachers and administrators may, in fact, be open and willing to help and protect LGBT youth, their still exists many teachers and administrators who are not. On top of all the harassment and abuse (which could be and should be prevented), unaccepting and unfriendly teachers and administrators are enough reason for the Board of Education to instate policies which include sexual orientation and gender-identity. Without clear and concise policies, implementation and discipline of those policies will remain open to interpretation and practice. Gay-inclusive policies were also an issue within the State Board of Education this year. Equality North Carolina organized a sizeable petition drive to get the Board to keep gay-inclusive language within its new policies on the preparation of school counselors. As a member and Board member of UNCG PRIDE!, I convinced our Executive Board to support Equality North Carolina's push to keep the enumerated policies. Ultimately, however, the State School Board removed the enumerated categories including sexual orienation (see post). The top stories (well, I guess issues) of 2005 are important ones. Zach Stark's story showed the plight of LGBT youth in many similar positions and situations and sparked a much needed nation-wide debate and discussion on gay youth and the ex-gay movement. The numerous issues regarding gay youth and North Carolina schools show us that our Great State of North carolina is no where near to providing safe and accepting places for all of our youth. The future of the State of North Carolina, as well as the United States of America, lies in the hands of our youth. What is our state and nation doing to itself when it does nothing but destroy the young lives of LGBT youth? Children are our most precious gifts and we should treat all youth equally and accept them equally, without regard to race, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender-identity or ability. Hopefully next year will bring more awareness to the issues facing LGBT youth and maybe next year the State Board of Education, along with the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School System will finally become aware of those issues. I hope, I pray and I work... all just to see the day when our schools, our state, our nation and our world will finally fully accept all people, unconditionally.
Triad Equality Alliance billboard Fall 2005
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2005 has been such an incredible year for me in regards to work towards LGBT equality, particularly safe schools for all, including LGBT youth and their allies. The transition from high school to college saw much more acceptance of the LGBT community and awareness of LGBT issues, but much work has to be done on both levels.

I visited my high school recently, not to meet with my principal, but to see some of my old teachers and while in the classroom i heard the phrase "that's so gay", and the words "dyke" and "faggot" in 1 day. That was Western Guilford, the high school Beth mentioned in her blog. All the work I have done with the GSA and Lifeguards (HIV/AIDS prevention education and awareness) at Western Guilford has made me proud. Though a lot has to be done, and I will continue to be abreast of the news of those clubs as they continue their work for equality and awareness.

At UNCG PRIDE! I feel as if I have made a difference. But as I said before, there is a lot more to work to be done and I look forward to working with UNCG PRIDE! to reach the goals we have as an organization.