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BIRMINGHAM – Students at Birmingham Groves High School got a lesson in LGBT history thanks to a month-long display in the school’s media center in October. And while the current students take the time to learn about LGBT history in general, it is also a reminder to teachers and administration about the history of LGBT equality efforts right there in their own district.
In 1990 the only discussion of homosexuality that took place in most schools was when bullies would call their victims “faggot” in the hallways, or maybe the whisper of a gay man screwing a monkey when AIDS came up in health classes. The 90s were not a good time for most kids to be gay. And for teachers it was nearly impossible to be out at work. To this day there are not employment protections for LGBT people in Michigan, though unions and public pressure do offer somewhat more of a safety net than there was back then.
Frank Colasonti, Jr., a guidance counselor at Groves, kept his sexuality hidden on the job. But in 1990 that changed unexpectedly. Colasonti was volunteering at Pridefest when a reporter from the Detroit News took his picture and asked him some questions.
He got a call from a fellow teacher, who warned him that he was in the paper. “I was afraid to go to work,” he said. “I called in sick. I tried to get help from my union rep., but there was nothing they could do.” When he came into work the next day, he was called into the principal’s office.
“The administration sat me down and said ‘We saw the article. Tell us what you want.’ I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know what to expect, but I sure hadn’t thought of that.”
Colasonti told his bosses that he expected to keep his job and not be treated any differently than he had before. He also wanted the ability to be open about his sexuality and to advocate for gay teachers and kids. He wanted to make sure that no one would have to hide who they are in the Birmingham School District.
Not only did they accept it, they embraced a spirit of openness and equality moving forward. Over the next two years, Colasonti developed a lesson plan for the health class to address LGBT issues.
When the curriculum went before the school board for approval, former Gov. George Romney flew in to speak against it. Joining him were anti-gay speakers from across the state. The crowd was so large that the meeting had to be held in the auditorium of Seaholm High School. Armed guards stood watch over the proceeding, while undercover agents mingled among the audience members. Colasonti sat in the front row, nervously listening to anti-gay rhetoric as well as supportive parents, teachers and counselors.
“They voted 7-0 to accept the recommendations,” he said. “We were the first in the state to do it.
“To me it was important to focus on the health aspect of it. Whenever I talked I would diffuse it by saying ‘I’m here to talk about the health of LGBT students. I’m not here to talk about politics or religion. Most people want what is best for the health of the kids.”
At about the same time as the curriculum discussions, Colasonti pushed for the district to include sexual orientation in all of its policies. He also began traveling to speak on LGBT student health in other schools, education groups, counselors and “anyone who would listen.”
The recent LGBT History Month display at Birmingham Groves High School continues to teach students about diversity.
Because of his efforts, in 1992 he was named Michiganian of the year by the Detroit News.
In 1994 he joined forces with two other local activists – psychologist Dr. Denise Joseph and a teacher from Plymouth-Canton Schools, Michael Chiumento. Chimento had created a stir by putting up a gay history display in the middle school in Plymouth Canton, and by forming the Gay and Lesbian Caucus of the Michigan Education Association.
Around the same time, Colasonti and Joseph had learned about a group out of Boston that was then called GLSTN – Gay, Lesbian, Student, Teacher, Network. They set about creating a Detroit chapter.
One of the biggest accomplishments was putting together the first study in southeast Michigan surveying counselors, social workers, and administrators about the environment for LGBT kids. “Bruised Bodies, Bruised Spirits” came out in 1996 and became the basis for much of the work done for LGBT students by the Michigan Department of Education and other groups looking at the needs of such kids.
In addition to managing the Detroit Chapter of GLSTN, Colasonti and Joseph traveled the country teaching others how to be more inclusive, and they helped start GLSTN chapters in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor. GLSTN eventually changed to GLSEN.
Within Birmingham schools specifically, Colasonti and other supportive staff worked to build an inclusive environment. There were student diversity groups of all types and friendly teachers put up posters and rainbow stickers letting students know that they provided a safe space to talk about issues including sexuality.
Though Colasonti retired in 2006, the momentum he created at Groves carries on. Currently there are about 25 students involved at the school’s Gay Straight Alliance, and they receive widespread support from teachers and staff. The Gay History Month display is just one example of a staff member, Shirley Chambers, reaching out to show support.
Michael Reese and Amy Voigt are co-advisors for the group. “The GSA at Groves has done many activities and initiatives over the years, from supporting Coming Out Day, Day of Silence, LGBT History Month, and Detroit AIDS Walk,” Reese said. “Perhaps my strongest memory was the first year we recognized Transgender Day of Remembrance. The students spent over a week generating awareness and support for our anti-harassment efforts, with this students signed their name on a paper ribbon strip, as a pledge to end hateful behavior. On the last day of the week the ribbons were assembled into a giant paper chain which we hung from the commons as a display of the event.
“I still remember hearing all the students in awe of how long the chain was, how many students were supporting our actions, and pointing out to classmates which signatures were theirs. It was a very powerful message that has a lasting impact on supporting the strong culture of diversity we have here at Groves.”
Colasonti said he realizes that even now there are many schools that do not offer support for LGBT students, but there are things concerned teachers can do. He suggested that teachers propose LGBT-related curriculum, but that they go through the proper processes to do it. He said school districts should have clear plans for dealing with bullying in general, and that teachers can introduce themselves to students by making it clear that if the students need to talk about any issues, they can come to them.
Rainbow stickers and posters about diversity can be enabling to LGBT youth, and a way to let them know who is safe to talk to. “If a teacher isn’t comfortable talking about it, make sure they know someone they can refer a student to if they come to them,” he said. He also encouraged people to donate LGBT-related books to school libraries.
Another issue facing many schools is that counselors were never taught about LGBT health when they went to school. That’s why continuing education in this area is essential.
GLSEN remains a strong resource for parents, teachers, counselors and administrators who want more inclusive school environments.