BY AJ TRAGER
AUBURN HILLS – Educators, activists, students and administrators gathered Feb. 6 for the fourth annual Michigan SOGI Education Conference to discuss topics surrounding LGBT youth such as developing and maintaining gay-straight alliances (GSA) within the schools, creating safe spaces for LGBT youth of color, the rights of trans and gender expansive students and how higher education is extending trans inclusion to the faculty.
The conference brought together community members from local Michigan schools, local LGBT groups such as the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) of Southeast Michigan, the Michigan Organization on Adolescent Sexual Health (MOASH) and the Equality Research Center at Eastern Michigan University. National organizations like the TransActive Gender Center, Illinois Safe Schools Alliance and the Pride Foundation were also present to discuss how discrimination in schools and administrative practices affects LGBT youth.
“This year we are reaching up to the leadership in schools, school districts, colleges, universities, local communities and government and we are reaching out across the breadth of LGBT and allied community to explore our connections, intersections and divergences,” Timothy G. Larrabee, Director of the SOGI Initiative, said.
The keynote address was delivered by Kris Hermanns, executive director of the Pride Foundation, a regional community foundation committed to expanding opportunities and advancing full equality for LGBT people and their families across the Northwest. Hermanns recounted the recent suicide of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old trans girl raised in a conservative household in Ohio, whose suicide attracted international attention as her mother and members of the media tried to erase Alcorn’s gender identity.
“We cannot let up now; too many lives depend on it,” Hermanns said, referring to the inclusion of LGBT youth identities and progression of trans-inclusive activism.
Growing up is hard enough without having to deal with added discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity. LGBT youth are twice as likely than their non-LGBT peers to be bullied in school due to their sexual orientation and gender identity and 96 percent of LGBT youth say they hear transphobic or homophobic language spoken throughout hallways and classrooms.
After ten years in the Michigan legislature, the Matt’s Safe Schools Law was finally ratified in 2011, requiring that all public schools and academies prohibit bullying, retaliation and false accusations on school grounds.
“My particular interest is how do we, as growing leaders, set a tone. And how can we, from the get-go, set that inclusive tone utilizing simple things including language, presence and our basic nature?” asked Rachel Guinn, principal of Seaholm High School.
Schools provide a small scale melting pot for people across all races, ethnicities and religions. Those varying identities often do not agree with one another on social issues like the acceptance of diverse youth sexuality and gender identity, or how to talk about those issues. The Michigan Department of Education released new data determining that 8.6 percent of youth in the state identity as LGBT.
“We are looking at (the) health of the students and coordinating with schools in how to make students feel like they are in a safe and supportive environment so that they can learn better,” Laurie Bechhofer, from the Michigan Department of Education, said.
Other presenters from the 2015 Spring Conference include: Rev. Roland Stringfellow of Metropolitan Community Church of Detroit, Frank Burger of the National Education Association, Thomas Zook from Wayne State University, Rudy Serra — the first openly gay judge in Michigan, students from Novi High School representing the school’s GSA, Craig Laurie from MOASH, Paula Kirsch and Mark McMillan from the Center for Relationship and Sexual Health and Erich Pitcher from Michigan State University.
SOGI, the School of Education and Human Services’ Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Initiative, was launched in 2010 to provide a safe and welcoming environment involving supportive, educational outreach and community events for staff, faculty, administrators and visitors to the School of Education and Human Services who identify as LGBT and their allies.
A second conference, the Midwest SOGI Education Conference: “Doing Justice Between the Coasts,” comes to the Marriott Detroit Oct. 17-18 and will bring together faith leaders, LGBT parents and families and community advocates.