Nearly 150 people gathered on Feb. 3 for the first ever Michigan SOGI Education Conference: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Issues in Education at Oakland University in Rochester.
The statewide one-day conference, sponsored by OU’s School of Education and Human Services, brought together community agencies, preK-12 practitioners, and faculty and administrators from teacher education programs across the state. Through workshops and sessions, participants engaged in interactive dialogue about how teachers and administrators can work, in collaboration with other schools and colleges of education, to create safe and inclusive schools for all students, staff, faculty and administrators, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
“The SOGI acronym was chosen specifically because it’s an all-inclusive term. All people have a sexual or attractional orientation toward others, and a sense of self that rests somewhere along a continuum of feminine and masculine, even if either, or both, may shift under different circumstances, or at different times in our lives,” said Louis Gaillen, Dean of the School of Education and Human Services.
As a supporter of the SOGI Initiative, Eliza Byard, the executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), flew in from New York to deliver the keynote address.
“Please recognize I come to this as the daughter of a high school teacher, a straight woman who was one of GLSEN’s first volunteers. I have tremendous respect and admiration for people who work in our schools. I work with hundreds and thousands of them every year, but something isn’t working right,” said Byard, who joined GLSEN’s staff in 2001. Byard is responsible for all program development and oversight, including the development of GLSEN’s award-winning national Think B4 You Speak campaign – the first ever Ad Council campaign on LGBT issues, and currently serves on the LGBT youth suicide prevention task force of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.
With 35 chapters across the country, Byard said GLSEN advocates for policies that will require action at all levels of government to make sure all of the resources and opportunities provided by a preK-12 education are truly available to every child that walks through the school house door every single morning.
“55 million children go to school and they all deserve a fair education,” said Byard. “At GLSEN, our job is to develop information and knowledge about the evidence the harm costs us all and identify the solutions that really make a difference. We develop and test programs to try to help prepare educators to intervene, we raise awareness about the problem itself, support and train and work with local advocates, students, teachers and parents who will carry that message and carry those programs forward.”
LGBT agencies and organizations present during the conference included PLFAG, Affirmations, Haven, Ruth Ellis Center, Neutral Zone Riot Youth, and Equality Michigan.
Some of the workshops and sessions offered were Implementing and Supporting Gay-Straight Alliances, Sexuality and Gender 101, The Coming Out Process for the Millennial Generation, and Bullying in Michigan: What Our Kids Need Now and How to Get There Through Collaboration with Local School Districts and Statewide Policy Application.
As the director of instructional equity at Farmington Public Schools, Naomi Khalil said she thought the topics discussed were relevant and engaging. “I plan on seeking this group and its material out as a resource for trainings and social identity dialogues held in my district. I look forward to future conferences and hope that they are extended in time so that we can truly delve into these topics and develop strategic plans across the state to ensure that the voice of the LGBTQA community is elevated to its rightful place in our schools and society at large,” said Khalil.
“I can attest to the fact that the most prevalent cases of bullying and harassment in many Michigan schools center on LGBT students,” said Erika Rust, a teacher at North Farmington High School in Farmington Hills. “As an out teacher and advisor to our schools gay-straight alliance, I have an obvious personal investment in the cause. My hope is to gain the resources and additional tools to help implement active, visible GSA’s in our middle schools, while improving the existing GSA’s in our high schools.”
“As adults, we need to model the skills and behaviors we want to see in our students. It starts with our own self-reflection and our vision of respect for everyone. It also connects to what we are actively doing to build that for ourselves and others,” said Kathy Boyd, Assistant Principal at Power Upper Elementary School in Farmington Hills.
According to Tim Larrabee, associate professor of education at OU and director of the SOGI Initiative Taskforce, for a first-time event, the conference was a great success.
“It is so rewarding to know there is so much interest and from such a broad spectrum of participants. We had high school and university students, and high school and university faculty; we had counselors and social workers; we had parents. We had site and district level administrators. We had community educators and organizers. We had health-care professionals. We had researchers and evaluators. And every one of them found great value in the time they spent at the conference,” said Larrabee.
This was evident in the exit surveys collected, which were unanimously positive for presenters, workshops and sessions.
“One common theme was ‘We want more. We want the sessions to be longer. We want the sessions offered more than once. We want more sessions offered on more topics. We want sessions offered over more days. We want more opportunities to network. We want more,'” said Larrabee. “We’re already thinking about doing this again next year, and based on the feedback, expect it will bring in even more people.”
On Jan. 18, GLSEN released a new report on school climate, biased remarks and bullying, Playgrounds and Prejudice: Elementary School Climate in the United States.
While at the SOGI conference, Byard drew attention to biased-based bullying. “It’s important to remember this kind of bullying that gives voice to words like ‘sissy’ and ‘faggot’ and ‘dyke’ and the way collectively a school community responds are the ways that the hidden curriculum is given teeth and power,” said Byard.
The report, based on national surveys of 1,065 elementary school students in 3rd to 6th grade and 1,099 elementary school teachers of K-6th grade, examines students’ and teachers’ experiences with biased remarks and bullying, and their attitudes about gender expression and family diversity. The surveys were conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of GLSEN during November and December 2010.
In the report, half of elementary school students surveyed heard the phrase, “that’s so gay,” meant to be something negative. In middle school, 40 percent of out LGBT people have reported experiencing physical assault at school. For more statistics, visit http://www.glsen.org/binary-data/GLSEN_ATTACHMENTS/file/000/002/2028-1.pdf.
GLSEN also released Ready, Set, Respect! GLSEN’s Elementary School Toolkit, an instructional resource available online http://www.glsen.org/binary-data/GLSEN_ATTACHMENTS/file/000/002/2027-1.pdf developed to help educators address issues raised in Playgrounds and Prejudice, particularly teachers’ willingness to address but lack of understanding of biased language, LGBT-inclusive family diversity and gender nonconformity.