Today is Spirit Day, a big day for LGBT people and allies to don something purple and display their disapproval of bullying and support for LGBT youth. Visibility is important – but action speaks louder than images, especially when it comes to protecting LGBT youth from bullies – and sometimes from themselves as they battle internalized shame inculcated by family, society and religion. Project SPIN (Suicide Prevention Intervention Now), a major coalition initiative lead by the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center and the LA Unified School District, was created to provide a safe learning and living environment for LGBT youth. But the subtext of SPIN’s mission is to change the very culture that prompts kids to consider suicide and allows bullies to act out in the first place.
Center CEO Lorri L. Jean explained the need for SPIN in the context of teen suicide, which is the third-leading cause of death for people ages 12 to 18 with LGBT youth considerably more prone to attempt suicide than their peers. Jean told reporters at an Oct. 17 news conference:
“For too many young LGBT people, the ringing of the school bell connotes suffering instead of learning. Many feel they must hide who they are, while others face merciless harassment and bullying—even violence—on the playground, in the classroom and in the locker room. By collaborating with LAUSD, which includes 1,160 schools and more than 664,000 students, we’re working to change the often intolerant, bullying culture of schools so that all kids feel safe.”
“We are committed to creating safe, respectful campuses for LGBT students–and that is exactly what we are doing with Project SPIN,” said LAUSD Board of Education President Monica Garcia.
The news conference came just days after the successful 20th anniversary of the Center’s Models of Pride LGBT youth conference on Oct. 13 on the USC campus, produced by the Center’s LifeWorks youth mentoring and empowerment program. More than 1,200 LGBT and straight ally youth and adults – including celebrities such as dance crew Fanny Pak; comic Jason Stuart; jazz saxophonist Dave Koz; singer/actress Sylvia MacCalla; and Hairspray director and So You Think You Can Dance judge Adam Shankman – participated in workshops and presentations, with a specific “parent track” attended by 130 parents this year. For photos of the event, go to the Models of Pride Facebook page.)
But fighting for youth empowerment and school safety has not been an easy undertaking. School safety for LGBT youth, for instance, has been a public issue since 1984 when Virginia Uribe, an openly lesbian science teacher at Fairfax High School, created the school drop out program Project 10 to give kids a safe place to discover and be themselves while at school. Her incredible bravery cannot be stressed enough: prior to the decriminalization of homosexuality in California in 1972, society considered gay people abnormal perverts who should be “cured” through a lobotomy or imprisoned or institutionalize in some dank mental institution. The sexual liberation explosion in the 1960s during the anti-Vietnam War and student movements cultivated the climate for the Stonewall Riots in 1969.
But the idea of helping LGBT youth specifically was essentially a non-starter, despite the fact that the Gay Liberation movement was kicked off by young drag queens and lesbians at the Stonewall Inn tired of taking it from the cops. Additionally, many of the LGBT activists who founded the post-Stonewall gay organizations were veterans of the anti-war student movements – 18 year olds subject to the draft who preferred to make love, not war. But in the world that hated the “anything goes” counter-culture hippies of the 1960s and the excessive disco era of the 1970s – the world of Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority and Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Anita Bryant’s “Children’s Crusade” in 1977 (which lead to the Briggs Initiative in California, a ballot measure to fire any teacher suspected of being gay) – gay people were perceived as pathological perverts who only wanted to “recruit” and sexually abuse children.(Project 10 founder Dr. Virginia Uribe (rt) and her longtime partner Gail Rolf, who now runs Friends of Project 10, at the first-ever LGBT Prom. (Photo by Karen Ocamb)
That’s what Virginia Uribe was up against in 1984, when she was repeatedly viciously attacked by vehemently antigay Religious Right activists such as the Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition. Nonetheless, the science teacher stood up for the kids. Indeed, during the AIDS crisis, Uribe worked with then-closeted LAUSD Board President Jackie Goldberg to ensure that students received proper sex education and condoms were available to protect sexually active young people from becoming infected with HIV. Such visibility and concerted efforts by smart and caring LGBT activists lead to the LAUSD creating a Gay and Lesbian Education Commission, which enabled Project 10 to hold LGBT Teen Proms and in 1993, the first free Models of Pride conference. Friends of Project 10 took the conference over in 1998 when LAUSD abolished all commissions, ostensibly as a cost-cutting measure.
But 1998 turned out to be a big year for LGBT youth. In 1995, openly gay Assemblymember Sheila James Kuehl introduced a bill that would ban discrimination against gay students by adding sexual orientation to the state Education Code’s list of protected categories: race, sex, religion and disabilities. It failed that year. But in 1996, LIFE Lobby launched Youth Lobbying Day in Sacramento, producing, according to Patricia Nell Warren, the largest gay-youth political turnout in state history, / hoping o influence the passage of the newly introduced AB 222, the Dignity for All Students bill in 1997. It failed by one vote but passed the following year after a revision under new name and number: AB 537, the California Student Safety & Violence Prevention Act of 2000, which was signed by newly elected Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.
The movement for and to protect LGBT students really took off in 1998, with the founding of the Gay-Straight Alliances in schools, the Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and the Trevor Project.
Those organizations are all part of the SPIN coalition, along with other groups such as the ACLU/SoCal and their LGBTQ Student Rights Project, which was initially named the Seth Walsh Project after the gay youth who committed suicide. / Their mission is to “stop unlawful bullying and harassment in California schools and to create school communities that promote safety and respect for all students.” That means that if someone calls with a complaint about bullying, the ACLU – with all the weight of law behind them – will investigate the complaint, work with the schools to correct it and if it’s not corrected, they could sue.
But the Center’s SPIN Project takes more of a prevention approach. This is from the Center’s press release:
One of the most important components of SPIN is its training sessions (in English and Spanish) for these groups.
Supported by experts from many of the partnering organizations, SPIN trains and educates people on issues ranging from LGBT sensitivity and awareness to suicide prevention and much more. Each training is tailored to the specific needs of its audience.
For example, administrators receive training on topics like making schools safer for LGBT students. Teachers working to develop lesson plans about notable LGBT people in history might request SPIN training to learn about useful resources. Parents, who often request trainings after they hear about youth suicides at their children’s schools, can get training on what to do if their child is being bullied or if he or she is bullying others.
Students, too, turn to SPIN to learn how to make a difference. LGBT students and their allies frequently request trainings for their Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) or other LGBT groups. These trainings educate them about what they can do if they feel depressed or suicidal, or if someone they know needs help. It’s vital they understand that suicide is not a logical consequence of bullying and that there are resources for help. For LAUSD students, those resources include counseling and a crisis hotline.
With their newfound knowledge and heightened awareness, the graduates of these sessions have the tools they need to make a difference. Parents can better understand and support their LGBT children, or address the behavior of a child who is bullying others; school staff can make classrooms more accepting of LGBT students; and students facing bullying or fighting depression can find the help they need. Working together, these groups will truly change the culture of schools and make life better —not just for LGBT youth but for all LAUSD students.
SPIN community partners include: Trans Youth Family Allies; Children's Hospital Los Angeles, Division of Adolescent Medicine; Los Angeles County Office of Education; Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health; Gay-Straight Alliance Network; Gays and Lesbians Initiating Dialogue for Equality (GLIDE); Los Angeles Police Department; Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services; The Trevor Project; ACLU of Southern California; Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG); Our Family Coalition; Colors LGBTQ Counseling Center; Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN); Latino Equality Alliance; The Village Family Services; and Teen Line; MALDEF; the United American Indian Involvement (UAII); and Project 10.
To learn more about Project SPIN, or to request training, visit projectspin.org.
For LAUSD's brochure on bullying, go to humanrelations.lausd.net.
Imagine if one day, everyone welcomes a little purple into their world.