What's Life Like For Gay Kids In Public Schools?

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High school is a challenging time for most teens. It can be even more so for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. Judy Chiasson of the Los Angeles Unified School District and Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network talk about being openly LGBT in school.

TONY COX, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Tony Cox in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

Each year, it seems, we hear the stories of the clash of culture and gender when a high school student who is gay is banned from attending the prom, or pays a price for going.

This year is no different, from a Mississippi county school board banning 18-year-old Constance McMillan, who wanted to wear a tux and bring her girlfriend, to the Miami gay senior who was crowned prom queen -only to be disowned by his own family.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students face unique and often cruel struggles to find their place in American high schools. Some are harassed and bullied, while others are accepted and nurtured. Some create clubs, while others remain closeted. So what is it really like?

Today, we hear from a Los Angeles school administrator in charge of equity and diversity, and from an advocate whose organization has helped guide gay kids through the maze of high school life.

Later in the hour, the politics of the World Cup, Middle East style. But first, how LGBT teens experience high school. And if you are a parent, a teacher, a school administrator, a student, what is your experience? We'd like to hear from you.

Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now is Judy Chiasson. She is with the Office of Human Relations, Diversity and Equity at the Los Angeles Unified School District. She joins us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Judy, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. JUDY CHIASSON (Office of Human Relations, Diversity and Equity, Los Angeles Unified School District): Great to be here. Thanks, Tony.

COX: Let's begin with this - because we've been talking about proms and how these prom stories seem to pop up this time of year, year after year after year. How do you deal with the issue of proms and gays in the L.A. Unified School District?

Ms. CHIASSON: Well, all of our students are welcome to attend prom. We have non-discriminatory practices and policies in the district. So a same-sex couple who wants to attend prom, come on down. We're going to have a good time.

COX: Now, is there an office, an organization, an agency within the district that is set up to deal specifically with the issues of gay students?

Ms. CHIASSON: Absolutely. We do L.A. Unified does have a lot of institutional resources. We have my office, which is the Office of Human Relations, Diversity and Equity. We have Project 10. But additionally, we know that most of our schools are very aware of what our policies and practices are, what are vision is of inclusive schools. And most of the schools are just, you know - they know what to do, and we trust that they're running their schools.

We are here for consultation or advice or support, whatever they need.

COX: Now, you mentioned Project 10. What is that?

Ms. CHIASSON: Project 10 was started at Fairfax High in 1984 by Dr. Virginia Uribe, and it back in '84, she started a support group for the LGBT youth who were attending Fairfax High. Very quickly, we saw a need for that across the district, and it was extended to all of our schools.

Now, Project 10 is housed in educational equity, which is in the Office of the General Counsel. So Project 10 looks at discrimination; bias; ensures access to education, and that all of our practices and policies are non-discriminatory.

COX: One of the areas that has been an issue in the gay, lesbian, transgender community, as far as public schools are concerned, is whether or not to integrate the students into the mainstream population or to in some way segregate them, even if it is just for their safety. How do you handle that issue in L.A.?

Ms. CHIASSON: Well, we do practice non-discrimination. We definitely do not want to have segregated schools. If there is a safety issue, then we look at our campus. What is going on at our campus that the school may be feeling unsafe for certain students? And then we work with the population at large.

All of our schools are supposed to be safe for all students, period. We need that is our focus.

There are some students who need - who really do do better in a much smaller environment. That is not our first choice. Our first choice is to have everybody at their home campus with their peers.

COX: Is it possible, Judy, to establish within a school setting, let's say, a program that will benefit students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender - not discriminate against them but at the same time, allow them to have the comfort of being in an area where they can feel comfortable?

Ms. CHIASSON: Well, we want them to feel comfortable everywhere on campus. We don't want to be have we don't want to have segregation on our campuses. We do have like, clubs - like the Gay-Straight Alliance would be a place. But it's a club, where the students are going to be able to talk about issues that are of interest to them.

Our Gay-Straight Alliances are what they sound like. They're LGBT and straight allies - really, anyone who wants to talk about issues of sexual orientation, gender identity, be it on the campus, politically, socially.

Also, we have Project 10 support groups, which are really for - again, any student who has questions or concerns about sexual orientation, gender identity. Some of our participants in those groups are children who have LGBT family members. They want to know how they can be better allies for their family members or their friends.

But in terms of a discriminatory - of segregation, we very we don't want that. And if we find that it's happening, we will intervene. That's now how we run a school.

COX: Are there some particular kinds of issues that you could share with the audience, that you encounter on a regular basis?

Ms. CHIASSON: Absolutely. The biggest issue or challenge that we encounter is the idea of invisibility. So by law - by state, federal and district policies and law - we are required to create a safe and affirming campus for all of our LGBT youth.

But it's not like we can go to a computer system and look them up and, oh, let's find out where they are, oh, I've got two in this room and four over there. That's not how it works.

These sexual minorities have labels that we put on ourselves. They're not something that the parents can check a box when they come in. And so really what we need to do - and our challenge is as a school district and in a community - is to do widespread, pervasive, institutional education and support for all students.

We don't know which of our students are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. There's thousands - tens of thousands of students that we don't know who they are. That's OK. They're everyone, we want them to feel welcome at school. They don't need to be waving their flag in order to get safety and respect, that that's given upon without request. It's just given.

COX: We're talking to Judy Chiasson with the Office of Human Relations, Diversity and Equity in the L.A. Unified School District. If you'd like to join the conversation about the lifestyles of gay students in public high school, you can call us at 800-989-8255. You can also reach us at Or go on to the NPR website at, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

One of the other questions, Judy, that I have for you is, you talked about not being able, necessarily, to identify who is LGBT and who is not. What role does a teacher or an administrator play when a student does come out?

Ms. CHIASSON: The role of the teacher and the administrator is to be positive, to be supportive and to ascertain what kind of support, if any, that student needs.

Just because a person identifies as LGBT does not necessarily mean that they need some kind of extra intervention. They might be fine. I mean, everything's good so with them. They're doing all right.

What our job is, is to make sure that the other students on campus - or the other adults, even - are respectful to them, and that idea of respect is universal. So that, I think, is our biggest challenge, is that we must work institutionally. We're not about just identifying the individuals who need help, but we know that everyone needs to be have an attitude of respect.

COX: Why don't we take a call, then? How about Dawn(ph), from Hickory, North Carolina. Hello, Dawn.

DAWN (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call today.

COX: You're welcome.

DAWN: As a teenager, I was gay, and I was in school. After one particularly odd sleepover, everyone found out that I was gay, and it was absolutely horrible.

I had nasty notes on my locker. I had people threatening to hurt me. It was really, really bad. The teachers, no one I couldn't turn to anyone. I couldn't turn to the administration. They all shunned me. I actually ended up dropping out for a while and getting my GED over it.

Ms. CHIASSON: Oh, Dawn, I am so sorry that that happened. That's a tragedy.

COX: What would you have done to be able to help her? What could you have told the people in her environment that would have been able to help Dawn?

Ms. CHIASSON: Well...

DAWN: My mother was really, really good at helping me through stuff, and she knew what I was going through. I was an awkward teenager anyway, but she was the one who really helped me through it until she passed away in my senior year.

My son is going through the same thing right now. He's kind of confused about his sexuality, and he is kind of effeminate. So he's going through a lot of what I went through, and because we do live in a rural, Southern town, there's really no support here at all for it.

COX: So Dawn, what would you say? How could she have been helped, and how can she help her son where she lives?

DAWN: Um...

COX: I'm sorry, Dawn. I meant to ask that question of Judy. Excuse me. Judy, I'm trying to...

(Soundbite of laughter)


Ms. CHIASSON: That's OK. Dawn, I think that your son has the greatest gift in the world, which is a supportive mother. That is if I could give every child a gift, that's what it would be, is a parent who supports them and embraces them. So your son's going to be fine because of you.

As a school site person, as an administrator, what I would have done is gone in, spoken with the teacher, spoken with your classmates, spoken with the administration and said, this needs to stop.

You know, so we would do some kind of suppression in terms of the anti-gay harassment that you experienced and complement that with educational interventions because it is through education that we can really end bias.

COX: Dawn, thank you for the call. And let me just say to you, as well, that we are going to be joined in a few moments by Eliza Byard. She is the executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network - to talk more about how gay students can be assisted.

We're talking about life as an openly gay teen in public school. Students, parents, educators, we want to hear about your experience. Call us, 800-989-8255. The email address is I'm Tony Cox. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION. Im Tony Cox, sitting in for Neal Conan, who is away.

We are talking about gay students and high school, in public high school, and we are talking with Judy Chiasson with the Office of Human Relations, Diversity and Equity in the L.A. Unified School District.

But right now, I would like to bring in, to join the conversation, Eliza Byard. She is the executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, also known as GLSEN. She joins us from NPR's New York bureau. Eliza, nice to have you with us as well.

Ms. ELIZA BYARD (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network): It's a great pleasure to be here. And Judy, it's great to hear your voice.

Ms. CHIASSON: Hey, Eliza.

COX: So let me ask you as a starting point, Eliza, we've already heard from one caller, who talked about her own personal experiences and those that her son is going through right now. What is the first thing that you tell people who are dealing with this, both those who are from the LGBT community, and those who deal with them in school settings?

Ms. BYARD: Well, I think the basic and most important thing to remember is that dealing with LGBT issues in K-through-12 education, as well as in high school, is part of how a school can best fulfill its mission, educationally and for the benefit of all the young people who are part of that community.

What we look at in high schools - and unfortunately, the sad fact is that nationwide, Dawn's experience continues to this day. And our job at GLSEN, as a national organization working on these things, is to make sure that every district has the kinds of policies and practices in place that L.A. Unified does. They're real pioneers on this issue.

We've been around for 20 years now and have been studying for that time the experience of students in high school and the younger grades. And what we've seen is that there are really, four types of interventions that clearly correlate with better outcomes for students.

Those are the clear non-discrimination and anti-bullying, anti-harassment policies that explicitly include sexual orientation and gender expression and gender identity as among those categories of protection; having supportive faculty and school staff available to young people to help them when issues arise; the presence of student clubs, commonly known as gay-straight alliances, or GSAs, and other student advocacy to improve school climate; and the presence of inclusive curricular elements that accurately and appropriately depict LGBT people, history and life.

Those kinds of interventions, those commitments on the part of the school, correlate not only with greater well-being and sense of belonging for individual students but also with better grades; lower rates of absenteeism because they're afraid for their safety; and a much greater likelihood that these students will plan to graduate and go on to college.

So dealing with these issues is really to the benefit of the entire school community and the educational mission of the institution.

COX: Let's take another call. We have Brandon on the line, with us from Columbus, Ohio. Welcome to the show, Brandon.

BRANDON (Caller): Hi. I am a queer teacher in Columbus, and the big thing I've noticed, the big problem that I have had, is I live in a state where it is still legal to fire someone for being gay.

So I cannot fully support my students who are going through the same troubles I went through in high school without risking my job and my livelihood. I cannot come to them without drawing attention to myself, and always worrying what will be the ramifications of that and what will ultimately be the lesson that they get from that - when they see someone helps them and then gets punished for it.

I so often have to support the right of students to say things in my classroom that I find abhorrent, that are insulting and discriminatory against me, but it's under this guise of every voice has a right to be said. But at the same time, I don't have the right to really give the ability for students who need the voice, who are so invisible, to have that safety without putting myself at risk.

COX: What about that, Judy? And I want to ask it in this context as well thank you very much for the call, Brandon. Is there is a difference geographically - in other words, in terms of what you are able to do in an urban setting like Los Angeles or say, New York or Chicago? Does it differ when you get into some of the smaller school districts in the South and in the Midwest?

Ms. CHIASSON: There's probably a difference in practice, but we do have federal guidelines that are very clear, and they do apply to all schools across the country.

Whether or not the school wants to follow those federal guidelines might be their own decision. However, in Columbus, Ohio, it is against federal law for a student to be in a hostile environment.

We have the legal obligation to make sure that our children are safe, and that means emotionally and socially safe as well - which means that we, as teachers and administrators, cannot stand by and allow hateful speech, destructive speech, to be directed at students in the class. We cannot do that anywhere in this country legally.

COX: Now, we have another caller who might be able to speak to that same issue as well. Suzanne(ph), welcome. She's from Augusta, Georgia.

SUZANNE (Caller): Hi. I really appreciate the show that you're doing this afternoon.

COX: Thank you.

SUZANNE: I grew up in a small town called Easley, South Carolina, and I came out when I was 16. That's over 10 years ago. And you have certain teachers in school. You know, when you're gay it's kind of easy to pick out other homosexuals, be it gaydar or whatever.

And you see these teachers, and you know that they kind of want to console you a bit or maybe be kind of a mentor. But it seems like most teachers either aren't allowed to come out to their students or simply they don't for fear of losing their teaching position, especially in the Southeastern United States.

I know I went through a really hard time coming out, had things written on my locker - like carpet-muncher, dike, different, really bad names. And I was wondering if it I don't know if schools are different today. Are teachers allowed to kind of give a consoling ear to a student?

COX: Are they?

Ms. CHIASSON: Absolutely. They are required to. We can't teachers are required to caretake the students. We can't allow a student to be suffering in class without we have to do something. We are the parents give us their children for the day, and it is our job to take care of them.

We are actually obligated to do that. We cannot stand by and watch somebody be harassed and be bullied and be tormented like that, and out of - you know, and fear of retaliation from - from whom - for taking care of a child who's being injured. Absolutely not. The biggest risk...

SUZANNE: Well, I have - I'm sorry, I just, I have a lot of friends now, you know, as an adult that are teachers within the South Carolina and Georgia public school systems, who would not dare come out to their students for fear of losing their positions.

Ms. BYARD: Judy - sorry, this is Eliza.

COX: Eliza, go on. Thank you for the call, Suzanne. Eliza, you wanted to respond to it?

Ms. BYARD: Absolutely. I think Judy embodies what I think is best in all people who go into education, but I do have to point out that there are serious institutional barriers across the country for teachers, gay or straight, who wish to reach out and help students who are having a hard time.

While there are protections under the umbrella of Title 9 at the federal level, there are not non-discrimination protections for employment for LGBT people at the federal level. That's why we're trying to pass a law called ENDA. And in fact, in eight states in this country, there are laws that specifically prohibit positive discussions of homosexuality in public schools.

Now, these laws vary in terms of what they actually cover, but what we see in our research is that in laws - such as Arizona, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina and Texas, the effect of that law is that teachers in those states, whether they are LGBT or straight, are less likely to intervene when they witness anti-LGBT harassment and name-calling in their schools. And they also, sadly - in those states you are more likely to have students report that teachers themselves are making derogatory comments.

So the prohibition on positive comments is also seen as a license to say negative things themselves.

Nationwide, we have a problem with teachers not intervening when they witness this behavior. Eighty percent of LGBT students report that teachers who witness this behavior rarely or never intervene. And half of LGBT students report that they don't bother telling anyone when they face name-calling, harassment or assault at school because they don't think anything will be done.

COX: Now, Judy, let me interrupt. Eliza, let me interrupt to bring Judy in for that. Because is that the case in your school district, and if it is not the case, how are you able to enforce it?

Ms. CHIASSON: I would love to be able to say that there is no anti-gay harassment or bias anywhere in L.A. Unified. I would love to be able to say that. But the fact of the matter is, bias does exist. It exists in our communities. It exists in our schools. And Eliza - statistics are startling. They're sobering to think that there's that many of students who are being maltreated, you know, in their schools.

I believe that visibility of the administration - but the items that Eliza listed about nondiscrimination policies and practices, support of faculty, visibility of clubs, inclusive curricula, all of those things is - if an organization is working in every possible area to include visibility in affirming schools, these things help. But we always - we do have more work to do.

COX: To that point, let me read a couple of emails that we got. The first one is from Josh. He says: Public high school is not the place for this. A minor child is not capable of making a life-changing choice to be part of one of these groups. If people want to decide to follow that lifestyle when they are adults, fine. I am against discrimination, but to choose this lifestyle will have drastic, negative effects on a person's life. As the high school should not encourage this behavior.

And another, from Daniel. Another email, and then I will come back to you, Eliza, for your response to it. Daniel says: I grew up gay and was out throughout junior high school and high school. I grew up in a very small town in southwest Wyoming and even went to the prom with my boyfriend - that was years ago - and never felt out of place or like I was being harassed. Maybe it was because I was never taught that being gay is wrong. That was years ago. What's the big deal now?

Ms. BYARD: Unfortunately, the big deal is that these issues play out in schools whether or not you have a single out LGBT student in that school. And I think the key thing - thinking about that first email - is that this is about the fact that 90 percent of students, gay and straight, report that they hear anti-gay comments, anti-LGBT comments at school every single day.

This language is present in our schools, whether or not anyone is out, teachers or students. And in the bigger picture, these - this language and this behavior is to the detriment of every member of the community. Students we asked - a national sample of secondary school students, middle and high school, the - gay and straight - about the most frequent bases for bullying and harassment in their schools, and the top three that were listed were physical appearance and body size, actual or perceived sexual orientation, and whether a student was perceived to be, quote-unquote, masculine or feminine enough. So I think that there's a common misconception, that dealing with LGBT issues in K-through-12 schools is about - fundamentally about promoting a - someone being lesbian or gay.

Primarily, it is about reducing the sea of anti-LGBT sentiment that fuels a lot of bullying that has nothing to do with a specific personal animus against a gay individual. It is about the kind of language that fuels the problem. Secondarily, of course, it is about those students in an environment who may or may not be gay, maybe thinking about whether or not they are LGBT, and are witnessing the price that they will have to pay. And I think...

COX: For coming out, right?

Ms. BYARD: Exactly. And I think the basic common-ground issue is no matter what our beliefs, our personal beliefs, public schools are a place that have to serve their entire community: LGBT students, LGBT parents, LGBT professionals, who have always been a part of school life. And there is a baseline of respect for every member of the community from which the whole community has to operate.

COX: Let me reset the table for our listeners in case they are just joining us. We are talking about gay issues in high school. Our guests are Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, also known as GLSEN; and Judy Chiasson, with the Office of Human Relations, Diversity and Equity, Los Angeles Unified School District. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

All right. Let's take another call, actually someone who can speak to this very, very passionately, I have no doubt. Stanley from Livingston. Stanley, you're with PFLAG. I think I'm saying that correctly. The president, is that correct?

STANLEY (Caller): President of Greater Boston PFLAG. And I'm from Lexington, Massachusetts.

COX: So you...

STANLEY: And I wanted to just jump in here with a few statistics. Massachusetts has, for over 10 years, collected risk behavior data. And we can - we know with some precision about the elevated risk to gay youth resulting from anti-gay harassment and bullying. And what we find is that gay students report that they are four times more likely than straight students to be threatened with a weapon in school. They are six times more likely to require medical attention as a result of a suicide attempt. All forms of risk are elevated because of anti-gay bullying and harassment - even in Massachusetts schools, where we've had longstanding policies against this. So I wouldn't be surprised that this was much worst in other parts of the country where this isn't measured.

COX: Now, coming back to you, Judy, because you deal with this in the second largest school district in the country. How effective can you be in terms of dealing with A, the stereotypes, the biases and at the same time trying to protect the rights of the individuals - and trying to educate people at the same time?

Ms. CHIASSON: With - I believe that we can be very effective if we infuse anti-bias curriculum into every aspect of our schools. If it is the belief and practice of everybody, we can make a difference. That LGBT bias - any kind of bias based on perceived sexual orientation and gender identity is simply unacceptable. We educate our children. We nurture them. We can make a difference. This is what schools are charged to do. And...

COX: Now, hold that thought for a second because - only because we have to take a short break. And I'd like to ask you...


COX: ...Judy Chiasson, to stick around with us. Eliza, I'd like to ask you to stick around as well. And Stanley, I'd like to ask you to stick around as well.


COX: Coming up, it is just a soccer game. We'll hear why you should not expect world peace out of the World Cup. Stay with us. I'm Tony Cox. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Right now, we are wrapping up our conversation about what life is like for gay teens in high school. Our guests are Judy Chiasson, who works with the Office of Human Relations, Diversity and Equity in the L.A. Unified School District; Eliza Byard, as - serves as executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network; and someone who joined us by phone who - Stanley, who was from Massachusetts, president of the PFLAG chapter there.

We only have a few moments left. I'd like to ask the three of you to put in perspective for us, as briefly as you can, sort of where we are now with regard to protecting the rights of this community versus where we have been and where you see us going. I know that's a mouthful, but try to boil it down as best you can. Stanley, I'm going to start with you and then I'm going to come to Judy and then, Eliza, you will get the last word. Stanley?

STANLEY: Yes, we have a lot of work to do. And schools still are unsafe for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. And we know what works. We need to have training of faculty on the intervention strategies. And we need policies that prohibit harassment and bullying.

COX: Stanley, I appreciate that answer. Thank you. And I appreciate your being short as well. Judy, what do you say?

Ms. CHIASSON: Absolutely. I agree with Stanley. We have a long ways to go. And I want to say we have come a long ways. Just the other day, I was working with some students and there were a fair - I would say over half the class would go(ph), well, what's the big deal? It's OK. You know, whatever, kids are gay. And then there were others in the class - and this was so inspiring - they said, you know, I never realized when I said "that's so gay" that I was really hurting somebody. I'm not going to say that again. So I saw hope, and I see change.

COX: That's a good thing. Eliza, do you see hope?

Ms. BYARD: I certainly do. And I would say GLSEN's been working on these issues for 20 years now. And where - we've come from the point where people thought that these weren't - these issues didn't play out in schools. And now we have specific solutions to address them. We have programs like our tested training for teachers, our partnership with New York City, the Respect For All, that shows a sustained effect on rates of intervention and empathy among teachers for what their students are going through. We have federal policies on - legislation on the table that would make these policies the rule rather than the exception across the land; chief among them the Student Non-Discrimination Act, currently before Congress, that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity - against students, and the Safe Schools Improvement Act, a key anti-bullying effort that specifically includes sexual orientation and gender identity and gender expression.

We've come to the point where we know what can make a difference. And the job at GLSEN, for PFLAG, for GLSEN's 30 chapters across the country, and people of great goodwill like Judy, our partner in L.A. Unified, is to make sure that these practices become institutionalized in the life of the school, so the school truly serves all of the young people in their care.

COX: Let me thank all of you for participating in this conversation, and the listeners and those who sent in their emails as well. It's been very enlightening. We've been talking with Judy Chiasson for the Office of Human Relations, Diversity and Equity in the L.A. Unified School District; and Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network - otherwise known as GLSEN - joining us from our New York bureau. Again, thank you both very much.

Ms. CHIASSON: Thank you, Eliza and Tony.

Ms. BYARD: Thank you both very much.

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