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LGBTQ

Obama’s Contributions to Social Change Will Leave a Lasting Legacy

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History is already attempting to rewrite Obama’s presidency. Over his eight years in office, Obama never exuded anything less than class, intelligence and an apparently endless appetite for hope and optimism. He frequently spoke about the progress toward a more perfect union and never publically condemned the colleagues who chose to hold him back.

Our former President spent most of his second term under siege from an uncompromising, myopic and greedy political party that controlled Congress and its purse strings. Perhaps no American president has had to endure so many vicious attacks on his character and “agenda,” most of which is planted firmly in the realm of common sense.

Look Beyond the Propaganda

During his time in office, Obama attempted to:

  • Sign a comprehensive infrastructure bill that would have rejuvenated America’s failing roads and other essential construction projects.
  • Sign a bipartisan transportation and housing bill.
  • Sign bills requiring equal pay for women and an overdue increase in the Federal minimum wage.
  • Sign a law that would limit offshoring and outsourcing, to keep American jobs in America.
  • Sign a law that would rehire 400,000 teachers, police officers, paramedics and firefighters.
  • Sign a law reforming student loan to make it more manageable and less punitive.
  • Sign a law that would have extended unemployment benefits for the most desperate Americans in times of hardship.
  • Sign a law that would have guaranteed millionaires pay similar tax rates as working Americans.
  • Sign a law that would have repealed subsidies for Big Oil.

If you’ve relied on television for your news — or even the major outlets with a digital presence — you’re probably familiar with tragically few of Obama’s efforts to reverse a generations-old trend toward ever-worsening inequality. He wanted to build an America that actually chose to rise to our potential instead of squandering it.

But Republicans stopped all of it from happening. They said they were halting the slippery slope toward tyranny — and they said it with a straight face.

What did we get instead? Eight years of Obama standing before the nation begging for a reasoned conversation about how to fix the middle class and create a government and nation that works for all of us, rather than only working for the rich. Eight years of Republicans saying “No.” The above is only a tiny sampling of GOP efforts to sabotage Obama — there are hundreds more examples.

None of this is to say Republicans — or even “conservative thinking” — is necessarily the problem here. The point is this: When evil wants to halt real social progress in its steps, the GOP is the tool it most frequently uses to do so. The Democratic Party might be out of touch these days, but the GOP is a deadly tumor that’s slowly killing us.

The ‘Signature’ Issue: Obamacare

No accounting of Obama’s tilting at the windmills of progress is complete without a word about The Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare.” It’s his signature accomplishment, after all.

And yes, it’s complicated. Portions of it aren’t quite working as intended, but the goal of the law was to insure folks who’d never previously had insurance, either because their genetic code disqualified them or because they couldn’t afford it. By these standards, Obamacare has been a remarkable success. Twenty million Americans now have health insurance who did not previously have it, despite Republican efforts in Congress to literally steal the money meant to pay for it all.

You can’t be an informed citizen and still believe the ACA is some kind of albatross around the neck of America’s economy. It’s not socialized medicine. Hell, it’s not even universal healthcare. But it did move the Overton Window in a big way. The Overton Window is that magical spectrum that houses all of the ideas mainstream America is willing to entertain at any given time. Thanks to Obama’s presidency, the Overton Window now includes the concept of universal, unconditional healthcare. Other nations took the lead, and America took a while to catch on, but now we’re there.

Whether our current administration follows the painfully obvious bread crumb trail toward the only healthcare fix that makes any kind of sense today — a single-payer, Medicare-for-all system — is the only unanswered question.

Missed Opportunities

After we spend a couple more years toiling under the American Taliban we call Congress, Americans are probably going to start missing Obama in a big way. His story is a frustrating one, given where things are headed, but his actions speak far louder than bluster, outrage, vitriol and smear campaigns. If you look at his record objectively, you’ll see a man who frequently stood alone against impossible odds on your behalf and mine.

And yes, it’s a touch tragic. In his book “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama writes elegantly and sadly about the compromises implicitly expected of a would-be politician. He admits:

“I can’t assume that the money chase [of seeking reelection] didn’t alter me in some ways … Increasingly I found myself spending time with people of means … [who] reflected, almost uniformly, the perspectives of their class: the top 1 percent or so of the income scale that can afford to write a $2,000 check to a political candidate … I know that as a consequence of my fund-raising I became more like the wealthy donors I met, in the very particular sense that I spent more and more of my time above the fray, outside the world of immediate hunger, disappointment, fear, irrationality, and frequent hardship of the other 99 percent of the population — that is, the people that I’d entered public life to serve.”

Reading these words hurts when they were written by a man who campaigned relentlessly on the idea of hope and change. It’s here that Obama’s only real failure resides, but it’s not an upworthy, sexy or outrageous topic, so we don’t talk about it. And Republicans don’t talk about it either, because they’ve made a science of taking the kind of bribes Obama spends his time here lamenting.

Instead, we get politicians like Chris Christie who use oxymoronical phrases like “feckless tyrant” to discuss Obama in front of a live TV audience. Bluster and hatred has attempted to overshadow the real story of Obama’s presidency.

And that real story is called measurable social progress. In addition to laying the groundwork for a brand-new healthcare system, Obama also managed to:

  • Oversee a 5.4% drop in unemployment over the course of six years.
  • Pass a $787 billion Recovery and Reinvestment package to see the middle class through the Great Recession.
  • Be instrumental in the LGBT community’s fight for equal rights and the official recognition of same-sex marriage.
  • Lay the groundwork for U.S. energy independence by the year 2020 and become a world leader in a 200-country climate change accord.
  • Help keep immigrant families together by expanding work permit programs.
  • Impose consumer protections and reform efforts on Wall Street.
  • Reduce the United States’ unconscionable use of torture.
  • Normalize our relationship with nearby Cuba.
  • Impose stricter fuel efficiency standards on American automobile manufacturers.
  • Take better care of returning veterans with a $78 billion G.I. bill.

The list goes on, and anyone who’s honest with themselves couldn’t possibly remember this man’s time in office as a failure. In fact, in the uncompromising light of these encouraging facts, even the phrase “missed opportunity” starts sounding a little quaint and hysterical.

          
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LGBTQ

Certain Moral Values May Lead to More Prejudice, Discrimination

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People who value following purity rules over caring for others are more likely to view gay and transgender people as less human, which leads to more prejudice and support for discriminatory public policies, according to a new study published by the American Psychological Association.

“After the Supreme Court decision affirming marriage equality and the debate over bathroom rights for transgender people, we realized that the arguments were often not about facts but about opposing moral beliefs,” said Andrew E. Monroe, PhD, of Appalachian State University and lead author of the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

“Thus, we wanted to understand if moral values were an underlying cause of prejudice toward gay and transgender people.”

Monroe and his co-author, Ashby Plant, PhD, of Florida State University, focused on two specific moral values –what they called sanctity, or a strict adherence to purity rules and disgust over any acts that are considered morally contaminating, and care, which centers on disapproval of others who cause suffering without just cause – because they predicted those values might be behind the often-heated debates over LGBTQ rights.

The researchers conducted five experiments with nearly 1,100 participants. Overall, they found that people who prioritized sanctity over care were more likely to believe that gay and transgender people, people with AIDS and prostitutes were more impulsive, less rational and, therefore, something less than human. These attitudes increased prejudice and acceptance of discriminatory public policies, according to Monroe.

Conversely, people who endorsed care over sanctity were more likely to show compassion for those populations, as well as support public policies that would help them.

“The belief that a person is no better than an animal can become a justification for tolerating and causing harm,” said Plant. “When we believe that someone lacks self-control and discipline, we may make moral judgments about their life choices and behaviors, which can lead down a dark path of discrimination and hate.”

The first experiment involved people who were generally moderate politically and religiously. They rated their agreement with five moral values (care, fairness, sanctity, loyalty and authority) and then read short descriptions of five different men: a gay man, a man with AIDS, an African-American man, an obese man and a white man. Afterward, the participants filled out questionnaires about their thoughts on each man’s state of mind (e.g., “John is rational and logical”) and emotions (e.g., “John is rigid and cold”) and their attitudes and feelings of warmth toward each man.

“We found that people who placed more value on sanctity were more likely to believe that the gay man and man with AIDS had less rational minds than the obese, African-American or white men,” said Monroe.

Experiment two focused on how political affiliation might affect responses. The researchers recruited an equal number of self-identified liberal and conservative participants and used the same morality survey as in the first experiment, but this time, participants rated their thoughts on the state of mind for only four men: a gay man, a man with AIDS, an African-American man and a white man.  The liberals and conservatives then assessed their feelings of prejudice for each man (e.g., “I would rather not have a black person/gay person/person with AIDS in the same apartment building I live in”), their attitudes about public policies that would help or harm gay people (e.g., conversion therapy) and people with AIDS and their willingness to help them by being involved with pro-gay/AIDS awareness activities.

Liberals tended to value care and fairness more while conservatives were more focused on loyalty, authority and sanctity. And the people who valued sanctity were more likely to discriminate against the gay man and man with AIDS but not the African-American or white men, according to the study.

Experiment three focused on perceptions of transgender people and found that participants who endorsed sanctity were more likely to hold prejudiced attitudes about transgender people and to support discriminatory public policies.

The fourth experiment tested whether temporarily increasing sanctity values, relative to care, increased dehumanization and prejudice. Experimenters collected survey responses on a college campus on two separate days –Ash Wednesday—a day associated with sanctity and spiritual cleansing in the Christian faith—and a non-religious day. Participants filled out a survey intended to assess their moral beliefs and attitudes toward a woman described as a prostitute.

Participants surveyed on Ash Wednesday reported much higher concerns about sanctity compared to care and this caused participants to become more likely to dehumanize and express negative feelings towards the prostitute, according to the study.

The final study explored whether heightening concern about care was an effective method of reducing prejudice about gay and transgender people. To prime care values, participants listened to a radio news clip about the importance of safe spaces for people of color, while in the control condition participants listened to a clip about Brexit. Afterward, the participants rated their moral values, made judgments of a transgender woman, a gay man and a white man and indicated their support or disapproval of three public policies that would either help or harm gay and transgender people (e.g., national legislation for marriage equality, banning transgender people from the military).

Participants who listened to the clip about safe spaces emphasized caring as an important moral value over those who listened to the clip about Brexit. Caring individuals showed less prejudice toward gay and transgender people and less acceptance of discriminatory policies against them.

“Our study suggests that a person’s moral values can be altered, at least temporarily, and that highlighting certain values, like caring, can be an effective way to combat prejudice,” said Monroe. “We hope that by showing the moral roots of bias and discrimination against sexual and gender minorities we encourage others to conduct further research to increase equity and inclusion.”

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LGBTQ

The Power of Language and Labels

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A while ago I posted a meme which said, “Better to have lost in love than to live with a psycho for the rest of your life.”

I liked it, of course, otherwise, I wouldn’t have posted it. Eleven others did too, some commenting on Facebook, “Amen to that,” and “Definitely!!”

Then this: “Hate it. It’s beat up on people with mental illness time again. Ever had the amazing person you love tell you that they just can’t deal with your mental illness anymore? Our society is totally phobic about people with mental illness having intimate relationships.”

Woah, that came a bit out of the blue. I hadn’t made the link between “person with a mental illness” and “psycho”, otherwise I wouldn’t have posted it. It didn’t say, “Better to have lost in love than to live with a person with a mental illness for the rest of your life.” I had linked “psycho” with the often weird, unspoken assumptions people make when in relationships, which have kept me out of long-term relationships all my life.

It made me think, though. Suppose it had read, “Better to have lost in love than to live with an idiot for the rest of your life.” Would that have been a slight against people experiencing unique learning function?

Probably a more accurate meme would have been, “Better to have lost in love than to live with an arsehole for the rest of your life.” But that’s not what the image said.

For the record, I have had someone I loved tell me he couldn’t cope with my unique physical function anymore. It was hard to hear, but ultimately he was the one who lost out. And I know intuitively many would-be lovers haven’t even gone there — again, their loss and my gain, because why would I want to be with anyone so closed-minded?

The power we let labels have over us can be overwhelming. If I had a dollar for every time a person called someone a “spaz” in my presence, I’d be wealthy. If I got offended because “spaz” is a shortened version of “spastic”, which is one of my diagnoses, and I got another dollar for that, well — I’d be angrily living in the Bahamas.

I think the evolution of language — and the generalization of words like, “gay,” “spaz,” “idiot” and “psycho” — creates the opportunity for them to lose their charge and liberate us from their stigma. By allowing them to continue having power over us, though, we re-traumatize ourselves every time we hear them. Words are symbols and they change meaning over time and in different contexts.

I celebrate that “gay” means “not for me” rather than “fag”; that “spaz” means “over-reacting”, not “crippled”; that “idiot” means “unthinking”, not “retarded”; and that “psycho” means “someone with weird, unspoken assumptions”, not “a crazy person”.

By letting words change meaning for us, we are redefining diversity and creating social change. It’s not a case of, “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” It’s recognizing that, unless someone is looking directly at us menacingly, calling us gay, spaz, idiot or psycho, we’re not in their minds — they’ve moved on.

Maybe it’s useful for us to move on with them?

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Child Welfare

Right from the Start: Investing in Parents and Babies – Alan Sinclair

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It is widely accepted the earliest months and years of a child’s existence have the most profound impact on the rest of the lives. Attachment theorists believe the early bonds and relationships a child forms with his/her carer(s) or parent(s), informs that child’s ability or inability to form successful and healthy relationships in the future.

Alan Sinclair’s ‘Right from the Start’ is the latest in the Postcards from Scotland series of short books, which aim to stimulate new and fresh thinking about why us Scots are the way we are.

In my previous book review in the Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care, I commended the author of ‘Hiding in Plain Sight’ (another book in the same series) Carol Craig for her ability to write succinctly and accessibly about a complex subject matter. I feel the same way about Alan Sinclair’s writing in this book.

The premise of this book, put simply, is laying out the bare truths of how good and bad us Scots are at parenting as well as having the appropriate supporting systems in place for parents and carers of our most vulnerable children.

A consistent thread throughout the book is the author arguing that by investing in parents and babies ‘from the start’, governments and the surrounding systems who support children and families can relieve the heartache of tomorrow in the form of poorer outcomes in education, employment and in health.
The book begins by acknowledging the UK’s position on the UNICEF global league table of child well-being, ranking 29 of the world’s richest countries against each other. The UK is placed 16th, our particular challenge being a high proportion of young people not in work, training or education. Although the league table did not single out the devolved nation of Scotland, the author describes the UK as a ‘decent proxy for Scotland’.

The first 1,000 days

The author goes on to explore the theory of the first 1,000 days of a child’s life. This theory suggests this is the most significant indicator of what the future holds for them. He touches on child poverty, which we know from well-cited research can lead to adversities in life, but he also mentions too much money can be an issue as well.

This point is explored more deeply later in the book’s in a chapter titled: ‘Is social class a factor?’. The author is effective at challenging the popular rhetoric that it’s the least educated and most poverty-stricken parents in society who are most likely to neglect their children. He talks about the longitudinal study, Growing Up in Scotland, which tracks the lives of thousands of children and families from birth to teens. Amongst many other findings, the survey shows 20% of children from the top income bracket have below average vocabulary; it also finds problem-solving capabilities are below average for 29% of this group. This proposes child poverty is only a small indicator of the child’s developmental prospects.

Where the Dutch Get it Right

The most intriguing part of the book from my point of view is the comparison the author makes between raising a child in Scotland versus the Netherlands (which ranked first in the UNICEF league table). In Holland, pregnant women have visits from a Kraamzorg, an omnipresent healthcare professional who identifies the type of support required. Post-birth the Kraamzorg plays a very active role and can typically spend up to eight hours a day supporting the new mother in her first week of childcare. The Kraamzorg also becomes involved in household chores including shopping and cooking. And it doesn’t stop there. The Dutch system includes Mother and Baby Wellbeing Clinics, which support families from birth to school age and have been doing so effectively for the last century.

On reading how the Dutch system operates, it’s hard to not make comparisons to the system here in Scotland (and the wider UK) within our NHS where mothers are wheeled in to give birth and very quickly wheeled out again to free up bed space. I exaggerate slightly here and I do not want to discredit the incredible job hard-working NHS staff do, but I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling envious of the Dutch system and thinking they’ve got something right, in comparison with Scotland. This was neatly summarised at the start of the book in a quote from a Dutch woman who had spent time living in both Holland and Scotland when she said: ‘In Holland we love children. In Scotland you tolerate children.’

But it’s not all bad. As the author remarks himself: ‘Scottish parenting is not universally awful: if we were we would not be almost halfway up the global table of child well-being’ (p. 12).

The penultimate chapter explores some real-life examples of parents who are struggling and striving to succeed in bringing up children with some success despite the odds stacked against them. I found the author’s injection of such human stories among the explanation of evidence useful as it allowed a chance for the reader to reflect on how all this is applicable in everyday life in Scotland.

To me, there was, however, a glaring omission in these stories: a voice from the LGBT community. Gay adoption in Scotland was legalised almost 10 years ago in 2009, and at the same time the Looked After Children (Scotland) Regulation 2009 came into force allowing same-sex couples to be considered as foster parents. It would have been interesting to hear from this historically marginalised part of our society what the experience has been like and how different, or similar, this was from the other stories included in this chapter. Are they arguably better equipped as carers of Scotland’s most vulnerable children given their own life experiences of being marginalised?

The book ends with the author setting out his vision for a better future for Scotland’s children where they have better life chances and are fully nurtured. It’s clear we have some way to go but reading this book makes you feel a glimmer of hope that could, one day, become a reality.

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Health

National AIDS Awareness Month

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Even though the overall number of people with HIV and AIDS has fallen, it is still a disease which predominately affects gay males. An estimated 67% of new HIV cases are transmitted via male-to-male sexual contact, with heterosexual contact accounting for 24%, and 6% due to drug use. Young people are also more likely to be infected. Young people ages 13-24 account for 21% of new AIDS cases. The most at risk individuals are young gay and bisexual men which “accounted for 81% of all new HIV diagnoses in people aged 13 to 24 in 2016, and young African American gay and bisexual men are even more severely affected,” according to the CDC.

Since 1987, the first year Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was listed on death certificates, over 500,000 people have died in the United States from HIV/AIDS. That’s more than the number of people who have died in the Syrian War. Currently, in the United States, AIDS is the 9th leading cause of death in people 25-44 years old.

The AIDS epidemic reached its peak in 1992, with an estimated 78,000 cases diagnosed annually. Since then, AIDS diagnosis began to steadily decline until stabilizing in the late 1990s at approximately 40,000 cases diagnosed annually. The latest statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show between 2010 and 2015 the estimated number of annual infections declined 8% from 41,800 to 38,500.

Victims of intimate partner violence (IPV) are also at a greater risk for contracting HIV. People who report a history of being a victim of IPV are more likely to engage in risky behaviors – intravenous drug use, prostitution, unprotected anal sex – increasing their risk of contracting HIV. HIV-positive women also report higher rates of IPV than the general population.

The opioid epidemic is responsible for the first uptick of HIV diagnosis attributed to intravenous drug use in two decades. In 2015, opioid use led to 181 individuals being diagnosed with HIV in Scott County, Indiana. Lowell, Massachusetts has also seen a recent spike in HIV cases attributed to opioid use.

One of the biggest obstacles faced by HIV/AIDS patients is a healthcare system which is less than perfect. A recent Times article stated, “no class of medicines is more scandalously expensive than for H.I.V.” In the U.S., HIV medication can cost $39,000 a year, while countries in Africa the same medication costs $75 a year.

The U.S. healthcare system may not be perfect, but HIV treatments are getting better. Experts think it’s possible HIV transmission can be stopped in the United States within 3-7 years. The most current and powerful antiretroviral drugs on the market can lower the amount HIV in a person’s system to a level so low it cannot be transmitted.

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Diversity

Let’s Have Some New Gender Stories–Please

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When I was a kid, there were girls and boys, men and women. My sister was a bit of a tomboy which was hardly surprising perhaps given she had two older brothers. Truth be known, I was a bit of a sissy – not as acceptable as my sister’s gender-non-stereotypical behavior. However, apart from ‘big boys don’t cry’, I was never particularly shamed on account of it.

Those were the early 70s and 80s. Cut to the mid-80s, as puberty and adolescence coursed through my body and threw open my mind, one afternoon I was watching Ready to Roll and a new song appeared on the charts: “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” by Culture Club. The group was fronted by this person over whom, for the next couple of weeks (there was no Google back then), I obsessed. Whether they were female or male, I really couldn’t tell.

Finally, listening to the UK Top 40, it was confirmed: Boy George was a guy and he preferred a cup of tea to sex.

Then followed others in the new romantic music scene of the 80s: Dead or Alive’s Pete Burn, Marilyn, Annie Lennox, and others. All challenged gender appearance norms in what seemed to be a sea-change of gender ambiguity. Even before my burgeoning awareness of my own sexual orientation, I remember having this growing excitement that gender, as we knew it, had changed for the better and, I was sure, or at least hopeful, it would never be the same.

Alas, the 90s intervened. The Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys fought back, re-entrenching the normative ideology that boys were boys and girls were girls. Even Blur’s “Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys Who Like Girls” couldn’t cut through the hysterical backlash.

Hyper-gender-role-normalcy had to be restored because, well, it had to be. In my late teens and early 20s, as I came out and became immersed in the social and political worlds of the gay scene, the only genderf*cking to be seen was the caricatured gender stereotyping of drag queens and, less commonly, drag kings.

The intriguing, creative, uncertain and unknowing story of androgyny, it seemed, had just been a phase.

Over the following couple of decades, a new phenomenon emerged: the transgender or now more openly termed trans* movement moved to the fore. Beginning, in my circle anyway, mainly with men who decided to live as women and then women who would realize that they identified as men.

Unlike androgyny, trans* people wanted to be recognized, for all intents and purposes, as the opposite gender. Most would want their birth gender to go unnoticed; a few activists would tell their story to raise awareness and lessen the stigma.

This new phenomenon medically termed gender dysphoria but politically dubbed genderqueer speaks a different story: gender isn’t what you’re born with — it’s what you think and how you feel. Sometimes they match, sometimes they don’t. If it’s the latter, it’s okay to change.

I felt compelled to write this blog is when I read a news article entitled Born in the Wrong Body, which I think signals the beginning of another new story:

  • “The parents of a seven-year-old girl are backing a decision for her to live as a boy and to medically stop puberty.
  • “If he reaches 11, 12 or 13 and decides it’s not what he wants, then he stops blockers and he’ll go through puberty as a woman,’ said the child’s mother.”

Here’s why I think it’s a new story, one which I’m excited about. Boy George and his peers told a story of growing up cis-gendered (meaning the gender they were born), but refusing to conform to gender stereotypes, particularly in appearance.

Trans* people tell the same first half of the story:

I grew up cis-gendered. (Then it changes.) It didn’t feel right. When I was old enough to be autonomous I changed my gender. I had to take hormones and have surgery to undo what puberty and adolescence did, which was to make me an adult of the gender I didn’t identify with.

This boy, the subject of the article, and Jason mentioned later, will tell a new story:

I was born a physical gender that didn’t match my identity. I was aware and my parents were open enough to understand, so took steps to allow me to grow up and go through puberty and adolescence that gave me an adult body that better matched my gender identity.

I was surprised at Georgina Beyer’s response:

“I don’t think a seven-year-old has enough life experience to understand precisely what they’re doing. I think it’s better a person gets to puberty and through puberty and then if this is continuing to develop . . . then yes, there is more of a case to be fought.”

I disagree with that stance because, all through life, we do things about which we may feel different later. If this boy gets to 15 and wants to be female, the woman he will then become will simply have another part to her story:

And then I changed my mind.

The stories we tell as humans are what sets us apart from every other species on the planet. Yet we fear to change our stories. We mindlessly ignore the influence of nurture on our social and intellectual development. We conservatively defer to nature as being statically right, rather than embracing the wonder of human nature: that we can change what nature creates for us because we have the awareness, understanding, technology and will to do so.

Changing our stories is what allows us to evolve. Our gender stories are the most basic and fundamental of all. Until we can change those, how on earth will we change the more complex stories of our diversity?

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Education

What Schools Can Do To Reduce Risky Behaviors and Suicides Among Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth

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A high school English teacher in New Mexico told me about one of his students who had difficulty focusing in class. When the teacher showed concern, the student confided in him that her parents had kicked her sister out of the house after they found out she was dating a girl. The teacher tried his best to console the student and referred her to the school counselors for help.

The next year, the same girl sought his support when her parents took similar punitive measures against her because she, too, came out as a lesbian. This time he spoke openly with her, explaining that she had to keep her spirits up; that no matter what happened, she had to be true to herself. In concluding the story for me, the teacher explained that he knows the school needs to be a safe place in a community that may not accept his student. But even though he strives to create a safe environment, he does not think all staff people or students at the school are equally accepting.

At another high school, I heard something quite different. When asked about the experience of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students, an administrator responded – simply and implausibly – “We don’t have any of those kids at this school.”

Such accounts from teachers, administrators, nurses, and counselors illustrate the importance of schools and school staff for students struggling with their sexual orientation in a world that does not always support or even acknowledge their existence. Paradoxically, schools are often the only places lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth may find marginally more accepting than the surrounding community – and of course schools may not be more accepting. The everyday traumas experienced by these youth, especially when they find themselves in schools that ignore their needs, can put lesbian, gay, and bisexual students at increased risk for depression, substance misuse, and suicide.

Research Links Suicide to Sexuality

According to the Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than two-fifths of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth have seriously contemplated suicide. These young people are three times more likely to think about taking their own lives than their straight peers and four times more likely to actually plan and attempt suicide.

In addition to risk of suicide, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are twice as likely to be bullied or threatened with a weapon on campus and three times more likely to miss school because they feel unsafe. Risk behaviors that could result in negative health outcomes are also prevalent at a higher rate among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. For example, such young people have higher rates of smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, misusing prescription medicines, and using dangerous drugs including cocaine and heroin.

These statistics underline serious threats to many American young people. What can be done? The Center for Disease Control has identified several evidence-based ways to reduce the risk of suicide and risk behaviors among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth – by creating safer and more supportive school environments. So far, however, these strategies have not been fully or consistently implemented, and they are only rarely combined to create an optimum response.

How Schools Can Help

Schools are a critical point of intervention because they are the places where students spend most of their waking hours. When it comes to reducing risky or suicidal behaviors, schools are second in importance only to families. School nurses and counselors also often provide the first line of response to student medical or behavioral health issues. In rural settings where resources can be scarce, the school or school-based health center may be the main place students can find support or help. Based on available evidence, the Center for Disease Control has defined several strategies that can be adopted and combined to ensure that all American young people are supported and protected, regardless of their sexual orientation. According to these recommendations, schools can take the following steps – and, to date, only eight percent of schools do all.

  • Create “safe spaces” like a designated classroom, office, or student organization where students can receive support from school staff or other students. Only about 60% of schools currently have such spaces available.
  • Prohibit bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation or gender expression. Most schools report having such policies in place, but a fraction of them do not.
  • Facilitate access to medical health and behavioral health providers with experience serving lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. Fewer than half of US. high schools facilitate such access.
  • Promote professional lessons on how staff can create safe and supportive school environments. Less than 60% of high schools provide this type of support to their faculty.
  • Deliver health education that includes information relevant to lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. Only one-fourth of U.S. schools do this.

These strategies are an important way to address the needs of not only lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth, but may also help transgender and gender non-conforming students as well. Unfortunately, research on these subgroups and programs to help them remains to be done. An important recent development is the inclusion a gender identity question in the 2017 Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey.

Recognizing the existence of sexual and gender minorities in America’s schools and gathering large-scale data about their experiences can provide a clearer picture of the challenges various groups of students face – and, in turn, allow improved responses to their needs. By creating safer and more supportive school environments, we can reduce dangerous behaviors, eliminate many suicides, and improve academic and health outcomes, not only for sexual and gender minority youth, but also for all other students in our schools. Problems and tragedies that affect some students reverberate among many – and undermine America’s future.

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