Sunday, March 2, 2008

Part I: 3rd Annual (Iowa) Governor's Conference on LGBT Youth, Safe Schools

Recently my eldest daughter and I went to the 3rd Annual Governor's Conference on LGBT Youth at Drake University in Des Moines, IA. The conference was put on by The GLBT Youth in Iowa Schools Task Force with a strong presence from the Iowa Pride Network and a number of other organizations involved with education, youth work and civil rights.

At the conference there was a lot of talk about Iowa's new harassment law. Since 2007 Iowa is one of a small group of states with harassment laws that specifically protect students who are GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender). These laws reflect the fact that students who are GLBT are at higher risk for almost everything a parent or teacher could worry about. The range is astonishing, but the research is pretty clear. These students are at increased risk of bullying, dropping out of school, suicide and even homelessness.

People at the conference were pretty upbeat, considering that the hate killings continue[1][2]. Maybe it is the perception that Iowa's new law is evidence that a plurality of Iowans get it. They get that specific protection is not "special treatment" when one is specifically targeted for harassment. A cornerstone of the right-wing argument against explicit protection has always been that it was unnecessary as bullying and harassment are broadly prohibited. This is clearly specious when you look at the stats on who is being harassed and what that does to them. If the broad, general policies were working then over the years our GLBT students should have been harassed at the same rate as and having similar outcomes to the general student population. That simply is not what the research shows.

I was surprised by a few things at the conference. First, John Amaechi is one of the best public speakers I've heard in some time and puts away the dumb jock stereotype for anybody who's listening. Second, so far as I could tell I was the only parent who was there simply as a parent. I'm sure some of the educators and policy makers in attendance are parents of youth who are GLBT but none of the students in attendance appeared to be with adults. Granted, my daughter and I didn't eat lunch together or attend any of the same sessions so most people probably thought she was there only with her peers, if they gave it any thought. Still, it felt strange, as if I were stepping outside the lines drawn for parents of GLBT kids. I didn't throw her out. I joined PFLAG. I'm supposed to be done? I know nobody actually thinks that, but in an era when we know parental involvement is linked to all things good in education I really thought it was weird that none of the other GLBT students at the conference had parents in tow.

I was also struck by the role religion played at the conference. Amaechi made some statements about spirituality that I thought smacked of civil religion, like Stephen Carter wrote about in The Culture of Disbelief. More interestingly, I spoke with two different Christian clergy at the conference, neither shy about their Christian faith nor their belief that God's love dictated that we treat people with respect, regardless of gender, sexuality, etc. I heard anecdotally that there was an effort to attract clergy to the conference. If true, I think that was very smart. I've known for a long time that a variety of Christians believe in things like marriage equality but it was especially cool to run into them at The Governor's Conference.

In my next post I will discuss a comment made by a student in the last session I attended at the conference, an ACLU publication I picked up there about same sex parents and what I think these things mean for the future of the Christian Right.

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