GLSEN ‘breaks silence’ on bias in schools

The Pittsburgh chapter of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network participated in a national day of silence April 9 to protest discrimination and harassment against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students in schools across the nation. Participants at high schools and colleges were silent throughout the day, handing out cards to explain why they weren’t speaking. In many cities, including Pittsburgh, “breaking the silence” events were held at the end of the day for participants to meet to talk about their experiences.

        According to GLSEN’s 2001 National School Climate Survey, four out of five gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students reported verbal, sexual or physical harassment at school, and 30 percent reported missing at least one day of school in a one-month period over fear for their personal safety.

        At the University of Pittsburgh’s William Pitt Union, where Pitt’s “breaking the silence” events were held, GLSEN board member Bart Rauluk noted that the Pittsburgh chapter is four years old and that the day of silence was “one of our first big events, particularly for students.”

        Rauluk said the local chapter’s experience mirrors the national organization’s bleak assessment of the experiences of gay youth: “It seems like every week we get e-mail messages from distraught or frantic high school students who are being beaten up or abused, and they don’t know what to do.”

        Lynn Sternberger, a senior at Taylor Alderdice High School in Squirrel Hill and president of the school’s gay-straight alliance, Alderdice Allies, said the school’s participation in the day of silence “went very well…. We had a school-wide event. We had about 165 kids at our school participate.” Allderdice Allies was founded three years ago by three of the school’s seniors.

        “We had a lot of people who were doing it for their first year, and we had a lot of people returning who did it last year and thought it was a worthy cause,” Sternberger added. “There weren’t any issues with harassment throughout the day, and the administration was somewhat cooperative.” She described the situation as “the best that could be expected” and said plenty of advance notification helped the event run smoothly.

        “We had posters up far in advance so the kids were already aware of what we were talking about…. They knew the point we were trying to make. By getting the idea out there, not only did we get more people to participate, but they were more aware of what’s happening in their schools,” Sternberger explained.

        A.J. Krall, an Allderdice junior, agreed: “It got a lot of people asking questions. Because you couldn’t talk, we would just take out the cards and hand them to people. Some people had bad reactions to it, but a lot of people had good reactions to it.”

        Krall said getting through the day was a challenge. “It was hard to stay quiet the whole day. Our ‘breaking the silence’ was eighth period, and they couldn’t get anyone to stop talking.”

        Justine, a leader of the gay-straight alliance at The Ellis School in Shadyside, said the school’s first day of silence also went well. Justine, who did not give her last name, said she made “speaking cards” for the 120 participants who signed up and gave each participant five additional cards to give to others who decided to participate throughout the day. “We had the support of the administration, in the high school at least,” she added, noting that Ellis includes grades kindergarten through 12. Ellis’ gay-straight alliance was formed two years ago; between eight and 20 students regularly attend meetings.

        But the experience was not as positive at Penn Hills High School, according to Angela, a senior. “In my school I had only three people participate because the school wouldn’t let me do it on a full scale. They thought it would cause too much of a disturbance,” she said. Angela noted that her teachers backed her effort, but a librarian told Angela that although she supported the event in principle, she thought students “should separate these issues from school.”

        “How can I separate these issues from school?” Angela asked, noting how difficult it is to be openly gay in high school. She said she has worked hard to start a gay-straight alliance at Penn Hills, but the school “kept pushing it off [and] pushing it off.… It’s my senior year, and as much as I don’t want to, I’m going to have to give this up because I have to concentrate on graduating.” Angela hopes an undergraduate will continue to work to start a gay-straight alliance at Penn Hills.

        Adam Hovne, a freshman with sophomore standing at the University of Pittsburgh and a member of Pittsburgh’s GLSEN board, said participants in the day of silence at Pitt “mostly had very positive impressions and experiences. They said that for the most part their right to be silent was respected.”  

        Pittsburgh’s GLSEN chapter elected new board members last summer, which “really energized the mission, which is, in part, to get out there and make the community understand that there is a GLBT community and we need to teach tolerance,” Rauluk said.

        “Our local schools are having a hard enough time allowing students to have gay-straight alliances,” Rauluk explained. “We’re seeing all kinds of reactions from school districts. Some districts are fine, some aren’t; some districts are trying to avoid it. It’s been a tough road.” 

        There are eight or nine gay-straight alliances in the Pittsburgh area, Rauluk said, adding that GLSEN hopes to add several more in the next year. A significant obstacle to getting gay-straight alliances approved, Rauluk said, is that school administrators often think, “This is about sex.”

        “No, this isn’t about sex, this is about teaching tolerance,” Rauluk stressed. “Legally, these students have every right to put together a club. So we help them with some of those peripheral issues—what are your rights, what should you do?”

        Gay-straight alliance community meetings, which are held every other Friday at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Squirrel Hill, are a source of help for many students. At the meetings, students can share ideas and stories with members of alliances from other schools.

        “We are very much a grassroots organization,” Rauluk said of GLSEN. “We have very limited resources, very limited volunteers, very limited donations. We’d really like more resources to help us get out into the community so that people understand what we’re trying to achieve.” Pittsburgh’s GLSEN chapter is especially in need of volunteers who have expertise in fund-raising, media relations, writing and law, Rauluk said.

        “If you can’t give money, then give your time,” Rauluk suggested.

For more information about the Pittsburgh chapter of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, call (412) 361-6996. Visit GLSEN’s national Web site at www.glsen.org.