School is not always the most comfortable, or safest, place for a gay student.
Even though attitudes toward homosexuality are changing among many young people, both teens and their teachers can be extremely insensitive to LGBT students, use hurtful language, or even participate in or condone violence in the most extreme cases.
The use of words like "fag" or "dyke" can be devastating for a young gay person trying to find their way, even when the word is used to mean something slightly different.
"'Fag' is synonymous with 'stupid' and phrases such as 'that's so gay' are widely used, but words do actually hurt, and we know that LGBTs are already more susceptible to all kinds of negative health outcomes, from suicide to depression to alcohol or drug use. They're also prone to dropping out and being homeless because their parents kicked them out for being who they are," said Sarah Young, outreach coordinator of the Mississippi ACLU and a member of Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition steering committee.
Young says, however, that making the classroom or school more conducive to alternative-lifestyle students doesn't have to take much effort. In some cases, discouraging the use of words like "fag" or "dyke" can make a huge difference. Many teachers, it turns out, don't realize how damaging such labels can be to gays and lesbians.
Youth risk-behavior surveys show that 26 percent of gay or lesbian students interviewed in one 2007 survey had considered suicide within the last year, while 12 percent attempted suicide that required medical attention. Homosexual youth in a 2005 Chicago youth risk behavior survey had it slightly worse, with 33.3 percent of homosexuals surveyed and 35 of bisexual students surveyed admitting to having made a suicide plan, compared to only 9.7 percent of heterosexual students.
More than 27 percent of those same gay and lesbian students had actually attempted to carry out that suicide plan, while more than 33 percent of bisexual students had given their own suicide plans a shotcompared to only 7.5 percent of heterosexual students.
A 2007 study in Wisconsin revealed that sexual minority students were 3.7 times more at risk for having attempted suicide in the past two months, compared to heterosexual students.
The Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition is entering its second year of existence. The organization is committed to protecting students' constitutional rights, but also exists to bring about change in Mississippi schools by "ending homophobia, transphobia, sexism and all forms of discrimination, and fostering acceptance of LGBT students through public education and advocacy," according to its mission statement.
Such a progressive plan might seem difficult in a state that amended its Constitution to define marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman in 2004. Mississippi is a state whose laws do not explicitly allow a gay partner to make medical decisions on behalf of their incapacitated same-sex partner, and a state that whose laws declare that "couples of the same gender" may not petition to adopt a child.
The work ahead does not intimidate Young, though, who says the coalition re-educates from the ground up to be effective.
"The coalition is a broad base of students, teachers and parents trying to work at a grass-roots level," Young said. "Our experience is that safer schools mean better performance on test scores and better attendance. If you're being bullied, for whatever reason, you're terrified to come to school. You skip, so it's better for everyone to work with us."
Safe Schools offers counseling, advice and information to students, teachers, parents, administrators or anybody who is interested in learning how to make their school an easier environment in which to get along.
"We've gathered tools and information that we're dying to share with teachers to make their classroom safer," Young said. "But teachers are so busy, it's insane. They're worried about test scores and all kinds of things going on, and the very idea of making classrooms safer is automatically accepted as yet another thing to do in an already overwhelming day."
Young has high hopes for Mississippi, pointing out that younger generations have an easier time accepting alternative lifestyles than many adults.
Her belief coincides with the results of numerous studies, including the August 2009 Center for American Progress report "Gay Rights in the States: Public Opinion and Policy Responsiveness." That report breaks down explicit support for same-sex marriage by state and age group. The figures show that while Mississippi ranks near the bottom of the national scale when it comes to support of same-sex marriage, the state's younger people (ages 18 to 29) appear to show more support for gay marriage than seniors age 65 or older in highly progressive states like Massachusetts.
"I'm not trying to minimize the discomfort that other youth are causing (their gay peers), because bullying or harassment from students is there, but the huge power plays are coming from adults," Young said.