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The Power of One

You might be all that’s preventing your gay student from dropping out.

By Mary Ellen Flannery

Shhhh! Dozens of students, including these four, raised awareness of gay student issues through national Day of Silence at Little Rock Central High.

Photo: Kelly Quinn

In 10th grade, Jeana Huie went through three sets of textbooks after bullies ripped them to shreds. She ate lunch in her car after kids threw her food to the cafeteria floor, and she avoided the bathroom in the Little Rock, Arkansas, public school after they shoved her face in the toilet.

“Any place that was unsupervised, I avoided,” says Huie, now 23. By October of her 11th grade year, she had made it to school on just 11 days. Finally, after a brutal beating in the school parking lot, which teachers watched but didn’t stop, Huie couldn’t take it any more.

Gay kids who can’t point to a single supportive adult ... are twice as likely to miss school.

She dropped out.

An appalling one in four American teens don’t earn a high school diploma and countless thousands of them are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered, or questioning (GLBTQ).

Even as states from Iowa to Maine embrace gay marriage, most GLBTQ students, especially those of color, don’t feel safe at school. Nearly 9 out of 10 have been verbally harassed on campus; almost a quarter have been physically abused; and an alarming number say educators saw it and did nothing. Scared and depressed, too many skip school, fail classes, and eventually just walk away.

In a new report, “Stepping Out of the Closet, Into the Light,” NEA reflects on the stunning toll suffered by gay students—or those perceived to be gay—and calls on educators, regardless of their own views on homosexuality, to stand up for kids. “This is about young people, their safety and ability to achieve,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, in introducing the report.

Answering the Call

It starts with one adult.

That person—a single supportive adult in the lives of gay kids at school—is the most critical factor in making GLBTQ students feel safe, do well in school, and graduate, research shows.

At Little Rock Central High School, a beacon for civil rights since nine Black students faced an angry mob in 1957, that person is Lynn Smith. Smith, 54, has been teaching art for more than 30 years and, for most of that tenure, was a regular, married guy with two kids. He still is that. But his second marriage is to another man.

More than anything, Smith believes, with all his heart, that it’s okay to be yourself. Whether that’s a middle-aged Southerner with a same-sex spouse or a curly-haired teen with a penchant for Japanese food and other girls, it’s okay. And that’s a message that resonates with kids, especially those questioning their sexual orientation or suffering taunts from other kids about perceived “gayness.”

For those kids who aren’t sure what they are (although their bullies seem to know), the risks are particularly high. While GLBT students are nearly twice as likely to consider dropping out, questioning students are seven times more likely. Thankfully, for those kids at Central, they can always visit Smith’s classroom. He didn’t fit in either, he says.

“Mr. Smith is incredible!” exclaims Devon Bearden, president of Central’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). The 16-year-old winner of a national courage award, Beardon knows incredible. “I’m out and I don’t mind being loud about it,” she says. “If I can help just one other person [like me] feel comfortable, it’s worth it.”

Many gay kids can name one supportive adult at their school, and it does make a difference. Gay kids who can’t point to a single supportive adult get significantly worse grades, are twice as likely to miss school, and almost three times less likely to see college in their future, according to a national survey by GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.


Lynn Smith, Central’s art teacher, couldn’t say no when Devon Bearden (above) asked him to advise the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance.

Photo: Kelly Quinn

But you don’t have to be Harvey Milk—or even Lynn Smith. As small a gesture as a rainbow sticker in your room works wonders. Also popular these days because of their celebrity-powered TV spots, are free posters from GLSEN’s ThinkB4YouSpeak campaign. Less edgy, and more appropriate for younger children, are resources from the No Name-Calling Week campaign (January 25–29, 2010).

Even more meaningful are your own words. When Connecticut teacher Kristie Schmidt hears her teens complain, “That’s so gay!” she quickly rejoins, “You’re not using that word correctly.” (Classic English teacher!) And when they protest that they just meant something was lousy, she strikes again: You are insulting all gay people with your negative speech. “Do you know any gay people?” she asks.

The Red Shirt Brigade

This year, as spring came to Little Rock, the kids in the Central GSA put on matching red T-shirts and turned off the teen chatter. It was the Day of Silence, a national event to protest the silencing of GLBTQ youth by bullies, and even Bearden, a tireless spokeswoman for the cause of equality, did her best to stay quiet. “When [other kids] see us doing these events, they ask questions, and some are more intelligent than others,” she noted drily.

Later that day, sitting on the grass beneath Central’s iconic facade, Smith and his students reflected on the day’s success. So many supportive comments! So many red T-shirts worn in solidarity!

“We can’t say we’re changing minds, but we’re opening doors,” says Bearden. “Talk about us positively or negatively, either way the conversation is happening.”

Nearly half of gay high school students say their school has a GSA, and those kids are about a third as likely to be threatened or injured at school and less than half as likely to attempt suicide, according to GLSEN. (Sadly, gay students still have a suicide rate three to four times higher than their straight peers). Studies also found it doesn’t make a big difference if the GSA is large or small, loud or quiet—its mere presence makes a positive difference.

But at least half of all high schools don’t have GSAs, and they’re especially rare in rural areas, the South, and predominantly Black schools. Consider Yulee High School in north Florida, where a judge reminded administrators earlier this year that, yes, students do have the right to form a GSA. In their efforts to ban it, school administrators had shut down every extra-curricular activity, including cheerleading and football.

You might not expect Little Rock to be much different. Last year, just a few miles away, marchers in a Pride Day parade stepped through streets strewn with manure. But in 2005, Little Rock school board members unanimously approved anti-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation and gender identity.

“If we can do it here, you can do it anywhere,” promises Mary Ann Hansen, a Little Rock music teacher and southeast regional director for the NEA GLBT Caucus.

Five years ago, Little Rock school officials also required educators from every middle and high school to attend training on GLBTQ issues, where Hansen led discussions that ranged from suicide rates to “Hey, Mary Ann, when did you know you were to gay?” (Answer: “When did you know you were straight?”)

In its recent report, NEA points to four strategies that make a difference for GLBTQ kids: Policy that sends a strong message about discrimination and harassment is the first, a GSA is another, and curricular inclusion—the opportunity for gay students to learn about GLBT people and history in the classroom—is a very important third.

At Schmidt’s school in Connecticut, that means including books with GLBT characters on the suggested summer reading list.

The fourth strategy, of course, is to have adults on campus who will stand up for them. And consider this: In a few years, Jeana Huie will be one of those adults. After earning her GED, Huie is now studying to be a teacher.

For more on safety and bias training, write to Paul Santrum. To comment on this story, write to Mary Ellen Flannery.


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