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An Ocean Away, But Still Common Ground in GLBT Issues

By Mary Ellen Flannery

 You might not think that American educators would have all much to teach their Danish counterparts on the subject of gay rights and student safety. After all, Denmark was the first country in the world to legalize same-sex unions and gays can serve freely in its military.

 But, earlier this summer, two NEA members delivered a  popular address on NEA’s Safety and Bias training to the International Conference on LGBT Human Rights, attended by activists and educators from continents including Australia, Africa and South America.  

“There were people there who were like, ‘Wow! That is really working! We really need to be able to do that too,’” said Jaim Foster, a Fairfax County, Virginia, teacher and NEA trainer, who presented the information along with Suzannah Hurja, a Colorado teacher.

The NEA safety training has four components, which provide information ranging from how to create safe schools for all students to strategies on addressing bias. Trained NEA members, like Foster and Hurja, offer it to their colleagues across the country at their request.

And it’s needed – what with nine out of 10 GLBT students saying they’ve been verbally harassed at school, and nearly a quarter saying they’ve been physically abused, according to a national survey by GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. Their absentee rates are higher, their grades are lower – and far too many simply drop out.

In a report this year, called “Stepping Out of the Closet, Into the Light,” NEA calls on all educators to stand up for gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender students. It is still a struggle for those children – and for their GLBT educators, says Foster.

“You have to be the change you want to see in the world,” says Foster. “Every day, I’m proving to somebody that gay people aren’t just the guys you see in Dupont Circle. (A popular DC hangout.) Every day, I’m talking about new language and vocabulary...I’m trying to be a reminder of human rights for everybody.”

Foster and Hurja’s presentation was an opportunity for other educators to learn more about NEA’s program and several said they’d like to use it as a model for their own, but it also was an opportunity for Foster, he said.

“This was life-changing for me. I’m this small-town Nebraska boy who moved to Washington D.C. – and that was life-changing too. But Denmark was amazing – it was a larger perspective of the world and LGBT rights…and I see that there’s so much more that I can do as an advocate and union rep.”