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Gay Straight Alliances Raise Awareness, Courage in Youths

Posted by amyl at Sep 21, 2011 02:11 PM |

It's back-to-school season, and PFLAG - Portland Black Chapter's work is highlighted in helping to create Gay Straight Alliances in local high schools.

The back-to-school season marks the end of summer vacation for students. While some students may be looking forward to a fresh start, they may have classmates who dread returning to school.

Although schoolyard bullying has long been considered a part of the rite of passage for young people, it is facing greater scrutiny in light of recent violence directed toward LGBTQ (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Queer) youth. According to a 2001 Washington Post article examining this issue, three out of ten LGBTQ students drop out of school due to harassment and discrimination, a number that is three times the national average for their heterosexual classmates. Four out of five LGBTQ youth say that they do not know of any supportive adults at their schools.

Khalil Edwards, coordinator for PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians & Gays) - Portland Black Chapter says that queer youth of color tend to face even more hardship because they are dealing with two layers of discrimination. “When a black student gets picked on at school, they can go home and talk to their parents. But if they are being picked on for being queer and a person of color, the student often can’t get the support from home or from school.”

Even for someone like Khalil, who grew up in a supportive household, it was difficult for him to embrace his whole self. “My parents have always been advocates for social justice and equal rights,” he said.

In middle school, he started developing feelings that made him feel uncomfortable, but he didn’t know how to tell his family even though they had never said or done anything homophobic. “It was because I knew how it was perceived in our society, amongst my friends and peers. I never heard anything positive about being gay.”

When Khalil finally came out to his family a couple years after graduating from high school, they were supportive. He counts himself as fortunate to have a network of people who cares about him unconditionally, and he knows that there are many queer students of color who do not have this type of support. 

“PFLAG is for parents to come get support and ask questions about how to understand their child’s sexual orientation. PFLAG Black Chapter goes beyond being a support system for parents who struggle with these issues, and we go into the community to reach everyone.”

Antoinette, Khalil’s mother, was one of the founders of the PFLAG Portland Black Chapter in 2009. She also started the first Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) at Jefferson High School, where she worked. The GSA helped students to create their own network of support amongst queer youth and straight allies. “There are fewer homophobic remarks and students feel more safe to attend classes at schools with GSAs,” said Khalil.

“Not being alone is a major factor. The mere presence of a GSA gives students courage to come out to their families. A GSA is a network of support that they have never had.”

PFLAG Portland Black Chapter is part of the Uniting Communities project at the Western States Center, which works towards pairing racial justice and LGBTQ equality. “Uniting Communities helped us to acquire the skills to be able to go into different schools to speak with leaders and faculty in order to help assess and start a GSA if needed,” said Khalil Presently, there are GSAs at predominantly black high schools, Jefferson and Grant.

“We were also formed partnerships with other community groups through Uniting Communities. It’s crucial that there are groups we can reach out to for support and they can reach out to us.” Khalil continues, ”Uniting Communities works to raise the visibility of queer people of color in our communities, recognize their experiences, and address their needs.  Being able to intersect all these things that align with our mission has been a huge opportunity and benefit to the work that we do.” 

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This story was featured in a regular column in Portland's grassroots newspaper, Street Roots. The series highlights the work of our Uniting Communities project.

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