Gay teen suicides: GLBT Center tackles issue without attacking Focus on the Family

Five recent high-profile suicides of gay teens have pushed this issue into the press mere weeks after Focus on the Family derided school anti-bullying programs promoting the so-called gay agenda. But Hope Wisneski, deputy executive director of the Colorado's GLBT Community Center, would rather attack the problem than pick a fight.

In an early September interview with Westword, Focus's Candi Cushman insisted that the Colorado Springs-based organization denounced bullying of anyone, gay or straight. But she also insisted that school anti-bullying programs assembled by the likes of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) often cast conservatives as villains in literature and lessons.

"Grilled Cheesus," last night's episode of Glee, offered an interesting twist on such claims. In it, gay teen character Kurt's father suffers a heart attack and winds up in a coma. Some of his classmates try to reassure him via references to Christianity, but he rejects them, saying at one point that such churches have been notably unfriendly to gays -- and women -- and science. However, Kurt subsequently apologizes for getting angry at his friends for praying at his dad's bedside and even attends a church service with another Glee favorite, Mercedes.

Wisneski strikes a similarly conciliatory tone when she's asked about Focus's gripes, and whether they're particularly ill-timed given the magnitude of the gay-teen-suicide problem. "This is a time when these young people need to be protected," she emphasizes. "Our academic communities, nonprofit communities, religious communities -- all these communities -- need to pull together so that students can feel safe in their schools."

Regarding the publicity that's arisen of late, she says, "I think what we're seeing is attention being given to a very serious and very concerning problem that's been going on for a long time. The recent media attention is bringing to light the fact that our society is not a safe place for people who identify within the GLBT community."

As Wisneski points out, "There is a perception that things have gotten better" in terms of acceptance of gay teens in academic settings, "and they have. But our schools still aren't safe enough for young people. Of the youth who use our youth drop-in center, Rainbow Alley, 70 percent of them say they've felt unsafe in their school, and over 70 percent report that they've been called names in school."

In an effort to improve this situation, the GLBT Center has been working with a number of Denver Public Schools, and Wisneski feels such outreach is making a difference in these settings. "But more needs to be done," she says -- including bringing the anti-bullying messages to younger students.

"We have been contacted even by elementary school principals," Wisneski reveals. "A lot of people think talking about GLBT issues in elementary schools is premature, but it isn't. There are a number of students who have parents in the GLBT community, or aunts, or uncles, or other people who are extremely important in their life, and hearing negative things about them can be incredibly detrimental to a young person.

"I think many schools are taking more responsibility to make their hallways safe. But we need to enforce a zero-tolerance policy around bullying to help this population of young people, because we know statistically that youth are not feeling safe. And when youth feel unsafe in their school environment, they're going to have a harder time concentrating on their academic studies."

Rainbow Alley is designed as a respite from such concerns. "It provides support, education and leadership opportunities," Wisneski notes. "Mostly, what we hear from young people is that it's a place they can come and see other young people who are like them. And limiting our isolation is really important. It's key to know we're not alone."

This program is designed to offer "a safe place where young people can learn and grow and blossom into healthy, happy adults," she says.

She hopes that someday, every school can make this same claim. Click here to learn more about Rainbow Alley.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts