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Conference to educate counselors and educators about LGBTQI issues: A room with a lot of views

Tomorrow, over a hundred K-12 school counselors and educators from around the country will descend upon San Diego to take part in the first ever conference to educate them as to the myriad of issues surrounding LGBTQI youth.

The conference, driven by Dr. Trish Hatch and her grad students at the SDSU school-counseling program, is sure to provide attendees with an experience like they’ve never had. It will also offer them more definitive information, clear guidance without prejudice and, more usable tools than they’ve ever had; all to assist in the very important role they play in these sensitive and often troubled children’s lives.

In this final segment of the four-part series, SDGLN focuses on the list of distinguished presenters and fascinating keynote speakers. When Dr. Hatch and her colleagues (including presenter Stuart Chen-Hayes) kicked this idea around last year, it’s clear they weren’t taking this concept lightly. The individuals they have brought together to share their personal knowledge, experiences and unique perspectives, are truly inspirational on every level.

When SDGLN first spoke to Dr. Hatch about this highly ambitious endeavor, she told us her attendance goal was 150. It was the first year, after all; the economy is down and most attendees would be forced to pay their own way. Just two days before the conference, the tally has reached 170. She couldn’t be more thrilled. With the line-up she’s installed and the wide range of topics covered, there should be no doubt that the annual event will grow in popularity.

Friday night will kick-off in the Malibu Ballroom with Senator Christine Kehoe, who will speak to the attendees just before the Awards Ceremony and dinner.

“In California, we’ve spent the last ten years working to protect our LGBT youth,” said Senator Kehoe. “They deserve nothing less than safety at their schools so they can succeed academically. In 2000, California passed a law guaranteeing all students and staff in public schools the right to a safe learning environment, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. That put public schools on a par with other state institutions. In 2007, California went one step further by banning negative depictions of LGBT people in the classroom. It is one of the most far-reaching protections for LGBT youth in the country. However, we know that LGBT youth are still harassed at their schools, and clearly more needs to be done.”

After dinner, the microphone is handed over to keynote speaker Chaz Bono. Bono, who needs no introduction, suffered a very painful and public outing in the 1990’s and is currently experiencing a very public FTM gender transition process. He will surely draw from his truly unique personal journey and impart words of wisdom he acquired along the way.

Just this week, SDGLN got the chance to catch up with him on the phone about that journey and what it was like for him growing up.

A tumultuous but satisfying journey
“I was one of the lucky ones of my generation going through high school,“ said Bono. “I had a really easy time. I attended a Performing Arts high school in NY and it was very open. I was out to all of my friends.”

Much to his surprise, he found his school and friends were much more supportive than his family, and that might be where his experience is very much like the children this conference seeks to rally support for. He notes that his much younger siblings- who didn’t have a similar secondary education experience- have gay and transgender friends of their own.

“We’ve really come a long way,” he said.

Having first identified as lesbian, and now transgender, Bono has a perspective that few of the LGBT community can claim.

During the course of the conversation it became clear that he and I shared many similar tomboyish childhood experiences, but I never felt – innately - male. Could he maybe explain that difference?

“One is a behavior [acting like a boy]; you still felt comfortable in your skin. I had a constant feeling of discomfort and it never went away. Nothing female ever felt comfortable to me in any way.”

Bono admits that in his experience, it is common for most female-to-male transgender (FTM) to initially identify as lesbian. On the flip side, it is not so common for their male-to-female (MTF) counterparts to first identify as gay; and they clearly have the more difficult time. Since many MTFs begin to explore the boundaries of their gender at much younger ages, larger numbers are victims of violent hate crimes, even at school. In February of 2008, Lawrence King, an Oxnard middle school student, was shot by his 14 year old classmate for wearing effeminate clothing to school.

“We live in a patriarchal society which makes MTF taboo,” said Bono. “[the feeling is] how can a man give up his power and masculinity? Even in the gay and lesbian community, often effeminate men are looked down upon. But we all have a difficult journey.

“The gay and lesbian community has gotten more acceptance [in recent years], and transgenders are just poking their heads out. There is probably a 20 year gap between the movements. That’s not to say gays and lesbians are immune to homophobia.

“I didn’t know how people in my community would react [to the news of his transition],” he said, reflecting on his journey. “Would I be considered [a traitor]? I was pleasantly surprised that was not the case.”

When asked if he felt he had personally put a forward-moving-face on the transgender movement, he, for a moment, paused before speaking.

“I can’t take total credit for the movement. I certainly hope I can move it forward, but I wouldn’t be having the experience I am, without those who came before.”

Bono is very much looking forward to taking part in this conference and his impact will surely resonate through the ballroom when he does. Note: CESCal opened up Bono’s appearance to the public and there are still some seats left. Tickets to the evening’s events, including drinks & dinner, are $50 per person or $75 for VIP seating. If you want to come, you must act today so they can order meals. Call 619-850-1761.

A view from the platform
Olympic diver Mary Ellen Clark, Sunday’s keynote speaker, is also a celebrity in her own right; however she thinks her experience has been completely normal. Growing up just 30 minutes north of Philadelphia, she came from a loving, supportive catholic family of seven children. Her father, along with four of her siblings, were also divers.

Clark became a platform diver in college and eventually made the Olympic team, training under Ron O’Brien, the award-winning coach of another member of the LGBT community, Greg Louganis.

She took to the platform in Barcelona in 92 and Atlanta in 96, taking away Bronze medals both times. Winning her second medal at age 32, she became the oldest female Olympian diver to do so.

Diving is still her passion, but she’s also branched out beyond the pool. She spends her time shuttling between Amherst College, Mount Holyoke College and Amherst Regional High School, as a diving coach. In whatever spare time she has left, she also exerts herself as a personal trainer and a motivational speaker.

That’s a lot of hats. Yet, in the middle of all this, she is hopping on a plane late Saturday, to come speak at this conference.

“It’s important. I believe in connections. My life and story is very normal – it’s been a process, it's still an ongoing process. Who you are, what you like, what is important- and people play important roles [within that process].” Roles like the ones charged to the counselors and educators who will listen to her speak on Sunday.

“This is another layer of giving back for me.”

She may wear many hats, but she certainly isn’t into wearing labels. “I’m me. I’m a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a coach, a mentor, a motivational speaker, a personal trainer….I am all these things. Who I choose to be in a relationship with shouldn’t matter, and it’s changed throughout my life. I’ve been with men, I’ve had relationships with women, it’s fluid,” said Clark.

Although people closest to her have always known, Clark has never felt the need to officially come out, and she is still fine with laying low under the radar. “No one ever asked me, and that was okay,” she said of the media when she was diving on the Olympic circuit. Still, one could sense a tremendous amount of pressure, just under the surface of her explanations.

“Your journey has everything to do with you, not everyone else,” she said assertively. It is clear she still has some axes to grind.

“My biggest issue was always, ‘hey, I need to decide.'" Then she finally realized that she didn’t need to decide; it was everyone else’s need to define her that made her desperate for that decision.

“I can only express my process, but if you can just put yourself in these kid’s shoes,” she said, referring to her upcoming audience. “They are not accepted, they are confused, they are being teased, and you must step outside of yourself and be there, despite your religious or cultural backgrounds. If you can just create that trust…” her voice trailed off. It appears she may be passing around all of her hats on Sunday.

Clark seems to pick her public appearances very carefully. She once slid out of an Olivia Cruise commitment when the attention might have impacted a new job, but then jumped at the chance to appear as Grand Marshal at a gay parade in a small, western Massachusetts town. It would seem, then, her decision to attend this conference and speak openly to SDGLN, is a real coup.

A multi-cultural twist
Stuart Chen-Hayes, Associate Professor and Program Coordinator of the graduate program for Counselor/Education and School Counseling at City University New York (CUNY) / Lehman College, met Trish Hatch 10 years ago. “She is an incredible inspiration and without a doubt, the leader in how to use data and how to work with equity issues.”

Last year, they got together with several colleagues and discussed the importance of broaching the subject surrounding LGBTQI issues. Ironically, these were gay scholars themselves, working hard to make schools a better place for children of all subsets, but they had yet to hold a conference like this. Hatch knew she wanted to hold the conference in San Diego, using CESCal as the base.

Once a plan was in place, Chen-Hayes, although 3000 miles away, was more than happy to help. He quickly got Shane Windmeyer on board and began planning his own presentation. (Windmeyer is the leading author on gay campus issues and is the national leader in LGBT civil rights issues on college campuses. He will be speaking Saturday morning.)

Chen-Hayes' topic for the conference, LGBTQI 101 – What do all these letters mean? will break-down all the faces and names of the community, and he plans to add a couple more that come from other languages and cultures, to prove that we really are “everywhere.”

“My message to the group,” Chen-Hays began, “is that we need to be all of whom we are, all of the time. School counselors and educators need to look at every student as multiple contexts and multiple identities.”

He uses his own six year-old son as an example. Chen-Hays and his partner started their family with a little help from his sister. Their son is multi-racial, already speaks fluently in both Mandarine and English, and is raised in a “gay affirming household.” In other words, there is a lot going on behind that curtain, and counselors and teachers need to recognize that every child’s personal experience is unique.

“It hurts to be excluded, and it gets complicated when [the system] is only looking at ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability,” he continued. “There are lots of simple ways to include them all.

“Take for instance, forms at school. Does it say ‘parent / guardian’ or just ‘mother / father’? Under marital status, does it only offer married / divorced / single or are there other options?”

Chen-Hays expects this conference to provide the attendees with the ideas and tools they need to go back to their districts, “assess the environment, and create policies and practices into place that support all kids, with the assumption that there are all identities and orientations.”

But what about school districts that might be resistive to these types of policies? Chen-Hayes acknowledges that in some cases resistance will be imminent, but they will be connecting people in the districts that are oppressive with others in districts that are tolerant, which will be empowering by itself.

“Our work is to make sure that the next generation of school counselors is LGBTQI friendly, are allies and are competent on all LGBTQI issues.”

The down-under-side of the coin
The conference is so important to one presenter, he flew all the way from Australia on his own dime. William DeJean taught at Rancho Bernardo High School for ten years. His experience is coming from the other side of the coin – that of being an isolated gay teacher with no resources of his own. He now teaches openly in the Department of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, where he writes extensively on queer matters in education.

“This conference excites me as it is providing all educators with resources to ensure schooling is safe for all members of the community. I had to be here,” said DeJean.

“K-12 schooling is not kind to the queer community. Hell, it isn't kind to many communities. For that reason, I have made a commitment to myself to surround myself with women and men who are birthing new consciousness for education and for the world. I am looking forward to who I will meet, what networks will be created, and who I will become as a result of the conference.”

DeJean is conducting a 2 ½ hour workshop at the conference, and as eager to impart his knowledge to others as he is to learn from them.

The brave heart
On Sunday, as the lead-in to big names like Stuart Milk and Mary Ellen Clark, is a young lady whose courage in the face of hatred made headlines.

Rochelle Hamilton has been out since she was 13, but after three months of intolerable harassment as a sophomore at a Vallejo, CA high school, her mother couldn’t take it any longer. Her family sued the school district and won a very important judgment; one which not only included a monetary award, but also forced awareness training on the entire district. Still, the whole process was a not an easy one for this young, but very resilient, teenager.

Hamilton was forced to leave her high school for safety issues, so she knows full well the importance of a conference such as this. She didn’t have one person at her school to look to for support. Not one ally. Everyone, including (and in some cases especially) the faculty, was against her.

“At first I was scared, nervous,” said Hamilton. ”Then I realized, ‘I have to stand up for myself, they were wrong.’ Now I stand up for my LGBTQ family, because someone has to do it.”

Since her ordeal, Hamilton has had seven speaking engagements and won numerous awards from the California state legislature. With that kind of experience under her belt, telling her story this weekend at a conference designed to educate counselors and educators about kids just like her, will be a piece of cake.

When asked if she appreciated the opportunity to speak to such a relevant audience, her voice perked up. “I’m very happy about it. I love to change minds and change hearts,” she said, as she fondly reflected on her previous engagements. “As much as I touched them, they touched me, too.”

After she graduates later this year, she hopes to continue her motivational speaking, but her sights are really set on law enforcement. “I want to do anything that has to do with being a police officer,” she explained. “I guess that comes from wanting to protect people.”

Hamilton says her mother Cheri (pronounced the French way, i.e., "sharee"), who accompanies her to each engagement, always sums things up by saying, “We’re not looking for a sorry; we’re looking for another 6 letter word – change.”

These are just a few of the amazing individuals that will grace the Malibu Ballroom with their presence. The workshop topics are so varied, attendees are sure to leave not only educated, but empowered and confident in how to approach LGBTQI youth from this weekend forward.