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LYRIC Seeks Funds for School Program

by Matthew S. Bajko
Wednesday Jun 5, 2013

The 19 middle school students, a mix of seventh and eighth graders, had gathered for the last time May 14 to review what they had learned over the course of the school year.

One by one the preteens raised their hands, introduced themselves, and stated the gender pronoun they prefer before relaying to their classmates and teacher what lessons struck them the most. Topics ranged from stereotypes and various genders found in the animal world to gender expectations and how to be an ally.

Next they discussed what they had enjoyed about the previous week's activities held to celebrate LGBT Pride at San Francisco's Everett Middle School, located on Church Street between the city's gay Castro district and the Latino Mission district. One boy acknowledged he liked being a leader during the Pride day workshops.

A girl explained that she had come to understand not to judge people based on their appearance and actions for "everything lies on a spectrum."

Asked to explain the importance of the class, Luorong Lamu, 13, said it helped her to learn about a new community.

"I didn't know much about the LGBT community," said the seventh grader, adding that what she will take with her is that "you can't judge people or bully."

Lamu said she plans to teach other students why they shouldn't "call other people gay or a fag."

Fellow seventh grader Kian Lonergan, 12, agreed that the class had helped him to appreciate people's differences and not to judge others.

"I think the purpose is to learn about the LGBTQ community and teach everybody else the good information and not the hallway trash," said Lonergan.

The class was one of several taught at three of the city's public schools, two middle schools and one high school, by the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center. The LGBT youth agency's school-based initiative aims to teach students and their families, as well as the faculty and staff at the participating schools, about the LGBT community.

Begun three years ago, it is designed to leave a lasting impact on not only the individual students but also within the three schools. Rather than hold one or two day seminars about LGBT issues, LYRIC realized it needed to conduct more in-depth training to ensure that the lessons seeped into not only the students it taught but also changed each school's culture.

Once a week during their elective class called leadership, the students at Everett and Buena Vista / Horace Mann, a K-8 school, are taught by a LYRIC staffer about LGBT topics. While the middle school students tend to identify more as straight allies, the majority of students taking a similar class at Balboa High School are LGBT.

"We've seen a lot of kids take on leadership roles," said Max Gardner, an eighth grade algebra teacher at Everett. "A lot of kids changed their perceptions and tell other kids 'Don't say fag, that is offensive.'"

During the Pride day celebration earlier this month, a handful of Everett students came out, said Gardner. One female student also approached teachers to ask them to use a gender-neutral pronoun rather than she.

"It's been a cool experience watching it and being a part of it," said Gardner, adding that he is hopeful LYRIC will return to the school in the fall.

Anayvette Martinez, the director of the LYRIC program, noted that the students who came out were not enrolled in the leadership class.

"It speaks to how this impacts the school," said Martinez, 33, who identifies as queer and is raising two children with her partner. "We want it to be about a school transformation."

The students she taught this year at Balboa, for their required project in the class, petitioned the school to set aside a gender-neutral bathroom. Transgender issues are a key component of the classes, said Martinez, as data shows students struggling with their gender identity face a host of obstacles that can led to dropping out of school, drug use or suicide.

"Trans youth are more susceptible to bullying, truancy and suicide," she said. "With the youth, I want to start that conversation very young."

Data from surveys of students enrolled in the San Francisco Unified School District during the 2011-2012 school year found that 1.3 percent at the middle school level identified as transgender. School officials estimated the total population of transgender middle school students at 137.

In high school, the data showed 1.6 percent of the student body identified as transgender, with a total population estimated at 259 students.

Those identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or questioning was nearly 16 percent for a total of 1,639 middle school students, with most selecting "not sure." In high school the percentage of LGB and questioning students was 11 percent for a total of 1,770 students.

Sixty-two percent of transgender middle schoolers reported being teased because of gender, while 38 percent of trans high schoolers reported similar teasing. Close to 47 percent of trans middle schoolers stayed home from school because they didn't feel safe, while nearly 30 percent of trans high schoolers skipped classes for similar reasons.

Trans students, whether in middle or high school, also self-reported far higher usage of illegal substances and suicide attempts compared to their male and female classmates.

Kevin Gogin, the program manager for the district's school health programs, cautioned that the data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Youth Risk Behavior Survey is preliminary and covers a small set of transgender students. The survey also marked the first time students were asked about their gender identity - no other school district asks such questions - so there is no comparable data yet to mark trends within that student population.

This fall the data from the 2012-2013 school year will be released, and Gogin expects the information will begin to provide a better sense of the challenges trans students in San Francisco are facing. One challenge that will remain is school officials do not know the identities of the trans students unless they self disclose that information to their teachers or other district staff.

"We are learning there is more we have to do around gender variant students," he said.

Gogin told the Bay Area Reporter he believes SFUSD is making progress, noting that other data points show less bullying and students feeling more attached to their schools.

"We believe both our broader outreach attempts through our programs, policies and procedures and work with individual students and families are making headway in creating safer schools for all of our students including LGBTQ youth," he said.

LYRIC Seeks City Funds

Believing it has found a successful approach to create safer schools for LGBTQ students, LYRIC hoped to expand its work to six schools this fall. It had applied for a $250,000 grant from the city's Department of Children, Youth and their Families to help cover the expansion of its school-based work on LGBT issues during the 2013-2014 school year.

But the department chose a different agency to work in three different schools than the one's LYRIC has worked in since 2011. It also did not require that it include family engagement and professional development training for all school staff.

Not being selected was a "huge disappointment," said Martinez. "Our dream is to expand it and now that can't happen."

Over the last five years LYRIC has seen its city funding decrease by 40 percent, or close to $300,000. The Castro-based agency is expected to receive $416,812 in city funding for the 2013-2014 fiscal year, which is equal to what it received during the current fiscal year. The money will fund LYRIC's youth workforce development as well as one-on-one case management.

The agency has been petitioning the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Ed Lee, who is expected to release his 2013-2014 budget proposal Friday, to fund its work in the public schools this fall with $150,000 from the general fund.

"We will advocate for a supplemental from the mayor's office to do this work but it will be on a smaller scale," LYRIC Executive Director Jodi Schwartz told the B.A.R. earlier this month. "We will get that funding - I am not planning for not receiving it."

Schwartz said LYRIC would then match the city funding "dollar for dollar" from private sources and would be able to remain in the three public schools where it currently works. Without city support, she is unsure about the program's survival.

"I wouldn't say I am confident we can do it without city investment. If I was confident, I wouldn't be asking for it," she said. "I am being honest with the city about what we need to do with this work."

Too often, noted Schwartz, city policies and the prioritization of resources "fail to commit to the deep institutional work that is required to shift organizational culture towards full LGBT acceptance."

What is needed, she added, is for the city "to take a stand for LGBTQQ youth and fund a model that is designed to bring about deep transformation and an organization that has the history and experience to ensure that transformation will happen."

Mission High School sophomore Rexy Amaral, 16, has seen first hand the impacts brought about by LYRIC's school-based initiative. Amaral took part in the class while attending Buena Vista / Horace Mann. It led to Amaral coming out as gay during the school's Pride assembly that year.

"Before the program, I was kind of lost. I didn't know who I was," said Amaral. "After starting and going through the school-based initiative, I learned how to be an ally. It helped me realize who I was and that being gay is not a bad thing. Before I thought being gay was a sickness; after I realized it wasn't."

School-wise, Amaral credits LYRIC's class with fostering a gay-friendly atmosphere at the middle school.

"I felt comfortable about myself and safe in my school," said Amaral.

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