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”It has been unbelievably painful to have these kind of daily reminders,” Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Student Education Network (GLSEN), says of last month’s ongoing reports of bullying and harassment leading to several suicides among LGBT youth across the country. ”But the fact is that we’re engaged in these issues every single day and probably the hardest thing is that today’s front-page news is not that different from last year’s daily reality.”
Using a variety of methods, GLSEN has been working to improve school environments for LGBT or questioning youth in grades kindergarten through 12 since its inception 20 years ago.
”All of our work is focused on making sure that schools in this country serve every child regardless of their sexual orientation or their gender identity or expression,” Byard says of her organization’s support of more than 450,000 gay-straight alliances nationwide. ”We work on legislation and policy at the local, state and federal level. We have for 10 years done groundbreaking research on the school experiences of LGBT students, as well all ways in which LGBT issues play out in education and affect the educational mission of schools.”
Working locally to provide a safe space for LGBT youth is the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL).
”SMYAL provides a safe and supportive space at our after-school youth center,” says Executive Director Andrew Barnett. ”We have a different program here each week. Our focus is on youth leadership development. It’s giving youth the skills and tools they need to grow into healthy, productive adults, and getting them to identify the assets that they bring to the table.”
SMYAL’s programming gives LGBT youth not only a place to socialize, but a place ”where they can learn and grow and develop in a supportive environment where they can be who they are.” SMYAL is also dedicated to making the local LGBT community a safer and better space for youth through community-education program.
Says Barnett: ”We go out into our schools and other community-based service organizations and train teachers, administrators, youth service professionals and social workers, about LGBT youth, the issues they face, and how they can make their spaces safer for LGBT youth.
”We also educate providers about the policies and the laws that we have in the District of Columbia, which protect LGBT youth.”
For Byard, there’s comfort in knowing that some progress has been made.
”Over the years, as we have grown and our work has developed based on research data, we have earned the respect and partnership of every major national education association in the country,” she says. ”These organizations and the schools that they serve recognize that our goal is to contribute to better schools. Ultimately this is about better schools that serve young people better. As that message becomes clearer and clearer, our work is really able to expand.”’