MassEquality Deputy Director Carly Burton, Mass Dept. of Secondary and Elementary Education Regional Director Donna Harlan, Liz Doherty, GLBT Youth Commission Chair Arthur Lipkin, and Mass Appeal Court Clerk Erika Rickard (photo: Alan Tran)
The Bay State may boast a generally congenial place for queer youth compared to other states, but bullying, youth housing shortages, and sexual education anomalies are still problematic
By Alan Tran
A boy comes out to his parents via letter because he can’t bear to tell them in person. A young lesbian, now an adult, escapes from the home where she’s beaten by her parents only to be beaten by the girls at the protective shelter, because she’s “different.” An out teacher receives hate mail from her students. Social workers ask children to "pinky swear" that they won’t be gay, or else they won’t get into heaven.
These are some of the stories that were heard at the public hearings of the Massachusetts Commission on GLBT Youth, held June 20 and 21 at the Boston Statehouse and Holyoke Community College on the twentieth anniversary of what was then called the Governor’s Commission on GLBT Youth. As with the first hearings twenty years ago, the purpose was to illuminate the struggles that LGBT youth still face in Massachusetts and to recommend policies and actions for the commission to consider.
The panel heard testimony from a wide range of speakers on topics including housing and homelessness, bullying and domestic abuse, and discrimination in the legal system. Health officials presented findings on the disproportionate risks facing LGBT youth. Case worker Tharyn Grant from Boston GLASS spoke about the stigma associated with seeking supportive services, saying “the fear starts to outweigh the need for the benefits.”
Speakers identified a particular lack of resources for 18- to 25-year-olds, in what was referred to as “the gap” by Massachusetts state Rep. Gloria Fox, who personally testified to the struggle of trying to find housing for a young gay intern. “Kids age out and they aren’t ready for anything,” she said. “It’s a Bermuda triangle of a problem.”
Another issue that a number of speakers remarked on was the link between LGBT struggles and racism. A legal advocate recounted a case where four black lesbian women were sentenced to jail time when they acted in self-defense against the harassment of a group of white men. One black youth speaker spoke about being called a “faggot,” chased and hit by a group of white men who wanted his cell phone. The incident, he said, had occurred less than a week ago.
The conference was not all bad news. Many speakers congratulated the commission on its twentieth anniversary and the work it had done to identify and improve the conditions of LGBT students in Massachusetts. Governor Deval Patrick thanked the commission for the work they had done and reaffirmed his administration’s partnership with them. His message revealed a striking contrast with the previous administration under then-Governor Mitt Romney, who abolished the commission. “We do what we do as a matter of conscience,” Patrick said. “It’s not politics, it’s not abstract policy. It’s about people.”
The addition this year of hearings in the Western Massachusetts town of Holyoke was a welcome move toward making the hearings truly statewide, giving more youth and advocates a chance to speak and be included in the legislative discourse. Jon Sass, a teacher and GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) advisor at Northampton High School, said that at least in Northampton, the school has become a much more welcoming, safer place for all students, LGBT youth in particular.
A student at Northampton High agreed that the administration was very supportive, but said that students still ran into problems with unsupportive parents or at school, such as when students from the GSA asked the health teacher questions about safer sex. “The health teacher was very reluctant and still felt like teaching sexual health education in the school, and teaching how to have safe sex, would be equivalent to teaching children how to use drugs.”
Commission Chair Arthur Lipkin remarked at one point, “You know in the rest of the country they say, oh, you’re from Massachusetts, you’ve got all the gay stuff together … but clearly they don’t know Massachusetts, and clearly we don’t know Northampton.”
Advocates were also recognized for their direct services in support of LGBT youth. Friends of the Commission on GLBT Youth gave its annual Grace Sterling Stowell Award to Hutson W. Inniss, executive director of The National Coalition for LGBT Health. And the David La Fontaine Award was presented to Kevin Cranston, executive director of the Massachusetts Department of Infectious Disease, for his long-standing history in LGBT youth work. Out Loud Awards were also given to recognize teacher and GSA advisor Jon Sass, GSA leader and student Jake Hill, and BAGLY youth leaders Karter Blake and Alexis Yioulis.
Alan Tran is a freelance journalist who graduated from Brandeis University in May with a degree in English literature and a minor in journalism. He worked as a photo editor and columnist at his college newspaper and interned at the Improper Bostonian and Boston Spirit magazine. He's photographed weddings and club nights and would be hard pressed to say which is the better gig.
The author is solely responsible for the content.