Dr. Gary Howell recalls students at his college lighting a candle for Matthew Shepard, a young man who was attacked and ultimately died because of his sexuality, in the fall of 1998. Twelve years later, in the wake of a recent string of gay teen suicides, Howellwho is now the Illinois Psychological Association ( IPA ) sexual orientation issues section chairlaments that bullying and violence directed at LGBT individuals are still problems. He discussed the issue as a presenter at the IPA event "LGBTQ Youth Symposium: Addressing the Challenges of Bullying, Suicide and Homophobia" at the Center on Halsted Nov. 30.
"I find myself more and more and more irritable and angry that this is still going on today," Howell said.
Psychologists, educators, students and outreach workers attended the symposium to learn about bullying and homophobia. Chris Mallette, Chicago's director of community safety initiatives and the keynote speaker, described his experience dealing with youth violence throughout the city.
He called dealing with LGBTQ youth a "very complex, very complicated" issue. Keeping them in school and making sure outreach services are available to them are both things the city needs to work on, he said. He and other city officials are collaborating with advocacy groups such as Urban Networks to Increase Thriving Youth to find solutions to youth violence and the problems LGBTQ kids face.
"When we look at the LGBTQ population, their sense of self-worth is threatened every day," Mallette said.
Symposium attendee Leslie Wood, director of social services for Perspectives Charter Schools, said after the keynote speech that she liked hearing about Mallette's practical experience dealing with youth violence. Wood said she came to the symposium to get information and make connections that would help her form a gay/straight alliance ( GSA ) .
"I thought it was absolutely great to appoint this guy who was so down to earth," Wood said.
Sarah Casper, an outreach and prevention specialist for the teen social service agency Response, said she appreciated that the symposium featured speakers from a variety of agencies and organizations.
"I think it's great how they're doing a multi-faceted approach," Casper said.
Illinois Safe Schools Alliance Executive Director Shannon Sullivan spoke to symposium attendees about teaching school officials about homophobia. She discussed why schools need to address LGBTQ issues, quoting statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and the Chicago Public Schools Youth Risk Behavior Survey stating that lesbian, gay or bisexual students are almost four times as likely than their non-gay peers to be in a physical fight that requires medical attention; there are also four straight students who are bullied ( for every LGBT student who is bullied ) because they are perceived as gay.
Concerning how educators can make their school a safer place for LGBT kids, Sullivan offered the Massachusetts Safe Schools Program as an example. The program involves creating GSAs, training teachers and changing policies; over the course of six years, it successfully reduced the likelihood of lesbian, gay and bisexual students skipping classes and being threatened or injured by a weapon at school.
"Adults have to set the standard; [ that's ] the first thing," Sullivan said. "We have to communicate our values to young people."
The symposium also addressed the systemic issues associated with homophobia. Former IPA President Dr. Armand Cerbone said that the stigma that still surrounds homosexuality is a powerful force. Comparing its effects to post-traumatic stress disorder, he said it negatively impacts mental health. Cerbone also noted that living in a heterosexist environment can hurt gay people's relationships and even their sex lives.
"We know it gets better, but not without a great deal of social, legal, community support," Cerbone said. "When you have data and you have science on your side, eventually things change."
The symposium had a $25 registration fee for attendees seeking Continuing Education credits. Howell said that all proceeds would go to organizations working with LGBTQ youth, such as the Trevor Project.
For more information about the IPA, visit www.illinoispsychology.org .