This past summer, Apple Valley resident Phyllis Nickels watched as her two daughters walked down the aisle at their double wedding. One of them married a man. The other tied the knot with another woman.
Nickels said that while her family has accepted her daughter’s homosexuality, not every homosexual, bisexual or transgender teenager has a supportive family and understanding friends.
Nickels was one of three panelists who spoke to more than 40 students Saturday at the Earle Brown Continuing Education Center on the University’s St. Paul campus.
Many educators and health and social workers gathered for the one-day intensive course on helping homosexual, bisexual and transgender children come to terms with their sexuality.
“I think one (of the class’s objectives) is to make adults who work with young people … recognize the diversity of sexual orientation of young people,” said John Yoakam, a school and community outreach coordinator with the University of Minnesota Youth and AIDS Projects and one of the course’s instructors.
Yoakam said the course was also meant to “call attention to the special needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth who are discovering their sexual orientation in the context of hostility, homophobia and often with the absence of resources, absence of good information.”
He said teenagers who are struggling with their sexual identities have higher suicide rates and are more susceptible to HIV transmission. A 1989 report compiled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showed the rate of successful suicides among gay and lesbian teenagers was three times the age-group’s national average.
Students in Saturday’s class watched videotapes and discussed case studies. They debated how schools should address issues of morality and values with regard to human sexuality as well as whether teachers should be allowed to bring their personal lives into the classroom.
The Youth and AIDS Projects have been offering similar courses for adults since 1991 as part of its school and community outreach program.
It is estimated that 10 percent of the United States’ youths are homosexuals. Yoakam said retrospective studies of homosexual and bisexual adults suggest that they may realize they are homosexual by as young as 4 to 6 years old. By age 13 to 17, many men and women know their sexual orientation.
Yoakam and the course’s other instructor, Ruth Luehr, said schoolchildren are not getting adequate education about the diversity of human sexuality and are not getting it early enough.
Guest panelist Jenny Hanson, 20, remembers when she was 18 years old and sat at a lunch table with 12 of her classmates. Eight of them left the table when she told them she was a lesbian.
Then she began receiving anonymous phone calls in which the caller would scream profanities at her. One of her softball teammates threatened to beat her up. Fed up with this treatment, the former honors student dropped out of school four months before her scheduled graduation.
There are many components to building a friendlier school environment for homosexual, bisexual and transgender teenagers, Luehr said. She said counseling and support groups can help students deal with sexual-identity issues.
Another way to keep these teenagers from feelings of isolation, Yoakam said, is to eliminate name-calling. He said hearing offensive words can hurt teenagers’ self-esteem.
Yoakam said while there are still many peer-related problems that homosexual, bisexual and transgender teenagers must face, programs like the University’s Saturday meeting are trying to create more supportive environments for these students.
“You need to celebrate every small step you take. It takes courage and bravery to create critical mass,” Yoakam said.