Pride in the Valley: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning in the Hudson Valley, NY

Our region has proven to be a welcoming place for members of the gay and lesbian community. This series of articles includes profiles of local gay couples raising families, a look at the LGBTQ Center in Kingston, and how a Poughkeepsie student helped to form a gay-straight alliance at his school



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tyler salamoneTaking a stand: Tyler Salamone, a student at Spackenkill High School in Poughkeepsie, works to stop LGBTQ bullying in district schools

Photograph by Michael Polito

Lesson Learned: Amazing Efforts to Combat Bullying

Taking a stand Tyler Salamone, a student at Spackenkill High School in Poughkeepsie, works to stop LGBTQ bullying in district schools
Tyler Salamone didn’t mean to come out in the eighth grade. “But my best friend outed me. I told him and he didn’t take it well. He said, ‘Okay, we can’t be friends.’ I thought we had a clean break, but then I found out that he told everybody in the school that I was gay.”

The months that followed at Spackenkill’s Orville A. Todd Middle School in Poughkeepsie were “completely scary,” says Tyler. “I had barely known that I was gay myself when I told my friend and I felt like I could trust him. At first he seemed open about it, and then he became more and more mean towards me. I had people coming up to me all the time asking me questions; the boys in the locker room were very uncomfortable with me changing there, so I would change in the bathroom. It was terrible. I felt very alone, a lot of people weren’t talking to me, and a lot of my friends weren’t my friends anymore.”

The age-old problem of bullying has received a lot of media attention in recent years, thanks, in part, to cyber-bullying and all the newfangled, high-tech ways that young people can taunt each other via the Internet. “Culturally, we’ve talked a lot about race and African Americans and even cyber-bullying in our culture, but we’ve never talked about LGBTQ students. It seems that harassing gay and lesbian students is the last okay thing to do,” says Rob Conlon, a cochair of GLSEN Hudson Valley (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network).

Several recent high-profile deaths — including the suicide of a Rutgers University student who was secretly taped by his roommate while having a sexual encounter with another male — have helped to shine a national spotlight on the problem. According to a recent survey by GLSEN, nine out of 10 gay, lesbian, and bisexual students are bullied in school, and they are four times more likely than heterosexuals to attempt suicide. “These events have created an awareness that GLSEN has been working toward for 20 years,” says Conlon. It seems the tide may be starting to turn. Next month, New York State’s Dignity for All Students Act — which seeks to protect all public school students from harassment regardless of gender identity — goes into effect. And the supportive environment that GLSEN helped foster by training staff in the Spackenkill School District may have helped lead to a success story for Tyler, who helped create one of the region’s first Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA) at the middle-school level. Currently a freshman in high school, Tyler now attends GSA meetings at both schools because “the teachers think I have a good perspective on this. I still get bullied in high school. People will call me fag. But it’s getting better and every little step counts.” 

“I can tell you that it has been a long path,” says Conlon. “But over the years there has been a shifting.” According to Conlon, 20 years ago most people didn’t come out until after college. These days, students “are coming out earlier and earlier. The average age of coming out is now about 13. That’s not the case across the country, but it is in the Hudson Valley. That’s partly because school districts are more welcoming places than they used to be, but it’s partly because students are getting the message culturally: ‘You were born this way. You don’t have to hide it, it’s not a bad thing.’ ”

GSAs started popping up in local high schools in the mid-’90s, according to Conlon. “Pretty much every school district in Ulster County had one by 2005. Dutchess has been a little bit slower, and Orange even slower. But right now, a majority of school districts in the three counties have GSAs in their high schools,” he says, adding that Arlington also has one in its middle school and Highland and Kingston are “thinking about it.”

I still get bullied in high school. People will call me fag. But it’s getting better and every little step counts

“I know that many people think, ‘Oh, it’s too young to do something like that at the middle-school level.’ But they’re really beginning to identify themselves at that age, and they really need the support and a safe place,” says Steven Malkischer, the principal at Todd Middle School, who helped launch the school’s GSA last year. He says that at each weekly meeting there are probably about 10 students — “a mixture of gay and straight, and some who are just wondering where they belong.” Malkischer is particularly proud of one recent initiative. “While the adults had proposed the idea of putting up boxes in different places throughout the building where kids could report bullying, one brilliant young man pointed out that kids don’t want other kids seeing them ratting people out. This kid came up with the idea of reporting it on the Internet. Now on our Web page, there is an icon. Kids, parents, and guardians can click on it and fill out a form about what is going on and it comes directly to me. It works beautifully. Since its inception about two months ago, I’ve gotten maybe 15 or 20 reports. It’s been a very effective tool.”

GSA activities vary from school to school, according to Conlon, who says that students do everything from hosting events to raise awareness to working with staff to create a safe place in the school for students to hang out. “The more savvy schools, the ones that have had GSAs for 10 or 15 years, they’ve kind of moved into the community service world. They’re joining the ARCS AIDS Walk and getting out into the world as physical leaders in the community.”

Many local GSAs work in conjunction with GLSEN programs. For instance, “No Name Calling Week” occurs every January; each April there is a “Day of Silence,” during which students take a pledge of silence to represent the traditional silencing of LGBTQ students in the schools. Students also work to get out GLSEN’s “safe space kits,” which the organization is trying to distribute to every school across the nation. “Here in the Hudson Valley we’ve pretty much gotten the kits into the hands of all the school districts at this point,” says Conlon. “But we do everything, including training staff: What is gender identity? How are you going to work with this particular student? Are you going to assign them an ally who will walk the halls with them? How are you handling gym class? It’s really step-by-step-by-step.”

And what kind of bullying is happening these days? “We’ve heard everything,” says Conlon. “A student in the class was called a stupid faggot and the teacher turned around and said, ‘We don’t use words like “stupid” in this classroom.’ Some of it is subtle, some of it is out there. Kids still get pushed into lockers, all the same stuff still exists. We’ve had students report that teachers will intervene in almost any other name calling on earth, including the N word or a religious slur, but they’ll let a LGBTQ slur slide.”

Conlon says that currently schools are particularly challenged knowing how to work with transgender students. “Almost all transgender students report being harassed — everything from physical assault to verbal harassment,” he says. “The emerging concern in the Hudson Valley is how to protect students physically and emotionally. If you go to a hotel or a restaurant now, there are gender-neutral bathrooms, but that doesn’t exist in a school. So now they have to think about these things and in some ways they have to reorganize their buildings. It takes looking at your school as both a facility and as a culture.”

GLSEN is even starting to work with elementary schools to shift some very ingrained concepts of gender identity. “If you think about it, the boys line up here and the girls line up there,” says Conlon. “It’s very gender-segregated in activities. So we work with them to change that. We say, hey, instead of lining up boys and girls, why don’t you line up those born January to June and those born July and on. It shifts the focus off gender separation.”

Still, Conlon recognizes that change is a long, slow process and that it really does take a village. That’s why GLSEN, which partners with many other community organizations, holds an “Ally Week” at the beginning of the school year, where they identify allies who will stand up and take a pledge against LGBTQ bullying. “We realized there were a lot of allies in our community who were unsung, so we started an awards program where we honor them. This past year we honored two teachers from Arlington Middle School who started a GSA,” says Conlon. “We recognize that the message has to be reinforced not only in the classroom but when they go home at night or to their after-school program or to church on Sunday. It’s a community-wide effort.”

 

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