NEW BEDFORD – While most SouthCoast schools have made strides in teaching faculty how to support LGBTQ+ students, classes educating students about sexual orientation and gender identity remain scarce.
“Knowledge is the first step to becoming accepting of this community and we want everybody to be on the same page,” said Raelyn Monteiro, Race, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion workplace facilitator at the YWCA.
Alongside Cullen Mulrooney, YWCA’s REDI education facilitator, the two created a LGBTQ+ support training program and signed a three-year partnership to educate New Bedford Public Schools faculty. Their first seminar was on Nov. 2.
“We provided some stats and some videos related to students who are non-binary, transgender or part of the queer community,” Monteiro said.
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The workshop provides an introduction to gender and sexual identity terms, the importance of using correct pronouns in conversations and on documents and making sure people understand the difference between gender and sexuality.
Mulrooney, who is a trans man, says the common mistake is people connecting gender with sexuality. “That’s the thing that I see is the hardest and is holding people back,” he said.
“Just because my gender identity is male, does not mean that I’m automatically, physically and emotionally, attracted to a woman, or just because my gender identity is male, doesn’t mean my gender expression is male,” Mulrooney said.
Because both Mulrooney and Monteiro are part of the LGBTQ+ community, they feel more open to answering questions. “Even if people think what they’re asking is offensive, because the only way we’re going to move on is to have these difficult discussions and ask these difficult questions,” Mulrooney said. “So, we can tell you why that question is offensive.”
“We want to really break down these stereotypes within the community and the media,” Monteiro said. “A lot of people fear a lot of things because they just don’t know. By providing them that knowledge and that education helps.”
Learning from the YWCA’s workshop
Sarah Cadieux Pacheco, New Bedford Public School’s teaching and learning specialist for the arts, attended the YWCA’s “Understanding Gender and Sexual Identity” workshop.
“It was very helpful, I learned new things,” Pacheco said. “It was really impressive that they had this.”
What we learned:The Standard-Times attended an LGBTQ+ sensitivity presentation.
Pacheco said it was great to hear directly from the state on protocol that she believes helped faculty members that were maybe confused or misinformed as well.
“I think today’s students are more forthcoming because we’ve made such a cultural shift,” Pacheco said. “I find for the most part, they’re very open and welcoming.”
She said she follows the lead of the students when it comes to their preferred name and pronouns. “I’m very sensitive to what students have asked of me,” she said.
“I think kids have done a good job of understanding the difference between sexual orientation and gender. I think that that’s reflected in the support that we’ve gotten from the state and from the school district and what our expectations are as teachers for handling those conversations.”
Shocking report on LGBTQ+ students ignites change in schools
Earlier this year, NBPS focused its resources heavily on supporting diversity, equity and inclusion through the office of School Performance amid shocking stats on LGBTQ+ youth from a 2020 report by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Commission.
The report stated that LGBTQ+ youth were three times more likely than other youth to consider or attempt suicide within the past year.
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More than three in 10 LGBTQ+ students said they “seriously considered ending their lives.” Other risk factors included experiencing sexual contact against their will, bullying, homelessness and heroin use (six times higher than other youth).
“Respect should be an obvious need,” said a high school-aged member of the Massachusetts Gay-Straight Alliance Leadership Council. “Respect for students and people’s sexual orientation and gender identity is a must.”
In 2016, Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School was among the first SouthCoast schools to offer professional development opportunities to staff through a Safe Schools Program led by Jeff Perrotti.
During the pandemic, guidance counselors attended a virtual training on “Advocating for a Gender Inclusive Educational Environment for Trans Youth.”
According to Superintendent-Director Michael P. Watson, “The district also created and subsequently implemented the Transgender and Gender Non-Confirming Student Rights which outlines their personal and civil rights and protections.”
“I always say the trans community is where the gay and lesbian community was in the 90s,” said YWCA’s Mulrooney. “Overall in Massachusetts, I feel safer being here (as a trans man). I know I have protections and I have legal actions I can take that I can’t take in other states.
“But there’s still a lot of cultural barriers and stereotypes that we need to fix.”
According to a 2018 survey conducted by the the American Academy of Pediatrics, more than half of transgender male teens have attempted suicide in their lifetime and 29.9% of transgender female teens say they have attempted suicide.
Among nonbinary youth, 41.8% said that they had attempted suicide at some point in their lives. Mulrooney hopes that their program will evolve into being a resource to students as well.
Transitioning at New Bedford High
In 2019, Quinn Mulvey graduated New Bedford High School. He is a transgender man but also identifies as queer and pansexual — someone attracted to people regardless of their gender identity.
He came out to his family and friends the summer of his sophomore year. “My mother was insanely supportive as well are my sisters,” he said. “My dad at first — it wasn’t he was never unsupportive; he was confused. Now he’s entirely comfortable with it.”
Mulvey said that he felt the most respected within the arts department. The faculty was embracing and helpful during the process. However, he was hesitant to come out to other teachers.
“I’m not sure if any of them are currently still staff, but some of them would, for some students, just flat out ignore requests for a name change,” he said. “Give them a hard time, too.
“I definitely do think it could have partially have been on their own education. But I’m sure back in 2017, I definitely was not the first transgender student at that school. They should’ve known better.”
During his sophomore year, Mulvey started hormone replacement therapy. “It was a lot, especially when you’re through the teenage mindset of, ‘Oh, God, if I do anything wrong, my life is over.’”
“Thankfully, from that confusion, I found friends that helped me,” Mulvey said, adding that he had a strong group of friends that supported him.
Wished for more on gender identity
He said for the most part, he didn’t have any issues being bullied by students. “I am an open book with anything that comes my identity,” Mulvey said. However, he said other students weren’t as forthcoming as him which led to some problems.
Mulvey said he wishes there was more in-school education about sexual orientation and gender identity to not only educate staff but his peers. It shouldn’t just be because a student was transgender in the class, he said.
He said he had to seek outside resources as the school’s gay-straight alliance program wasn’t very helpful.
As for health class, Mulvey said the only queer topic discussed was the 1981 AIDS crisis and that the rest of the sexual education classes were geared toward “straight relationships.”
“There was nothing like ‘Oh, this is what happens during a transgender person’s hormone replacement therapy, or these are like procedures that happen or here’s a brief history about the transgender community,” Mulvey said.
“Why not have a gender queer studies, if that is something that would be wanted by students, I feel like it would help with a plethora of things never mind just queer and transgender issues in history,” he added.
As of 2021, the New Bedford High School health and wellness curriculum hasn’t changed.
The importance of sexual education for LGBTQ+ youth
According to a USAToday article, LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum is lacking in many classrooms. Nationally, 19.4% of respondents to GLSEN’s 2019 National School Climate Survey said they had been taught positive representations of LGBTQ+ people, history or events in their schools.
Just 8.2% of students said they received LGBTQ-inclusive sex education.
Up until the late 2000s, most LGBTQ+-inclusive teaching was pushed aside or hidden from students. Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas have laws that forbid teachers from discussing LGBTQ+ topics in a positive light.
The GLSEN report stated that LGBTQ students without the support of an inclusive curriculum are more likely to face harassment and bullying at school. Students in schools with LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum are 82% more likely to report that their classmates accept LGBTQ people, according to a USAToday article.
In the 2020 report by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Commission, a suggestion was made to, “Ensure that comprehensive, age-appropriate, and LGBTQ-inclusive sexual health education is taught in every school district and supported with adequate funding.”
Another high school student on the GSA Leadership council stated, “Queer-inclusive sex ed is important because without it, there is no way for queer kids, without the resources, to know themselves to practice safe sex. [Sexual health education] is super important because all students should have access to sexual education regardless of sexual orientation.”
According to the Guttmacher Institute survey, 39 states require sex education and HIV education in schools. Eighteen bills have been introduced in 11 states that would require sex education to be inclusive of the needs of LGBTQ+ students.
“Without LGBTQ+ inclusive sex education, queer and trans youth are left in the dark when it comes to making informed decisions about their health, understanding their body, understanding how their body relates to other bodies out in the world,” said Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, director of GLSEN, in a USAToday article.
“When sex education labels some topics as controversial, it hurts all students by failing to provide a full and medically accurate understanding of sexual health.”
Dartmouth High School offers sexual orientation class
At Dartmouth High School, the wellness department has classes addressing gender identity and sexual orientation, according to Mark Gaffney, the department head.
“We do our part as a school district to give our students the latest information and knowledge so they can be prepared to handle situations that might arise in in real life scenarios,” Gaffney said.
Students review the “gender unicorn chart,” watch an instructional video and discuss sexual orientation. Gaffney says a permission slip is sent out to parents with a list of topics and the opportunity to have their child “opt out,” however Gaffney hasn’t observed many opt outs.
“We always are encouraged by our administration to look at curriculum,” Gaffney added. “We currently do two days, we could do more. Curriculum is very fluid, it’s ongoing. We’re constantly looking at it.”
“It’s very important to us at Dartmouth High School that we have a safe and supportive environment for all of our students, including our LGBT+ students,” said DHS Principal Ross Thibault.
“In recent school years, we’ve had a number of students who are transitioning and we do everything we can to support them and to make them feel safe.”
Thibault was the vice principal of Durfee High School and then the principal at Oxford High School, before becoming the principal at Dartmouth High. “The generation of students that we have in front of us right now, are probably the most inclusive and most accepting generation of students,” he said.
“I think teachers can have a tendency to focus almost exclusively on their content, but we’re teaching human beings, right. So, we absolutely have to have that human connection with our kids,” Thibault added.
“At the end of the day, that’s our biggest goal, to make sure that all of our students feel safe and supportive when they’re here.”
Making up for a lack of a LGBTQ-geared curriculum
Eileen Dugas, the newly appointed executive director at the SouthCoast LGBTQ+ Network, recently launched the Elevate Youth Initiative to reduce risk of homelessness for LGBTQ+ youth that arise in the community.
She hopes the resources at the network will help makeup what might be lacking in a school’s curriculum.
Dugas agrees that there needs to be more education in the classroom and easily accessible resources to students and their families. “We want to offer mentor services and resources as young as we can to the youth, so that the youth and the parent both have support managing their journey and they maintain their bond.”
Dugas admits that they’ve maybe missed the mark on also supporting parents with their journey, too. “I feel sometimes they need support and understanding of their youth’s journey more than accepting or supporting their youth.”
The network assists LGBTQ+ youth and their families by offering office hours in the middle schools and the high school within the family engagement centers. In Fall River, there are in-person support sessions from 5:30 to 7 p.m. on Thursdays at 45 Rock St.
Since July, Dugas said they are case managing nine youths and working with 30 to 35 students who have been accessing the network as a resource. The non-profit also offers innovative programing for kids such as a surf and art camp. They also have a board entirely of youth to discuss issues in the community.
Earlier this month, Dugas said they started a collaboration with the Fall River Public Schools after 45 middle schoolers, in one school, asked to participate in their youth program. “I don’t know if all those kids are LGBTQ+, but they showed interest in learning,” Dugas said.
“We want schools to be mindful, be aware and get to know your students better and see where they’re at in their journey and on their path,” YWCA’s Raelyn Monteiro added.
“It’s about being respectful of a person’s journey and experiences and evolving because we’re always growing and changing.”
Standard-Times staff writer Seth Chitwood can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on twitter: @ChitwoodReports. Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Standard-Times today.