Safe haven

For 10 years, Gay-Straight Alliances in Fort Worth schools have given LGBTQ and their straight friends a place to go for support and safety

GATHERING | Rebecca Cooper, front center, opens her classroom at Southwest High School to LGBT students and their friends looking for someplace where they feel safe enough to talk openly, and where they can find friendship and support from others like them. (Andrea Grimes/Dallas Voice}

ANDREA GRIMES  |  Contributing Writer
editor@dallasvoice.com

It’s been 10 years since two high school boys started the first Gay-Straight Alliance club in Tarrant County at Fort Worth’s Southwest High School, and membership is way, way up.

This year, on any given Friday, dozens of kids show up to Rebecca Cooper’s classroom in a cramped, low-ceilinged portable building to do what a lot of kids do — braid each other’s hair or practice gymnastics in the grass outside.

But they also do what a lot of kids will never have to do: trade phone numbers so that when they come out to their family, they’ve got a place to go and a support group if the conversation ends in a fight, or worse — homelessness or even a suicide attempt. (An estimated 20 to 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.)

Between the hair braiding and the back flips, Gay-Straight Alliance clubs save lives. It’s as simple as that.

Southwest High School sponsor Rebecca Cooper says she’s seen it with her own eyes: GSAs serve as safe spaces where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning students can feel empowered rather than intimidated.

“Because there’s a lack of fear [at GSAs],” says Cooper, students are confident in sharing their own personal experiences to help their peers.

At a meeting, says Cooper, you might have a kid who says, “I thought about suicide three days ago.” But “before you know it,” she says, “You’ve got six, eight, 10 kids around him, like swoosh. They’re going, ‘Here’s my phone number, I’ve been there.’”

Anti-bullying efforts have moved to the forefront of the national conversation in the past couple of years, thanks in part to high-profile campaigns like Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project, which inspired Fort Worth City Councilmember Joel Burns to tell his own story, during an October 2010 City Council meeting of contemplating suicide after being bullied.

But every week — and every night, and every day, really whenever a student needs a help or a hug or a sounding board — since December, 2001, students in Fort Worth’s Gay-Straight Alliances have been telling each other that it gets better, that there’s someone out there who cares.

As of this year, there are three active GSAs in the Fort Worth Independent School District: Southwest High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance, Western Hills High School’s Q-Status and Paschal High School’s G.L.O.W. (Gay, Lesbian or Whatever), with two more inactive high school groups seeking sponsors.

Cooper estimates that up to 70 percent of her club is straight. The unity and cooperation between straight and non-straight students is part of what makes the simple existence of GSA’s so impactful.

Not only are GSAs safe spaces for LGBTQ students, they also build rapport and trust between the LGBTQ community and the straight majority.

“Straight people want to be part of the change,” says Western Hills’ Q-Status President Italia Salinas, a junior. “You don’t have to be gay to help others have respect and support.”

Often, hurtful and hateful speech comes out of what English teacher Marvin Vann calls anti-gay individuals’ sense of a “mandated right” to denounce homosexuality because of their religious beliefs. He says Gay-Straight Alliances help give strength to students who might otherwise feel swamped and surrounded by Christians with “loving” messages — like the employee who told Italia Salinas’ friend she was going to hell for being a lesbian.

Last year, recalls Salinas, a school employee — not a teacher — told a friend of hers that she’d go to hell because of her sexuality.

While Salinas and her friend were walking down the school hallway one day, an employee asked the two girls where they were headed. When they talked about going to a Q-Status meeting and explained what it was, the employee asked Salinas’ friend if she went to church. She said she did, a Catholic church.

Salinas remembers the employee, someone they’d laughed and joked with since their freshman year, telling her friend, “I love you, but being gay is not okay, and I care about you so I don’t want you to go to hell for doing that.”

Salinas says her friend was “in shock” that a school employee would say such a thing to a student.

Cooper says she’s had to correct other teachers who would tell students it’s not okay to be gay — teachers who didn’t even realize that Cooper herself was gay.

Tensions between teachers, administrators and school employees have heightened in Fort Worth over the years, so much so that Sharon Herrera, an out lesbian herself, was brought in to teach training seminars and handle complaints.

But, as reported by the Fort Worth Weekly, Herrera was perhaps too good at her job.

Her position was eliminated at the beginning of this year, and although she’s still an employee of the district, she’s no longer conducting the seminars and handling the multitude of complaints that came across her desk, which included instances of anti-LGBTQ bullying as well sexual and racial harassment.

Everything, it seems, has gone silent. But that doesn’t mean everyone’s problems have been solved.

Herrera says that quality training that is LGBTQ-specific is vital in Fort Worth, and programs like their “It’s Not Okay” campaign, launched in June of 2010, simply do not address LGBTQ issues in a meaningful way — or at all.

Instead, it is often left up to the more-than-capable students to stand up for themselves when something goes wrong. That’s one of the wonderful things about GSAs, say participants: They get to learn real-world activism in high school.

This year, Italia Salinas says, Q-Status has not been allowed to make public announcements and hang signs in the hallways, ostensibly because they’re a non-academic group. However, a conservative Christian extracurricular group for boys at the school has been able to do those things.

Salinas and her group will have to actively fight to get their school to respect the Equal Access Act, which guarantees that if one extra-curricular club has access to school resources, all of them must.
Nine students from Fort Worth ISD marched in the city’s recent gay Pride parade, and when the Dallas Voice stopped by Southwest High School to talk to their Gay-Straight Alliance, the room positively lit up when the march was brought up.

Hands shot into the air, attached to squirming bodies, each student anxious to talk about the amazing feeling they got from being accepted in an adult space.

In fact, says Western Hills’ Q-Status teacher sponsor Bernardo Vallarino, showing kids that the LGBT community is more than just dance clubs and drugs — something he was exposed to very early on as a young man — is an integral part of what GSAs do for students.

In forming GSAs, he says, “it creates a right way of learning about the LGBTQ community that doesn’t include drugs, alcohol or inadequate sex.” The biggest take-away from GSAs, says Herrera, is that they prevent bullying and, again, save lives because of their specific focus on the needs of LGBTQ students.

Inclusivity, says Herrera, is not enough; LGBTQ kids need programs tailored to their specific challenges — challenges that are made ever more apparent every time the local news reports on yet another bullied teen’s suicide.

Southwest junior Ryan McCaleb says being gay “is the way we live, think, breathe.” But because of the social stigma and pressure from religious and conservative students and teachers, he says, “You’re the talk of the school, and everything that’s said comes back times 10.”

The Gay-Straight Alliance is a place where kids understand what that feels like — that unique feeling of shame and pain that LGBTQ kids deal with, especially LGBTQ kids in conservative cities like Fort Worth, and that their straight friends want to help alleviate. As president of Q-Status, Italia Salinas says her GSA “gives [her] hope for humanity,” that hatefulness and bullying can be prevented before it begins.

Vallarino says that in 10 years of Gay-Straight Alliance clubs in FWISD, some goals may have shifted. Last year, they successfully focused on getting written policies in place against workplace and schoolharassment and supporting equal treatment, while this year they’re hoping to get a GSA in every high school and middle school.
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MISSION STATEMENTS

• Q-Status: “Q- Status is a group built on the human differences of its members, a safe place where everyone is welcome and no one is turned away. Our focus is centered on the education of our members and the community around us. We thrive by making new friends and by accomplishing our goals of informing and educating others of the cultural and legal inequalities faced by many groups including the homosexual community and their families. Everyone is welcome (heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, questioning, confused, curious, etc.)”

• LGBTQ Saves (district-wide): “LGBTQ  S.A.V.E.S. (Students, Administrators, Volunteers, Educators Support) fosters the well-being of LGBTQ K-12 students, administrators, volunteers and educators in Tarrant County by eliminating discrimination, bullying and retaliation on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. S.A.V.E.S. is an autonomous, all-volunteer group and not affiliated with any local school districts.”

• Southwest High School GSA Vision Statement: “The Gay-Straight Alliance GSA at Southwest High School is a student-led and -organized club that aims to create a safe, welcoming and accepting environment for all youth regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. The GSA brings together gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered and questioning (GLBTQ) youth with their straight peers to address issues such as bullying, harassment, discrimination and bias. GSA allows youth to build coalitions and community that can work towards making a safer school environment for all people. Motto: Come as you are.”

But ultimately, “One thing that has never changed is that GSA’s are a safe haven.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 14, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Maple & Motor vs. the gays — again

Maple & Motor owner Jack Perkins (from Facebook).

The last time we addressed this issue was on this episode of our podcast, Pink Noise. There’s been a contentious relationship with Jack Perkins, owner of Maple & Motor Burgers & Beer, and pretty much a contingent of the community that accuses him of discrimination and homophobia. There was even a Facebook page started rather abruptly after one person went to the webs to vent about alleged discrimination, but he never followed up with an official complaint. Dallas has a law against discrimination based on sexual orientation in public accommodations.

Alas, it all seemed to have died down until Tuesday, when Dallas Voice contributor Andrea Grimes posted this piece on Eater Dallas.

—  Rich Lopez

Missing inaction

FAMILY GATHERING | Jamie Boeglin, seated center in white, loved to be part of family gatherings and was especially adamant about her family celebrating her birthday, says her brother John. The fact that Jamie’s 48th birthday passed last July with no word from her to her family heightens John’s fears that Jamie met with foul play. (Photo courtesy John Boeglin)

Jamie Boeglin lived on the fringes of society, and now that she has been missing for a year, her family fears they have lost her forever

RELATED STORY: Recording the injustice

ANDREA GRIMES | Contributing Writer
editor@dallasvoice.com

Jamie Boeglin lived in Fort Worth, but she didn’t really have any kind of permanent home to go missing from.

Sometimes she crashed at her brother’s house on the west side or squatted in an abandoned house. She’d spend a night at a shelter here or there, or just sleep on the street.

Many times, she could have listed her address as a jail cell after she’d been picked up for shoplifting or fighting.

Jamie Boeglin did have one place she could reliably be found — the AIDS Outreach Center where she went to refill her medicine.

There, she’d chat up the case workers and get her upcoming medical and mental health appointments in order. She might miss a few of those — could be jail time, could be she’d landed in the hospital — but she always, always came back to seek help from the folks at the AOC.

Except this month, it’ll have been one year since Jamie Boeglin picked up her medication.

No one — not her family, not her doctors, not her counselors — has seen her since May 18, 2010.

Her brother, John Boeglin, says he knows Jamie could be unreliable. But not this unreliable.

“We’ve not heard anything,” says John Boeglin, who along with his four other siblings in North Texas and New Mexico, has been trying to understand how and why their relentlessly “attention-seeking” Jamie dropped off their radar a year ago.

To the Boeglins, however, Jamie is “Jimmy,” their brother, who was born James Martin but began transitioning toward living as a woman in 2008.

Though most people came to know her as Jamie, John Boeglin finds it hard to call his missing sibling anything but Jimmy.

“He’s just always been our brother,” says Boeglin, and despite the family’s many ups and downs dealing with Jamie Boeglin’s homelessness and addiction problems over the years, they’re desperate to find out whether Jamie has run away or if, as John puts it, she’s “a pile of bones under a bush somewhere.”

Even as John Boeglin distributes flyers to area shelters and cruises in vain down Fort Worth’s blighted Lancaster Avenue, looking for any sign of his missing sibling, he knows in his heart that Jamie isn’t the kind of person who’d intentionally go very long without trying to get someone’s attention.

To make things worse, John fears his sibling may have been a victim of anti-transgender violence.

“What if he’s been hauled off by someone who doesn’t like transvestites or transsexuals or transgenders?” John wonders. But he’s so far been unsuccessful in convincing the Fort Worth Police Department that harm may have come to Jamie.

Because they’ve found no clear evidence of foul play, a representative at FWPD says there’s little they can do when an adult does not want to be found.

“We have no reason to suspect foul play,” Fort Worth’s LGBT Community Liason Officer Sara Straten tells the Dallas Voice. As best they can tell, says Straten, Boeglin left town “of her own volition,” based on their detectives’ investigation.

Because Boeglin is listed as a missing person, if she were to be arrested or stopped by police for anything at all, the Fort Worth Police Department would be notified.

“If she’s out there, we’re going to hear about it,” Straten says.

But that’s precisely one of the reasons John Boeglin believes Jamie’s disappearance isn’t voluntary: His sibling has a real habit of running afoul of the law.

In just the first few months of 2010 alone, Jamie Boeglin was cited by Fort Worth police as the victim in a drunken fight that landed her in the hospital with 19 reconstructive pins in her skull. Then, she was arrested for criminal trespass in May, a little more than a week before she was last seen at the AIDS Outreach Center.

In fact, even when the police weren’t involved, it was always some kind of drama with Jamie, remembers her brother — especially around her birthday and on holidays.

John didn’t hear from Jamie last July, which would have been her 48th birthday, and when it comes to holidays, John says Jamie never misses an opportunity for “raising a big stink” about presents and get-togethers.

“Unless he is amnesiac or dead, then there is really no reason that he would not be trying to contact us on a regular basis,” John insists.

But as annoying and dramatic as he says Jamie could be, the most frustrating part of all for John is knowing that, in fact, there is information out there that could help him find out if Jamie is dead or alive. He just can’t access it.

Because of governmental restrictions, John cannot find out whether Jamie’s Social Security debit card has been used in the past year. To do so would require a court order — something he can’t get as long as the police consider Jamie to be absent of her own volition.

If John just had that debit card information, he says, he’d know if his sibling were alright — angry, perhaps, and estranged, but at least alive and well.

“At least we’d know he’s alive and doesn’t want to be contacted,” says John, who says he wouldn’t even care to know where the card has been used — just that it has been. “That’s probably the most frustrating thing.”

But pain and frustration are recurring characters in Jamie Boeglin’s life story.

While homelessness, substance abuse and other catastrophic life events can happen to anyone, transgender people especially lack the help and resources they need from law enforcement, social services and medical professionals. A survey on discrimination against transgender people (See Sidebar) released earlier this year by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force details just how maddeningly common Jamie Boeglin’s situation is.

According to the study, “Injustice At Every Turn,” transgender people are nearly twice as likely to be homeless than is estimated for the general U.S. population, which correlates with the fact that they are also very likely to be incarcerated or suffer from drug or alcohol addiction.

And when it comes to HIV, says Mara Keisling, executive director of the NCTE, transgender people have a “hugely disproportional” infection rate — four times the national average — due in large part to economic marginalization.

“[Jamie] has got to feel fairly discarded by society,” says Keisling, whose her research has made her a difficult person to shock when it comes to stories like Jamie’s. The possibilities Keisling sees for Jamie are many — and none are very positive.

“She’s more likely to be disrespected by the medical community and law enforcement,” says Keisling, which could prevent her from getting help in a crisis.

Keisling added that it’s “fairly common” for transgender people to be victims of violent criminals who “often will look for the most marginalized people.”

These kinds of possibilities weigh on John Boeglin’s mind, especially because he admits that over the years, he’s wished Jamie would stop being such a nuisance in the family.

“He’s done something to alienate every one of the siblings,” says John. “But when it’s like this, we want him to be around.”

Even their tumultuous family life hasn’t broken the bond of blood, and John dwells on the times he and his siblings wished for Jamie to leave them alone: “For a long time we really wished he would disappear, and now he has. We wish we’d never had those moments of thought.”

—  John Wright

Steve Blow’s controversial blog post was also homophobic

In case you missed it, Dallas Morning News Metro columnist Steve Blow is under heavy fire for a blog item he posted yesterday about a Rowlett priest accused of inappropriately touching girls and women. Here’s what Blow’s original item said:

This is sad to say, but it’s almost refreshing to read about a priest accused of good, old-fashioned heterosexual perviness.

The dreadful stuff between priests and boys has been going on for so long that I almost forgot that some priests have more mainstream sexual hang-ups.

Again, I say, it’s time for a married priesthood.

In response to the ensuing outcry, the post was pulled from The DMN’s website, and Blow apologized. CBS 11 provides a recap of some of the criticism:

Bethany Anderson at D-Magazine’s FrontBurner blog responded by questioning his wording.

“I’m not so sure the women and girls molested by this priest find it refreshing,” she wrote. “Perhaps a better choice of words, friend?”

And at the Dallas Observer’s Unfair Park, Andrea Grimes called the post a “rape joke.”

“A penchant for molesting women and girls who are members of your church is not a ‘sexual hangup.’ It’s a crime. They are not asking for it. They did not consent,” she wrote.

I don’t disagree with Anderson and Grimes, but one thing no one has mentioned is the fact that Blow’s post was also patently homophobic. In saying that it’s “refreshing to read about a priest accused of good, old-fashioned heterosexual perviness,” Blow implies that pedophilia is somehow worse when it involves an adult male and an underage boy. Blow’s post also serves to perpetuate the myth that pedophilia and homosexuality are somehow linked, which is simply not true.

For the record, here’s Blow’s apology:

“If you have to explain humor, it has failed. My attempt here at some sardonic humor has obviously failed with a number of readers. I apologize,” read his post. “No offense was intended — except toward pervy priests of any persuasion.”

—  John Wright

NY Daily News reports two teachers messing around but Heartless Doll not having it

The last time I mentioned former Dallas writer Andrea Grimes, she was taking on “fag haggery” in her Heartless Doll column. Today, she goes gay again and blasts NY Daily News’ coverage of two female school teachers, Alini Brito, Cindy Mauro, caught making out in an empty classroom. If the link doesn’t work, just copy this questionable URL in:
nydailynews.com/news/2009/12/09/2009-12-09_teachers_pet__each_other_naked_lust_was_part_of_their_lesson_
plan_at_high_school
.html

In her trademark snarky fashion, Grimes offers some thought-provoking points in her commentary. Although, to be fair, I suggest you read NYDN first and then her piece today in Heartless Doll.

—  Rich Lopez

Former Dallas writer Andrea Grimes ponders her lack of (or so she thought) 'fag-haggery'

Andrea Grimes, a former colleague of mine, wrote today on Heartless Doll what it feels like for a girl to be tapped by the label “fag hag.” Her post is more a response to Thomas Rogers over at Salon who admits, “Ladies: I’m not your gay boyfriend.” Both fun and good reads but Rogers takes on the topic like a college dissertation.

It sounds like Grimes never got to fully appreciate the girl + gay = BFF social study in her college days despite going to NYU where the odds were apparently with her. Instead she stood as an observer of other women and their pseudo-boyfriends. Grimes had her own motives.

I’m not sure why I never became one of them, apart from the fact that it’s hard for a serial monogamist to, again, have much time for someone she’s not screwing.

Hopefully Grimes didn’t forget all our special times together. Discussing Sex and the City at length, comparing man/boy crushes, enjoying haunted hay rides and lots of drinking. With all that effort, I figured I filled the void of Will to her Grace. Or was it really, vice versa?

But like she and Rogers figure at the end – ultimately, let’s just be friends. And for once, that’s meant in a good way.

—  Rich Lopez