Anxiety over a parallel pandemic of mental health issues and teen depression is making the national news during the COVID-19 months of quarantine, isolation, and distance learning.
Parents and educators agree that times are tough for many kids during COVID-19, and especially for LGBTQ+ kids who normally find refuge in the social supports, extracurriculars, safe spaces, and freedom that a school setting provides.
Virtual programs and services are stepping into the COVID void to help Tampa Bay Area LGBTQ+ students struggling to stay connected, and, behind the scenes, some progress is being made toward greater inclusivity.
Amit Paley, CEO and Executive Director of The Trevor Project, a national crisis intervention and prevention organization that focuses on LGBTQ youth, says that studies confirm that “many LGBTQ youths lost access to their usual support systems and some are now isolated in unaccepting home environments” [due to the pandemic]. CDC data has tracked a major uptick in youth suicidal ideation trends during COVID, which further underscores the heightened dangers facing the LGBTQ population, he explains, as “we know from other CDC data that lesbian, gay, and bisexual high school students continue to report nearly four times the rate of suicide attempts compared to their straight peers.”
There is additional evidence that for Black LGBTQ students, this period of isolation and current events surrounding the Black Lives Movement has further compounded feelings of sadness and despair.
Thousands of teens affected in Tampa Bay
According to the most recent Florida Youth Risk Survey, more than 20% of Hillsborough County Public School (HCPS) high school students self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or questioning, slightly higher than the state average. Roughly 2% of adolescents identify as transgender or gender non-conforming at the national level, according to CDC studies.
To put that in perspective, for the average high school with a population of 2,000, more than 400 are part of this group, and about 40 identify as transgender or nonconforming. That’s a lot of kids at greater risk of crisis during the pandemic -- in Hillsborough County Public Schools alone, that means thousands of kids.
School initiatives underway
GSA clubs (Gay-Straight or Gender and Sexuality Alliances) are active in 25 of Hillsborough County’s 28 public high schools, with another 30 GSA clubs in the county’s middle schools. The clubs are student-created, student-led, and advised by a faculty sponsor. Multiple studies have shown a positive correlation between the existence of GSA clubs at school and the well-being of LGBTQ+ students. Some of these clubs are meeting virtually during the pandemic.
The 2021 LGBTQ Youth Summit takes place this year from March 5th to 7th, offering a range of workshops, interactive activities, and community-building.
In the meantime, there are a handful of initiatives advancing behind the scenes aimed at making HCPS more inclusive. Among them, GSA faculty sponsor training and a new GSA handbook to help structure, strengthen, and guide the clubs. Final touches on guidelines for teachers and administrators to support LGBTQ students are underway, as is programming for sex education that will include gender-neutral terms, referring, for instance to Partner A and Partner B. LGBTQ Awareness month (October) is formally recognized and celebrated by HCPS.
Safe spaces stickers let students know that a classroom is a judgment-free zone, welcoming anyone who feels they need a safe space. HCPS is developing a new one that is a district-wide vision for what that sticker represents” and it will be backed by training.
“Behind any sticker that is up in any school, the staff member will be well- trained,” says Ashlee Cappucci, HCPS Supervisor for K-12 Physical Education, Health, and Dance. “Stickers have to be backed up with someone who truly believes what that sticker is saying.”
She says they are also creating window panes so the sticker can move with the teacher from room to room.
“Our goal is to be a diversity ally, for all kids, not only LGBTQ,” notes Dr. Monica Verra-Tirado, HCPS Chief of Equity and Diversity.
Awareness is key
Raising awareness and acceptance is central to supporting the LGBTQ+ community in Hillsborough County, says advocate Leanne Klumb. Klumb, a board member of the Tampa chapter of the advocacy group GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network)and the HCPS PTA LGBTQ+ liaison, regularly talks to parent groups and supports school training on the topic. The isolation of COVID-19 has her concerned.
“We have been having conversations with the school district since really early on, I am concerned about these kids falling through the cracks,'' Klumb says. "We were having this dialogue with the school district right away.”
Klumb’s interest in LGBTQ+ issues was sparked when her son Andy came out as gay and transgender while attending a local high school. She was shocked by the treatment her straight-A student received from the principal and others when he ran for Homecoming King. Today, Andy is a senior in college and advocates for LGBTQ+ kids whenever he has a chance, including accompanying his mother to some of these meetings and sharing his story
Andy Klumb says things have improved in terms of acceptance in just the last few years since he was in high school, but that there is still much work to be done. He points out that some of the most painful aspects of the transgender experience are heightened during COVID-19. For instance, he notes, “if you’re not out at home, you can’t do a Zoom meeting with your affirmed names [preferred name other than the legal one]” or pronouns. There are reports of increased abuse at home because of LGBTQ identity, but because of COVID-19 restrictions, kids have nowhere to go.
His advice to teachers, parents, trusted adults: “If you sense something is wrong [with an LGBTQ student], you need to reach out and make yourself an obvious supporter of LGBTQ and people of color. Let them know you are sympathetic and that they can reach out to you.”
Virtual resources for LGBTQ+
In addition to trying to connect with their schools' GSA clubs virtually, and reaching out to trusted adults at school, there are a number of LGBTQ support groups in Tampa Bay that offer resources.
Metro Inclusive Health, a healthcare and LGBTQ advocacy group serving the greater Tampa Bay region has a number of programs aimed at supporting youth. Pre-COVID, Metro Health offered multiple in-person weekly peer support and youth nights, summer camps, an annual summit, as well as special events -- everything from Halloween Monster Mashes and other holiday-oriented events to Queer Teach-ins, bringing in LGBTQ professionals to talk about their jobs and experiences. Their flagship event, the 2021 LGBTQ Youth Summit, takes place this year from March 5th to 7th, offering a range of workshops, interactive activities, and community-building.
All of this has successfully gone virtual, reaching dozens of kids on a weekly basis. The group’s Programming Specialist Emma Makdessi says they’ve gotten “creative in how we connect to give that safe space to our teens,” and notes there are some advantages.
“The virtual world does a really good job of bringing together folks from all parts of the world,” Makdessi says.
They also use innovations like the gamer app Discord to communicate safely with youth. Their programs involve a screening process to ensure the participants are really who they say they are and are of the appropriate ages.
Still, other challenges exist. For example, they are reaching only “a sprinkling of queer youth of color” and program participants skew from identity-affirming households. Makdessi says as an organization, they are working on this and she hopes post-COVID they’ll be able to do more targeted outreach and work on “expanding our community.”
Other important resources are accessible through advocacy websites. For instance, The Trevor Project’s 24-hour crisis hotline can be engaged via phone, chat, or text; GLSEN and Equality Florida offer support to youth, including guidance for adults and teachers on supporting LGBTQ students during this difficult time.
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