Helping our LGBTQ neighbors feel safe, welcome and visible — in a small town
Teenagers in Pescadero have grown up around words like ‘discrimination,’ ‘stereotyping’ and the importance of celebrating ‘diversity.’ But those concepts came to life at an orientation for Puente’s Youth Leadership and Employment Program held earlier this month. The session focused on the unique challenges experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and the importance of creating a safe and welcoming community for all. A panel of Puente staff members spoke to the youth and answered questions about their own LGBTQ experiences as LGBTQ people and allies, openly and enthusiastically.
“Puente has always focused on creating welcoming places for our diverse South Coast community, including a safe place for LGBTQ youth and adults,” says Kerry Lobel, Strategic Projects Advisor for Puente. Lobel, one of the most visible lesbians on the Coastside and a former Executive Director of National LGBTQ Task Force, was one of the four panelists.
That focus is likely to intensify as Puente takes steps to incorporate more contextual visibility around supporting LGBTQ youth and adults on the South Coast.
“We want to build and support a safe and affirming community for all, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression,” says Rita Mancera, Executive Director of Puente. “It is critical that all of us learn to be good allies and foster a welcoming South Coast for every youth and adult.”
June is LGBT Pride Month in the U.S. Ironically, it will also always be branded by the Orlando nightclub massacre, which occurred on June 12, 2016. Part of the youth discussion focused on how seemingly innocent slang terms that students use at school may create an atmosphere where LGBTQ classmates feel unsafe.
“Kids who are called names or bullied can experience negative physical, school, and mental health issues, says Mancera. “We shouldn’t use these words because that’s a form of discrimination. “The bottom line is social justice. We want social justice for women, for children, for farmworkers… and that means we should not stereotype, bully or discriminate.”
Puente has been known as a queer-friendly space for a long time. Many of its past and current staff are openly lesbian, gay or bisexual. Puente’s behavioral health services are always available to youth and adults who are struggling with questions of sexual identity or gender orientation. Everyone is welcome at Puente.
But Puente itself could do a better job of making LGBTQ outreach a more visible and central aspect of its daily operations, says Mancera.
“We haven’t done enough in this community. I think people are afraid to come out. Even adults. Their hesitation is compounded by other social factors at play – race, immigration status, income – that make it even more difficult to come out in a small town like Pescadero. The fears of losing one’s job or family support are real, “says Mancera
Why is that? According to Noel Chávez, Puente’s former Education Director, a big part of it is being in such a small, insular town, where people know each other and are often related. What they don’t talk openly about, however, is their own sexual orientation or gender identity. And sometimes, “that silence can speak louder than words,” Chávez says.
“When I came to town, I didn’t hear much about people who identified themselves as LGBTQ and otherwise. And as a queer brown male, I wanted to be transparent. An important part of that is breaking taboos that still exist in Pescadero,” he says.
At Puente, Chávez made a practice of talking about his male partner to the students in his adult ESL classes. No one ever made him feel different or unwelcome. But someone who grows up in town and goes to a high school with fewer than 100 students may have a different experience, Chávez points out.
Chávez’s presence made it possible for young people to come out to him and ask for support, which was a good thing. But in most cases, the youth were not comfortable talking about their sexual or gender orientation with their parents.
“But their children are having these conversations,” he adds. “If anything, the youth in Pescadero are aware of it and there needs to be much more work done breaking the taboo with their parents.”
Mancera says Latino LGBTQ adults are often invisible in the wider community. “That tells you how many people are living with this oppression,” she says.
Erica Hays wants young people to grow up knowing that questioning one’s sexual orientation or gender identity may be a part of growing up. As the Principal of Pescadero Elementary School, she has led difficult conversations with a few individual students and their parents after the students reacted badly to finding out that someone was LGBT.
“Kids will say something like ‘that’s gay’ or ‘you’re gay’ and they don’t know what’s behind it,” she says.
Hays has even invited the San Mateo County Sheriff to come talk to the children about bullying, with a special emphasis on respecting LGBTQ peers.
It’s a constant challenge to remind kids to be respectful, says Hays. But the bottom line is that students ought to feel safe and respected.
“Anytime someone makes a comment, I try to reinforce that this is a safe space here, just like Puente, and that people are different. And that some girls like girls, and some boys like boys – so that everyone is primed to respect differences.”
It’s a sensitive issue, and one that parents tend to resist exploring, says Hays. At the same time, she has noticed that kids are becoming more aware of LGBTQ issues at a younger age, because it’s in the news. And that will inevitably change the educational dynamic.
“Everything was so hush-hush when I was a kid. And now that things are more out in the open, we’re going to get more questions,” she predicts. “Is this something to discuss at a parent event? I don’t know.”
The stigma often associated with talking about LGBTQ people in schools led to Senate Bill 48, the FAIR Education Act, signed by the Governor in 2011, which compels the inclusion of the political, economic, and social contributions of persons with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people into educational textbooks and the social studies curricula in California public schools
Puente itself held an internal staff training last year to answer questions about sexual orientation and gender identity. It was eye-opening for everyone. “I remember for my Latino staff especially, seeing this make an impression. It was the first time some had information like this. Including myself. We tend to think it’s only lesbian or gay. There’s a whole range of people that are different, and it’s still evolving and becoming more sophisticated,” says Mancera.
Puente is now more prepared than ever to stand with its LGBTQ participants. The question is how to make sure they can feel comfortable enough to reach out – especially to Latino adults.
“If people can get through the door, they’re going to be cared for well. I think the question is, are we doing a good enough job of getting them in the door?” asks Lobel. She believes Puente faces a special challenge reaching LGBTQ adults who only speak Spanish to let them know they are welcomed regardless of how “out” they choose to be.
One suggestion is to normalize the conversations around LGBTQ issues by having every Puente program use LGBTQ examples in it teaching materials and workshops. To resist the tendency to use only examples of heterosexual families, whether in the context of a driving theory class or a parenting class.
The more people hear about LGBTQ Latinos, the easier it will be to accept – especially among locals.
“It’s very hard to stigmatize when it’s your neighbor,” is how Lobel puts it. “The best thing Puente can do is say, ‘You already know the LGBTQ people among us; they’re your brothers, sisters and friends.”
Puente believes on a diverse, equitable, and inclusive community on the South Coast that involves and respects all of its residents. Please consider making a contribution to Puente today to continue to move this vision forward.