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How To Support LGBT Students in Rural America

Dignity Relationship
December 13, 2012

How are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students living in rural areas coping with passive violence in schools? According to a recent report by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), "Strengths and Silences: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Students in Rural and Small Town Schools,” LGBT students are considerably more likely to feel unsafe in their respective academic environments than their urban counterparts.

The report documents the experiences of more than 2,300 LGBT secondary students attending schools in rural U.S. regions, drawing on data collected from the GLSEN’s 2011 National School Climate Survey.
Among the findings were that only 13 percent of rural LGBT students reported that school personnel always intervened or most of the time when they heard anti-gay remarks. Also, compared to 53 percent for urban students, only 27 percent of rural LGBT students reported having access to a gay-straight alliance at school. Rural LGBT students who experienced high levels of victimization were also less likely to plan to attend college.

What can we do to support? Bystanders in these situations have an important role to play, especially in rural schools. Although nobody looks forward to confronting a bully, the inescapable fact remains that at some point in our lives we will all encounter someone being bullied. The easiest thing to do is to be apathetic, simply ignoring the bullying or quickly removing oneself from the situation. Nobody wants to think about being in that situation. The lack of forethought leads to lack of preparation, which in turn makes taking action in the heat of the moment difficult. However, international best-selling author Rosalind Wiseman has provided some helpful guidelines to help bystanders prepare. In an article contributed to the Huffington Post she writes:

Supporting someone who's been bullied:

Say, "I'm sorry that happened to you, do you want to tell me about it?"

Don't tell them what they should have done or what you would have done. Listen and help them think through how to address the problem effectively. And if they ask you to back them up the next time it happens, ask them what that looks like to them. If it means upholding their right to be treated with dignity and not getting revenge on the bully, then do it.

Supporting someone who is being the bully:

In your own words say something like, "This is uncomfortable to talk about but yesterday when you sent that picture of Dave you know that really embarrassed him. And I know I laughed and I know he can be annoying but it's still wrong. If you do it again I'm not going to back you up."

Yes the bully is going to push back, make you uncomfortable, try to get you on their side but remember what happened and why you feel like the bully's actions were wrong.

These simple tips provide a basic guideline to help anyone immediately mitigate the effects of bullying on those in greatest need like LGBT students in rural areas and small towns. As GLSEN Executive Director Dr. Eliza Byard states, "These students are frequently the most isolated - both physically and in terms of access to critical resources and support - and our findings require us to both honor their resilience and respond to their needs."

Indeed, the GLSEN study found that rural schools are the most lacking in LGBT-resources associated with improvements in school climate and student well-being such as inclusive curricula, supportive educators, anti-bullying/harassment policies and access to supportive student clubs.

Luckily, compassion is an inner resource that we all possess and the tips mentioned earlier are free of charge. Let’s begin mentally rehearsing how we will respond after witnessing an act of bullying. Whether it is an LGBT student in a rural school getting bullied or any other victim in another setting, there will likely always be bystanders. And at some point, each of us will play this role. When that happens, each of us will have the opportunity to choose compassion over apathy, engage in dialogue with either the victim or the bully, and help reduce the amount of passive and physical violence in our world.

Credit: Carloxito (Attribution va Wikimedia Commons)

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