Make It Better

Bullying of gay students demands our attention here in Spokane.

It happened again. Another tormented teenager took his own life after being bullied with anti-gay slurs. The sad irony of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer’s recent death in Buffalo, N.Y., is that he made a video for the “It Gets Better” project in which he expressed hope that life would get easier for himself and others who struggle with their sexual orientation.

Unfortunately, Jamey ran out of hope, and now the Amherst Police Department has opened a criminal investigation into his death to determine whether a hate crime was committed.

Buffalo is not as far from Spokane as you might think — at least in terms of the hardships faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth. Our LGBTQ kids are being bullied here, too. They are harassed at school, on the job, at the bus plaza — sometimes even in their own families. They disproportionately suffer from many of the social and economic inequities we’ve been fighting against for years as a community. Here are some of the grim national statistics:

  • Nearly nine out of 10 LGBTQ students experience harassment at school; one-third of them drop out to escape violence, harassment and isolation.
  • LGBTQ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their non-gay peers.
  • LGBTQ youth are far more likely than their non-gay peers to run away from home or to be kicked out. Up to 40 percent of all homeless youth identify as LGBTQ.

We all can remember how hard it is to be a teenager, especially when you don’t fit in. While there are numerous organizations and child-care advocates working to make Spokane a nurturing and healthy community for children, we’re not sure those efforts include our LGBTQ kids.

As the only drop-in center for LGBTQ youth in northeastern Washington, Odyssey serves more than 250 kids per year in our physical space, and hundreds more through our online and social media outreach. We know from our intake forms that two-thirds of the youth we serve live in families with incomes of less than $25,000 per year. We know that many of our youth are without health care or medical insurance, that many have dropped out of school, and that some are homeless and malnourished.

At Odyssey, we believe our LGBTQ kids are your kids, too. We believe a healthy community must invest in its future, which is its youth — whether straight or gay.

So how can you help prevent the death of another Jamey Rodemeyer — in Buffalo or Spokane? Support Odyssey’s Gay Straight Alliance initiative. GSA clubs are extracurricular student groups that promote social justice, awareness and acceptance in schools. They are found nationwide, mostly in high schools, but in some middle schools as well.

Odyssey promotes GSA clubs because national research and our own experience shows that LG- BTQ youth who have clubs in their schools have a more positive high school experience. The clubs offer Odyssey-like safe spaces where kids can make friends and be themselves.

Only a handful of high schools in Spokane County currently have GSAs — among them a very successful and active program at Shadle, and fledgling efforts at Lewis and Clark and at University in the Spokane Valley. Odyssey would like a GSA in every high school in Spokane County.

Despite the fact that the state of Washington requires all school districts to adopt policies and procedures that “expressly prohibit the bullying of students based on sexual orientation and gender expression and identity,” schools are not required to provide GSAs. Their existence depends on students asking their school administrators for permission to start a club, and then the willingness of a teacher or counselor to be an adviser.

Odyssey’s role is to provide start-up information to administrators, teachers, students and parents about the clubs. So please contact Odyssey Youth Center if you or someone you know is:

  • an educator or counselor in Spokane County who would be willing to be a GSA adviser in your school,
  • the parent of a LGBTQ youth who’d like your child to experience a GSA, or
  • a LGBTQ youth who would like to attend Odyssey or a GSA in your own school.

When I was a kid growing up in Spokane, people used to say this was a “great place to raise a family.” I’m not sure if that was really the case or if it was wishful thinking. But today there are a lot of child-care advocates here devoted to making that sentiment true.

Please include Odyssey’s kids in your efforts. All of our children deserve our help.

Carla Savalli is the executive director of the Odyssey Youth Center in Spokane.