Growing up is not easy. But for Maine’s rural LGBTQ youth, it can be even harder. While urban and suburban communities offer some resources for individuals in the LGBTQ community, like annual pride parades and support groups, help for young people in Maine’s less populated areas can be scarce or difficult to access. Some of the state’s rural schools are taking meaningful steps to change that.
In recent years, the Maine Integrated Youth Survey, administered in more than 300 schools, began asking students questions about sexuality and gender identity.
The results found that LGBTQ students are significantly more likely to be bullied and twice as likely to feel unsafe at school – and they are four times more likely to consider suicide.
“Remember that teenagers, one of their primary responsibilities is to figure out who they are,” says Jeanne Dooley, the executive director of OUT Maine, an advocacy and education group that works with LGBTQ youth and their families. “When you have the additional challenge of being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning or queer, you have a big layer on top of that already challenging time in your life.”
Groups like OUT Maine and EqualityMaine offer a variety of services to help LGBTQ youth. But for students living in rural areas, sometimes the only network of in-person support available is in school.
“Most of Maine is rural,” says Dooley. “Everyone that I talk to seems to think, ‘Well we have marriage equality and there really isn’t much of a problem.’ But that has not trickled down to kids.”
The most recent survey from the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network found that Maine schools were not safe for most LGBTQ high school students. About 56 percent of students surveyed said that they had experienced at least one form of anti-LGBTQ discrimination at school during the past year.
“In rural Maine specifically, I would say some of their big challenges are lack of resources within schools and communities,” says Gia Drew, the program director at EqualityMaine, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy and education organization. “Right now there are about 90-or-so clubs and schools that are geared at helping LGBT youth across the state. The majority of those clubs are in urban or suburban areas across the state, and they don’t exist in many rural towns.”
Now, some schools in Maine are responding to those concerns. Mount Desert Island High School was the first public high school in Maine to establish a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) in 1997, an approach that’s proved successful elsewhere.
“If they’re not worried about their safety and nervous about whether or not they’ll be made fun of, they can concentrate on their classwork,” says Lin Gould, who teaches science at the high school, and serves as the school’s GSA adviser.
A study from the University Of British Columbia found that schools with a GSA for three years or more experienced a 50 percent reduction in bullying and harassment for all students. In schools with the program, and anti-homophobia policies, all students were less likely to experience discrimination, and students were less likely to have suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide.
“I remember there were some awful stories a couple of years before, of kids just facing terrible bullying and harassment, and the administration did their best to punish the culprits,” Gould says. “But it’s a very different thing for there to be a real network of students who pay attention to how others get treated.”
Mount Desert Island High School has about 527 students enrolled 9-12, and Gould says that around 20 to 25 students attend an average GSA meeting.
The GSA hosts movie nights, and takes on projects like Transgender Education and Awareness Week. But Gould says much of the impact and value of the group can be seen in other, more subtle ways.
“A lot of what the kids want is time to be able to connect with each other, to have time together, to vent,” says Gould. “It’s just wonderful networking, socializing for kids who, in the past, have just been terribly isolated.”
In addition to the GSA, Gould says Mount Desert Island High School works continually to recognize and eliminate discrimination.
“There’s a lunch program where the kids have to have their legal name, so for a kid who is transgender, having their dead-name show up every time they go through the lunch line can cause a really intense reaction, and in some places kids just won’t eat lunch because they don’t want to have that reminder,” says Gould.
Gould says the Mount Desert Island High School bookkeeper figured out how to work around the computer program so that students can use their chosen names.
“[The bookkeeper] spent a lot of time working on that problem because she was aware of the problem, because she knew specific kids and she knew how much it meant to them,” Gould says.
Despite this progress, Gould says, Maine schools have more work to do on the issue.
“There’s really been an effort to ‘de-straighten’ the standard school curriculum, but it’s an uphill battle," says Gould. "We need everybody helping with it, we need schools giving enrichment to teachers so that they have the materials to bring back to the classes they teach.”
Still, the strides that Mount Desert Island High School has made show that rural schools are stepping in to fill the support gap their LGBTQ students often face.
“I think a lot of folks have that stereotype or bias in their heads of ‘rural Mainers aren’t going to be supportive of people who are different or are LGBTQ,'" says EqualityMaine’s Gia Drew. “But what I’ve learned doing this job nearly five years, and connecting with thousands of students and teachers, it really does depend on the community. For the most part, people and many folks just don’t know the right questions to ask. Most educators really want to learn. You know, the majority want to do best by their students.”