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We Need to Talk

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Originally featured in the November 2017 Edition

“The Baldwin community embraces each person as a unique individual, recognizing and celebrating our differences and commonalities. We commit to fostering and modeling respectful engagement, open dialogue and thoughtful programming around diversity and equity,” says the Baldwin School website. And in many aspects, this is true. From our various clubs and safe spaces to our diversity day and diversity conferences, there are plenty of opportunities for the Baldwin community to discuss important topics like race, religion, gender, sexuality, and more.

According to the Williams Institute at UCLA, roughly 3.8% of the United States adult population identifies as LGBT. While the majority of the Baldwin Upper School is comprised of students– not adults– this is still an important figure to take into account. In addition, in younger populations, the percentages of LGBTQ+ youth are even higher (www.ibtimes.com). Abiding by the national percentile, at least 10 upper school girls should identify as LGBT. However, during Baldwin’s building bridges day last year, something odd struck me. As we all participated in the circle exercise (which entailed entering the middle of a circle made entirely of Upper School students, faculty, and staff when one’s specific demographic, whether it be black, Buddhist, or LGBTQ, was called), I noticed that relatively few people entered the circle when the words “identify as LGBTQ” were called. Why did relatively few people enter the circle? Is there not a large LGBTQ population at Baldwin? Or, did the LGBTQ population feel too uncomfortable or unsafe to enter the circle? And then another question begged to be asked: were people afraid that there was a homophobic community at Baldwin?

Sarah Bunn ‘19 is junior head of Spectrum, Baldwin’s club for those identifying as LGBTQ+ or as allies. As a strong advocate for equal rights for all sexualities and genders, she has certainly seen her fair share of treatment (good and bad) towards the LGBTQ+ community at Baldwin.

I’ve had a few people tell me to my face that they would never be friends with a non-straight female because they’re afraid that they’ll get hit on,” Bunn said. “Some people avoid Spectrum or believe that we ‘convert’ straight people into homosexuals. I’ve noticed that some people will treat LGBT people much differently than straight people, in that they avoid discussion about the LGBT community or are a bit more condescending to those who are in the community.”

When asked what Baldwin can do to remedy that, Bunn responded, “We need to continue educating and working to combat homophobia, regardless of how accepting our school becomes. It would communicate that we are trying to create a safe environment for all students, no matter how they identify.”

Baldwin educates through conversation; it’s how we unpack ideas big and small, how a class will examine a Medieval poem through Marxist critical theory, how an advisory will learn about mindfulness, and how a group of seniors will stress about the college application process. Therefore, might we need to educate our peers about the LGBTQ+ community and homophobia the way we do everything else? Perhaps it would make the lives of LGBTQ+ students at Baldwin a bit easier.

“I’ve been in conversations where someone hasn’t necessarily been outright homophobic but has created an atmosphere that implies any sort of discussion about LGBTQ+ issues would not go down well,” said Anna Bunting ‘18, senior head of Spectrum. “It’s tricky to be in those conversations because nothing genuinely homophobic is said- rather it’s implied, making calling out that person difficult because you’re seen to be overreacting.”

The LGBTQ+ community wants to feel validated and not feel like they have to correct people or gauge whether or not to correct someone when talking about LGBTQ+ issues. It is difficult to understand the lives of those we cannot relate to, but in order for the Baldwin community to connect and thrive, we must at least try. This is especially important when it pertains to the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community at Baldwin and around the world, such as increased suicide rates.

“I have not seen direct events that might suggest blatant homophobia; however, there have been some feelings about Spectrum and the presentations during assemblies,” said Lenora Thomas ‘19. “I can’t think of any specific things, but I remember there were comments such as, ‘It’s not important’ and ‘Who cares, just don’t worry about it,’ and ‘They just need to be stronger if they feel suicidal’ or something to that effect.”

According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, teenagers who identify as LGBT are 1.5 to 3 times more likely to commit suicide than heterosexual teens (http://www.sprc.org/sites/default/files/migrate/library/SPRC_LGBT_Youth.pdf). The community needs to understand that our impact, big or small, could affect someone’s life. A comment said in passing could add to the mountain of prejudice and struggles LGBTQ+ teens face. According to the Trevor Project, a suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth, “Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth who believe they have just one school staff member with whom they can talk about problems are only one third as likely as those without that support to… report making multiple suicide attempts in the past year.” (https://web.archive.org/web/20120807234654/http://www.thetrevorproject.org/sites/default/files/educatorresourceguide.pdf)

These statistics are not meant to shut down conversation. In fact, they should inspire us to talk more. Ask questions, while filtering them to see if they sound appropriate and spark conversation. Push the leaders of your grades to create conversational platforms like lunchtime discussions and assemblies. Embody our School’s inspirational mission to have a student body that “recogniz[es] and celebrat[es] our differences and commonalities” as proudly and passionately as you can.

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