|Does our community offer enough 'Safe Zones?'|
|August 25, 2011 Doug Harris|
The issues and challenges that face the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in western Nebraska are ‘getting better’ by most accounts but the Panhandle still lags behind other areas in the state in offering education, support, and community organizations designed to offer full inclusion in the region.
In a recent study from the Midlands Sexual Health Research Collaborative (MSHRC) it was revealed that issues like depression, suicide, substance abuse, smoking, sexual health and general health were linked to social conditions that allow for gay citizens to be ‘out of the closet’ by their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
“Almost across the board, we kept finding that persons who were more ‘out of the closet’ to family, friends, co-workers, and even casual acquaintances were more likely to be engaging in healthy behaviors,” said Dr. Christopher Fisher, Ph.D, who headed the study. The study, sponsored by the University of Nebraska at Omaha, found that isolation, stigma, and lack of social outlets are experiences that continue to need to be addressed.
The study revealed stigma issues affect people well into life, but health risks were more acute among younger members of the LGBT community.
A local couple from the valley, two men in their 40s, who recently shared a commitment ceremony at Scotts Bluff National Monument, commented on the MSHRC study and shared some insight about being gay in this region. “Without a doubt people are more closed minded in smaller towns,” one of the men said, “but I agree with the findings of the study. People who are more open about their sexual identity do seem to lead healthier and happier lives. It is harder for closeted people.”
“I agree with the findings also,” his partner added. “I can see that in this area people tend to be more closed minded. We lived in San Francisco before we moved here. It is a bit of a culture shock. But we love it here.”
Locally not much overt support is available for LGBT citizens.
“It is really unfortunate,” said Keaton Bell, a recent graduate from Gering High School. “We have all kinds of support groups in our community but nothing for my friends who have struggled with sexual identity issues. We have A.A. and N.A. the Alzheimer support groups, but we can’t manage to make a group for gay people? I think it is highly important that we do that.”
Bell said that he noticed the lack of support when a classmate told him he was contemplating suicide over a sexual identity crisis. “I was speechless,” Bell said. “He had it all planned out and everything. I think people who are gay worry over the consequences of coming out. They fear the community at large and the reaction from parents and friends. My friend needed help and when we looked around we really didn’t find any. I helped him find an outside counselor but I wish Gering High School had offered support. They really need to make a group there. Kids go through so much as it is. The inner battles are there already. Then you put on bullying, stigma and labels, it is hard for people.”
Sharyl Hamer, a counselor from Gering High School was asked about this concern and said, “I don’t know what to say about it. It isn’t an issue we deal with. It just hasn’t come up. No one has ever approached us or come to us. We don’t have any groups like that. I don’t really have a comment.”
Bell did praise the school for having a zero tolerance policy regarding any forms of physical harassment but said that verbal harassment is harder to pick up on. “Some name-calling goes on at the high school,” Bell said. “I’ve heard kids being called ‘fag’ or other disrespectful terms. I think a lot of times the teachers just don’t see it, so they don’t do anything. The name-calling usually happens in the hallways. But if a teacher ever sees any physical type of bullying they are always right there.”
One of the men who shared the commitment ceremony added his thoughts saying, “I think a big pressure is on conformity. Depression comes from realizing you are not like other people. This is especially true with younger people. Young people think of doing anything and everything to be who you are supposed to be. There was a lot of fear and self-loathing. I wanted to be like everyone else. I even prayed to be straight.”
“This type of pressure to conform isn’t just about sexual orientation,” his partner added. “Any teen growing up faces challenges of identity. Think of all the kids who loved theatre who ended up playing football to meet the expectations they thought were set for them.”
Describing themselves as more confident and relaxed than ever before, the couple noted that society’s values have been changing but living in a conservative region does present additional challenges.
“We find this area beautiful and we live openly to a point,” the man said. “We don’t go around wearing special T-Shirts or carry signs; however, among our personal friends and family, we live our lives openly. I have found that I am much happier and healthier living my life without hiding.”
“We need to all learn to treat people with respect regardless of their politics, class, income, race, etcetera,” his partner said. “We need to treat a person as a person. A lot of people might want to look down on me, but I was born this way. This is not a lifestyle, but my life.”
Western Nebraska Community College does not have a LGBT program but they do support the Safe Zone project. WNCC’s Safe Zone coordinator Colin Croft said, “Safe Zone is a great program. It is a national program used in hundreds of universities and colleges. The idea is to let students know there are people who support them regardless of their sexual identity,” Croft said. “Safe Zones are marked with a sign in individual offices on the campus. Students know these are areas where they will feel safe and be welcome. We aren’t an advocacy group and we’re not into politics but we want the LGBT community to feel welcome as learners at our college.”
Croft said the program has been up and running at WNCC since 2005 and that they have 20 or so supporters who teach or have offices on the campus. “We do a two-hour online training and have meetings to update our sponsors about the program,” Croft said. “The training is basically about the coming out process and what to do if someone tells us they are having trouble. We make appropriate referrals. We aren’t counselors and we don’t want to play counselor. The volunteers who place a sign in their office are a great set of folks. I think real progress is being made to help support young people with same-sex orientation. I’d like to see our program be expanded to other businesses.”
While there isn’t really any other overt support for the LGBT community in the valley, the men who shared the commitment ceremony agreed that things are getting better. They both cited the Internet as a great tool to help those who might feel isolated over sexual identity issues.
“I think it is easier now with all the increased access to resources,” the man said. “When I was younger, in the 1980s, I felt like I was creeping around the library trying to find information to understand myself better. I think we had it better in the ‘80s than someone did in the ‘60s. And that is true going forward. Those asking these questions today have it better than we did.”
“Prejudice is based on ignorance,” his partner added. “I think it is a religious thing that makes life more difficult for some. Religion has a big play in society. It can give people a narrow vision. I studied the Bible and I think people will use it to match their lifestyle. I think as time passes people will continue to move forward and there will be less prejudice all around. Old ideas will pass away. It will get better.”
“It is not ‘accepting’ that needs to be changed,” the man said. “People don’t need to learn to ‘accept’ something if there is nothing wrong.”
“One of the best outlets for kids my age is the Internet,” added Bell, who is attending WNCC this fall. “There is really nowhere else to go in this area. This is important stuff and people are sometimes really struggling with a serious point. If someone is having trouble they need to talk to an adult; a therapist who won’t judge them or ‘out’ them. Just one person can make a difference.”
The MSHRC study acknowledged that the potential of increased health problems are not exclusive to the LGBT population in rural areas, but the trends revealed throughout the Midwest did suggest many could benefit from greater awareness, UNO’s Dr. Fisher said.
“The issues facing LGBT in New York or Los Angeles are different than in the rural Midwest. Isolation, stigma, and lack of social outlets are experiences that continue to need to be addressed,” Fisher said. “We hope this report will give community organizations needed information to help improve the health and well-being of the people they serve.”
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