Monday, October 4, 2010

Our View - Challenge for supporting gay, lesbian teens

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Feb. 5, 2010.

When Nick Pace was serving as principal of a small Iowa high school, he didn't quite know how to respond when one of his students came out of the closet. He was concerned with how the other students would react and what safety measures he would have to put in place to protect his only openly gay student. And even after there seemed to be no immediate threats to the student or to the school, he kept worrying whether what future event would spark a backlash, especially:

• When the student brought a date to the school dance for the first time and

• When the student, as part of the graduate ceremony, was awarded a Matthew Shepard scholarship for outstanding gay and lesbian youth.

Although there had been some isolated incidents, Pace thought that both he and his student had lucked out. He thought his high school -- not necessarily because of his leadership -- was somehow unusually tolerant or that some perfect storm of factors had made his student's coming out far less of a dramatic issue than he anticipated.

After Pace moved on from being a high school principal and began teaching future principals at the University of Northern Iowa, he started analyzing that experience. He realized that, in the midst of his administrative duties, he had looked upon his student primarily as a complicated problem to be solved. The experience made Pace curious to hear more about how his student had perceived his high school years as well as to learn more about just how common his own administrative experience was.

Noting a lack on information in the educational literature, Pace decided to interview more gay and lesbian students from Iowa high schools. Because he knew most principals would be skeptical of such a project -- back when he was a principal, Pace writes, he would not have recommended any students talking to such a researcher -- he decided to focus on the winners of Matthew Shepard scholarships. The decision gave him access to openly gay and lesbian Iowa high school seniors who have distinguished themselves in their schools and communities. Although each of the students Pace profiles has his or her individual stories to tell, all the interviewees have excelled in academic aptitude and achievement as well as in community service.

The result of this research is "The Principal's Challenge: Learning from Gay and Lesbian Students," in which Pace shows how his small, rural high school's reaction to its first openly gay student proves to be the rule rather than the exception in Iowa schools. Each of the students, who are identified only by pseudonym, do tell stories about incidents of physical and verbal intimidation, and some talk openly about the failure of family and friends to support their decision to come out. But all of them also have stories to explain how they did manage to stay connected and focused through the efforts of parents, teachers, staff, pastors and other youth leaders.

Given that Pace limited himself to interviewing award-winning gay and lesbian students, it's not surprising that his book has an overwhelmingly optimistic tone. And his overall message seems to echo the sentiment behind the Matthew Shepard Foundation and its scholarship: That despite the real risks that gay and lesbian teenagers face, there are also real benefits to be had by coming out earlier than later.

And that message is still important to spread, even in a state that bestows the same legal status to families headed by same-sex couples as those headed by heterosexual couples. "The Principal's Challenge" becomes a challenge not only for school administrators, but for anyone trying to help gay and lesbian teenagers learn to take pride in themselves.

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