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Advocacy 101: LGBT Students In Tampa Bay Gather For Leadership Summit

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The average age when people are coming out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender is falling. 

But a climate of growing acceptance doesn't necessarily translate to the current generation of teens wanting to express their sexual orientation or gender identity at school. To some, it's a place that still feels unsafe.

According to a reportby the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, LGBT students are three times as likely to have missed school because of bullying.  And more are at risk for depression.

That's often been the case for 14-year old Gabriel Troche of Pinellas Park, one of the Tampa Bay-area students who recently attended a LGBT Youth Leadership Summit co-sponsored by  Metro Wellnessin St. Petersburg. 

When Troche is asked if he’s ever teased at school for being gay, he alternates between swagger and sensitivity.

At first, he’ll say it doesn't bother him much. 

"When they say something mean I spin it around,” he said. “Because I'm usually always the happy kid."

But there are times when being singled out for being gay is too much. After his parents got divorced, and his father disowned him, the teenager says his 6th grade teacher looked out for him and kept notes on his moods. But, it didn't stop the bullying.

"In a class full of people who were known to make fun of gays...they were saying, 'If you're so depressed, you should kill yourself,' and 'You're an abomination,'" Troche recalled.

Today, Troche says he's doing much better now that he's met kids like himself. He took notes at the conference hosted which was co-hosted by the Gay Straight Lesbian Straight Education Network . The teen said he's going to use them to help his mom understand what he's been going though.

There are some positive signs advocates point to, such as GLSEN's latest National School Climate Survey. 

In schools with a policy protecting LGBT students, the study said reports of anti-gay physical harassment in schools was reported at its lowest level ever.  Also, the report said LGBT students in schools with written policies were less likely to hear homophobic remarks: about 44 percent compared to almost 68 percent in schools with no policy.

"Sometimes it sounds the other way but that's just because the opposition is so loud,” said Lora-Jane Riedas, co-chair of GLSEN Tampa Bayand a teacher at Riverview High School in Hillsborough County.

She oversees the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance and says these days, schools are a more welcoming place for gay youth. But like many members of the LGBT community, she worries about what the administration of President Donald Trump will mean for her students.

"A lot of kids are scared,” she said. “And I think the GSA clubs at their schools are going to be a place where they can at least express themselves express their fears and our message is we just want them to know they're not alone."

She points a February decision where the President rescinded an Obama-era directiveordering schools to allow transgender students to use the restrooms that align with their gender identity. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the matterwas best left to state legislators and local governments.

In Florida, not all school districts are on the same page when it comes to the needs of LGBT students.

De Palazzo heads up the " Safe and Healthy Schools Project"for the advocacy group Equality Florida." She said only one third of school districts in the include sexual orientation or gender identity in their bullying policies.

Since last August, the organization has provided LGBT awareness training for nearly 2,000 principals and district leaders. Palazzo, the former LGBT coordinator for Broward County Schools, co-authored that district's gay youth support guideand says the goal is to bring that training to all of Florida's 67 school districts.

Teacher Lora-Jane Riedas says kids are also stepping up.

"Students themselves are helping to make sure their schools are a safe environment,” she said. “And that it doesn’t matter who you are, what your orientation is, your gender...You're going to get your education."

And without, she says, having to feel threatened.

Copyright 2017 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Cathy Carter is the education reporter for WUSF 89.7 and StateImpact Florida.