[Written as part of the Write Your Principal project. Thanks to Katie for her wonderful editing suggestions on two drafts of this piece. This is getting mailed out to Viz tomorrow. So any of you who are connected with the school still are therefore probably seeing this before the principal does.]
November 15, 2010
Mary Ellen Schraeder, Upper School Principal
Visitation Academy of St. Louis
3020 North Ballas Road
Saint Louis, Missouri 63131
Dear Ms. Schraeder:
I am an alum of Visitation Academy, having attended the school from fifth grade through my senior year, graduating in 1991. I am also a proud part of the lesbian/ gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) community.
I have always been incredibly grateful to Viz for the caliber of education that I received there. Your top-notch faculty prepared me for college in a way that I would have been hard-pressed to get at most other high schools in the St. Louis area. I still have fond memories of many of the teachers I had during my years there – Susan Scarpinato, Laura McCord, Dan Monahan, Rita White, Sr. Isabel Clark, Sr. Mary Ann Aubin, Sr. Karen Mohan, Marilyn Fitzgerald, Janet Parsons, and, even though I never had her as a teacher, Mev Puleo. These faculty members gave me academic and critical thinking skills that still serve me today – and many gave me a degree of personal attention that showed how deeply they cared not only for me as an individual but for their students as a whole.
Since graduating from Viz, I have earned an undergraduate degree in International Studies from Vassar College and a Masters Degree in Women’s Studies from George Washington University. I now work as the Grants Manager for the National AIDS Fund in Washington, DC. I also have several published essays and op-eds and one scholarly journal article to my name and am working a book manuscript that I hope to publish in 2011 or 2012.
While the school helped prepare me for the rest of my academic and professional life, however, socially Viz was a much harder place. During my first year at the school, I had no friends at all and often ate lunch at a table alone in the cafeteria. It wasn’t until seventh grade, with the influx of new girls, that I had more than one friend. We were the unpopular students who loved classes, enjoyed learning, made good grades, didn’t drink or do drugs, and had no athletic skills to speak of. Even with this small group of friends, however, I felt somehow separate.
Such semi-isolation would have been easier to deal with if I wasn’t under the constant impression that most of my classmates hated me. I was definitely different from most of them in multiple ways: I was politically liberal, I started identifying openly as a feminist in sixth grade, I didn’t date boys or wear makeup, I was against the first Gulf War, and I stopped shaving my legs and armpits during my senior year. Luckily, I was never physically threatened while at Viz. But there were multiple times where my outsiderness made me the target of name-calling, derision, and ostracism. From my first days in Core 5, I felt separate from my peers, and that feeling continued through the time I graduated. Socially and, especially, emotionally, Viz was not a safe place for me.
I am writing to ask you to take proactive steps to protect the lesbian, bisexual, trans (transgendered), and questioning students who are at Viz today. I am sending this letter, first, in response to my own experiences. Actions such as those I describe below would have created a more open, accepting environment and would have helped me immeasurably.
The second, and much more compelling, reason that I am writing to you is my concern for your current students. As I’m sure you’re aware, the suicides this fall of over a half-dozen gay youth have received much mainstream media attention. The most recent was a boy in Pennsylvania who took his own life on November 5 by walking to an interstate thirteen miles from his home and throwing himself in front of a tractor trailer truck. These boys, who ranged in age from 13 to 19 years old, all killed themselves after repeated incidents of bullying by their schoolmates. In most of these instances, the schools had received multiple reports of the harassment against these students and either did nothing to protect them or denied that anyone had reported the harassment.
The bullying that these boys faced is far from isolated. For instance, according to the 2009 National School Climate Survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network:
- 89% of the 7,200 participating LGBT student respondents heard “gay” used in a negative way;
- 63% heard derisive remarks about their gender expression (not being “feminine enough” or “masculine enough”);
- 85% were verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation and 64% because of their gender expression;
- 53% were harassed or threatened by peers via electronic media;
- 61% of students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and 40% felt unsafe because of their gender expression;
- 29% skipped at least one class in the month before the survey because they felt unsafe, and 30% missed at least one entire day for the same reason; and
- LGBT students who were frequently harassed had GPAs almost half a grade lower than students who were harassed less frequently (2.7 vs. 3.1, respectively).
These numbers are backed up by my own research, and they demonstrate that many, many LGBT youth have a significantly worse time in school than I did. Such statistics bear shocking witness to the gravity of the problem facing LGBT students in US middle and high schools.
Although our culture has changed somewhat since I was a student, I have no doubt that there are lesbian, bisexual, trans, and questioning youth at Viz right now who are being harassed and ostracized by their peers and that occasionally such hatred takes physical forms. These bullied students are at very high risk for self-destructive behaviors like substance abuse, self-mutilation, cutting classes, skipping school, unsafe sex, unplanned pregnancy, and suicide – not because they are or may be lesbian, bisexual, or trans but because they are in a socially and emotionally unsafe environment that leaves them isolated, lonely, and depressed.
Therefore, I am writing to ask you to take proactive steps to protect your lesbian, bisexual, trans, and questioning students. It is necessary for Viz to create an environment where all kinds of differences are respected. This includes not just differences of race, class, and religion (all of which were emphasized when I was there), but differences of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. Passively hoping that such openness will happen by itself is not optimistic but is instead insufficient and ineffective.
Viz needs to promote actively this respect through assemblies, workshops, and course material. This does not mean teaching that the Catholic Church “promotes” homosexuality or bisexuality; we all know that that is far from the truth. What it does mean is activities such as the following:
- Including overt mentions of lesbianism, bisexuality, and transgender in assemblies on diversity;
- Talking about the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans individuals in classes such as history, art, drama, literature, and science;
- Discussing how “abstinence only until marriage” sex education curricula affect students who can never get civilly or religiously married to their partners;
- Including sexual orientation and gender identity in the school’s non-discrimination policy and making sure that all students, faculty members, and staff know of that inclusion;
- Including uncensored information on Viz’s lesbian, bisexual, and trans alums in The Visitor;
- Punishing students who are guilty of bullying and working with them to find better ways of dealing with the difficulties in their lives;
- Protecting, nurturing, and helping the healing process of your bullied lesbian, bisexual, trans, and questioning students; and
- Supporting your students in the establishment of a Gay/Straight Alliance – not for the discussion of sex but so that the club members can help each other cope with the harassment and ostracism that they face.
Such actions have proven over and over again to be a tremendous help to LGBT and questioning students throughout the country. Although I was not out while I was there, such changes would have made the school environment much more comfortable for me and would have made my experience there so much happier than it was. Much more importantly, all of these actions will help your current lesbian, bisexual, trans, and questioning students feel welcome and included in the Viz community. They can be couched in some of the basic Christian principles that you teach:
- Love your neighbor as yourself.
- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
- Let that person who is without sin cast the first stone.
- Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers or sisters, that you do unto me.
Today, I am a happy, loving and well-loved individual who has a life partner and who tries to make the world a better place in both my personal and my professional lives. I still smart from some of my experiences at Viz, however, and am bitter that the school did not create a more inclusive, welcoming atmosphere during my years there. In fact, if I had to do it over again, I would choose to go to another school with a larger student body in the hopes that that school would be more diverse, inclusive, and progressive – even if that meant sacrificing some of the fantastic Viz education that I received.
I hope that Viz can create a plan to help its lesbian, bisexual, trans, and questioning students. In fostering a more open, healthy environment for them, you will create a better school experience for all Vivettes.
Further resources on how to create such an environment can be found at any of the following websites:
- The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (especially this page);
- The Safe Schools Coalition (especially this page); and
- Teaching Tolerance (especially this page);
I look forward to hearing how Viz plans to become a safe school for its lesbian, bisexual, trans, and questioning students. I would be more than happy to talk with you in greater detail about my experiences at Viz and the ways that you can help other students have a better, happier experience there than I did. Feel free to contact me at any time via phone or e-mail.
On behalf of Viz’s current and former lesbian, bisexual, trans, and questioning students, I thank you so much for your time and consideration.
Shannon E. Wyss, ‘91