by Natalie Hanson
Stonewall Alliance Chico’s Executive Director Andrea Mox was worried last month when a parent at Blue Oak Charter complained to school staff that their child came home asking about terms for LGBTQ+ people after attending a suicide prevention workshop.
Mox said the parent complained to the school and local media that they did not know their child would be attending a “sex education” workshop. The parent, quoted by a local news station without giving a name, was angry that their 12-year-old child was learning about terms like “pansexual.”
Stonewall Alliance Chico -– an advocacy organization that prides itself on supporting and empowering the LGBTQ+ community -– says the complaint, while a relatively rare occurrence, reflects the increasing number of such accusations across the country as Republican pressure to mobilize legislation opposing LGBTQ+ rights mounts.
With concern about threats to the rights of LGBTQ+ children around the country rising, in Butte County Stonewall Alliance says it is committed to advocating support for children and adults.
Mox said this kind of misunderstanding of a bullying and suicide prevention workshop, where children learn about tolerance and support for LGBTQ people, is not a common occurrence in Chico, but is a learning opportunity for people who are not familiar with Stonewall’s work.
“This is not sex ed,” Mox said. “It’s about gender and other information, but it doesn’t fall in alignment with a true sex-ed defined program. When we do this training, it’s LGBTQ 101 basically, and it gives an understanding of LGBTQ+ issues and concepts and gender concepts that maybe some students have not been exposed to yet.”
She said without these sessions, students may learn about LGBTQ+ issues from the internet that could be inaccurate, and Stonewall works with schools to make sure students get accurate information and understand “why it’s not OK to bully.”
Mox said Stonewall Alliance has had a “really great relationship” with Chico Unified School District (CUSD), working in tandem to help train staff and counselors “so they can create environments that are safer and can be focused more on bullying and be more aware of the types of issues that LGBTQ students go through at school.”
Schools like Blue Oak Charter have been “very supportive” of creating safe environments to reduce harm, Mox said.
“We know that once people are more educated, they have a better understanding,” she said. “And if the school is educated and has a zero tolerance policy, bullying is going to go way down. But it takes a commitment.”
“This is an underlying issue with suicide and we need to take it seriously as adults, and not make it a political issue” — Susan Domenighini
Blue Oak Charter’s Executive Director Susan Domenighini said California schools are legally required to protect LGBTQ+ students from harassment. She said after 20 years in school administration, she has seen how children struggling with their identity and with anxiety and depression fare better when they feel understood and supported.
“Stonewall has that excellent understanding of what children are going through,” she said. “But some parents see this as sex education instead of identity education.”
That is why parents should educate themselves to reduce “fear, concern and hype,” Domenighini said.
“For middle schoolers, this is really when they’re starting to think about it, and I think some parents are in denial,” she said. “This is not new information -– they (children) are online already. This is an underlying issue with suicide, and we need to take it seriously as adults, and not make it a political issue.”
The recent incident was not a surprise to Mox, because of the current political climate, but she said she was glad the center did not receive a “barrage” of attacks as expected.
Because she regularly connects with other Stonewall Alliance leaders from across the country, she hears how much worse centers in other states are faring due to threats and attacks from the community.
“In some states, our centers are under siege by parents that are just so-anti LGBTQ,” Mox said.
She thinks in the past, Chico was more “accepting” and tolerant of the LGBTQ+ community, and that there has been a rise in “open hostility” since Donald Trump was elected president.
“He helped to create this environment where it’s OK to be uncivilized and mean and angry in your approach, and absolutely have zero tolerance,” Mox said.
Stonewall Alliance works to address the impacts of that hate, especially when it leads to LGBTQ+ youth being pushed out of their homes by parents. As the former Gender and Sexuality Equity Center adviser at Butte College, Mox regularly helped students who were couch surfing after being shunned by their parents.
And while Chico and other districts like Tehama school district are relatively well educated, Mox said other districts around Northern California have deep-rooted problems creating safe spaces for vulnerable LGBTQ youth.
“Some counselors refuse to talk to them about LGBTQ+ issues,” she said. “But once we can create a relationship with the district or school, we need one ally advocate at that school -– and it’s often-times the school counselors because they see everything going on with these kids on a daily basis.”
One person who makes the campus connections is Stonewall staffer Marin Hambley, who works with many school districts across the region to train school staff, run workshops for students and meet with at-risk youth through counselors.
Hambley explained why the the Stonewall workshops aren’t “sex education.”
“I think there’s a common misconception, when the LGBTQ+ community is mentioned at all, that it has to do with sex,” they said. “None of my presentations with students are sex education work.
“Butte County has always had some violent hatred and discrimination toward the LGBTQ+ community. What’s changed is how much we’re talking about it now. The shift I’ve seen is that there are more spaces where folks are feeling more comfortable speaking up about the violence they’re experiencing. I get emails and calls at least every week, if not more, from schools needing support,” Hambley added.
Students have extensive rights in California to protect them, such as the FAIR Education Act and AB 1266 which allows transgender students to participate in activities, facilities and programs based on their gender identity. But in under-resourced areas, schools may need more support to help guide children toward resources that can help protect them, Hambley said.
According to Chico Unified’s Secondary and Alternative Education director John Shepherd, schools may reach out to Stonewall Alliance if a Gay Straight Alliance club is chartered with an adviser and needs support. There is at least one GSA club at each secondary school, or currently about six that he is aware of. District administrators also reach out to Stonewall to help run events during suicide prevention and mental health awareness month.
Shepherd said CUSD doesn’t have a week on its calendar to celebrate and support the LGBTQ student community, however.
“Since Pride Week is in June, our sites have not hosted a pride week because school is not in session,” he said.
Chico Unified’s relationship with Stonewall Alliance is typical of the way the district operates, he added. “We’re going to rely on all of our community partners, such as Stonewall and Butte County Behavioral Health, to be sure that all of our kids are safe.”
Stonewall Alliance also organizes parent education workshops and ally groups in person and on Zoom for people who need support and community. Mox said many parents have reached out for help to support their child.
“From a humanitarian perspective, it’s our responsibility to care for our kids and make sure they’re safe, that they have safe spaces and we are looking out for them,” Mox said.
“It’s incumbent on us, and I challenge the non-LGBTQ community to open your mind and embrace the fact these are kids here. It’s our responsibility to help guide them and help love them and support them. And to any parent who isn’t sure and wants more information, we would love for them to reach out for more and they will get it.”
Hambley wishes CUSD would go furthur in its support.
“I would love to see more district policies that make it very clear and say out loud that they support students of all gender identities and sexual orientations,” Hambley added. “People need to understand LGBTQ people have always been here and normalize talking about their existence.”
Nationwide, the nonprofit Trevor Project provides 24/7 support services for LGBTQ people and focuses on suicide prevention. Statistics from its website on suicide among LGBTQ youth show suicide as the second leading cause of death among young people aged 10 to 24, meaning that LGBTQ youth are at a significantly increased risk.
The Trevor Project estimates that more than 1.8 million LGBTQ youth (ages 13-24) seriously consider suicide each year in the United States -— and at least one attempts suicide every 45 seconds. The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that 45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.
Natalie Hanson is a contributing writer to ChicoSol.