This Sunday, Equality Alabama will hold its 16th Annual Vigil for Victims of Hate and Violence. One of the day’s honorees, Birmingham resident Dr. Glenda Elliott, says she is honored to be receiving an award named for the very victim whose crime sparked her involvement with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality.
This February marks 14 years since Billy Jack Gaither was brutally beaten to death in Sylacauga. His killers later confessed to police that Gaither was “talking queer stuff,” which set off the violence.
After his death, Elliott, who is an associate professor emerita of the UAB Counselor Education program, helped create a forum called “Breaking the Silence” on campus. That event led to the Safe Zone program at UAB. Later, she co-founded the Association of LGBT Issues in Counseling in Alabama and has chaired the Alabama Safe Schools Coalition since its 2007 inception.
Elliott will be recognized by Equality Alabama with the Billy Jack Gaither Humanitarian Award for her work in education and advocacy for LGBT youth.
Darcy Corbitt Hall will receive the Stephen Light Youth Activist Award for her courage and advocacy. Darcy was the first openly trans woman at Auburn University to be profiled by the schools’ newspaper last year.
The vigil, where both women will be honored, is slated for Sunday, Feb. 16, at the Civil Rights Memorial Center. Elliott spoke with Weld about the work that earned her the award.
Weld: In 1999, when you began your work with LGBT equality, were you out?
Glenda Elliott: No, that was my public coming out at the UAB. I was 59. I had been out on a one-on-one basis to students who came out to me, and to faculty colleagues whom I trusted, but that was my public coming out at that forum, Breaking Silence. I broke my own silence, so to speak.
Weld: How has Alabama’s attitude about LGBT issues changed since 1999?
GE: I certainly believe there’s growing awareness in the issues surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity — and then, of course, gay equality in terms of same-sex marriage. That’s highlighted the issues in the LGBT community. In the schools, the progress has been much slower. In 2004, there was a national survey done of all the state policies regarding safe school issues with a particular focus on LBGT students. At that time, Alabama was ranked 49th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Only two states ranked lower, and that was Mississippi and Arizona. One of the many reasons was that Alabama didn’t at that time (and still does not have) any state laws or State Department of Education policies that protect LGBT students.
That’s still the case, even though in 2010 the State Department of Education was mandated by a state law that was passed in 2009 that all schools had to have an anti-harassment policy. … Sexual orientation, gender identity and expression were excluded on those categories, so the state department did not include them for the protection against harassment. Individual school systems can choose to add any other prohibited action. Unfortunately, only very few have done so. In our area here, Birmingham schools has, Trussville city schools has, the Alabama school of Fine Arts has, and in private schools, we included Indian Springs and Altamont. So there’s still very much a need for progress to made in our schools to create safe environment for LGBT students and those who are perceived to be. Harassment can be based on perception as much as anything.
Weld: What are the logistics of creating a safe space — anti-bullying, counseling, open discourse among students?
GE: All of the above. What’s been found in national surveys is that the factors that create a safer environment for all students would be first of all to have inclusive non-discrimination policies and inclusive anti-harassment polices. When I say inclusive, I mean sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. And then to have training and professional development of all the staff in the school to know how to implement the policy to learn ways in which to go about reacting when harassment does occur. And in a more positive way: What can be done to create a more respectful environment in the schools where all students are respected?
So we begin with policy and follow that up with training and professional development. And then in the high schools, the surveys show that the existence of a gay-straight alliance [GSA] can very much contribute to a more positive experience for LGBT students and a safe environment. The fourth factor would be inclusion in curriculum — reliable information that relates to sexual orientation and gender identity. That’s the focus of the Alabama Safe Schools Coalition, hopefully, raising awareness of the need to have inclusive policies and to provide training for school staff that would include teachers, counselors, administrators.
Weld: How does the Safe Zone impact the day-to-day lives of students?
GE: For example, the presence of a GSA has been shown to lower what we call at-risk factors. With the presence of a GSA, students — in comparison to students in schools where there is no GSA — their academic performance is better. Lower grades, for example, are one of the at-risk factors. Surveys look at lowered grades, absenteeism, homelessness, and, of course, there’s the psychological factors: anxiety, depression, isolation, self-harming thoughts. … The students that are in the high school with the GSA, those at-risk factors are much less. They do better, in other words. They report experiencing their schools as a relatively safe place.
Weld: Is there an open discourse among administrators about LGBT issues now?
GE: I think it certainly has been the attitude on the part of some school systems not to address issues until there is an event that occurs. For example, I was recently talking to an administrator at one of the local school systems who told me she was involved when the school was adopting the required anti-harassment policy that the State Department of Education had sent out. … At that time, she encouraged the school system to include sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in those categories. She was told we’re not going to do that until we have to — in other words, until we’re mandated by the state law or state policy or some big event. For example, a student who dies by suicide, and there’s evidence that student had been harassed. That attitude still exists.
Some schools can have what is identified as a “safe space” or “safe zone” program. Other schools may choose not to have a formal program but can still have a policy and training and create the kind of climate that is considered a safe climate. We would love for all schools to have an identified Safe Zone program where, for example, the teachers and administrators who participate have a decal that are the colors of the rainbow that says, “safe space,” so when a student goes in the classroom and sees that sticker, or goes into the nurse’s office or the library, they know in that room, in that place, they will be safe.
Weld: Have you had any pushback from parents about the program?
GE: There was a minor pushback … There are posters that some of the teachers put up in their room that spells out: “This is a safe space for lesbian, gay, transgender and questioning students.” One parent did complain to the principal. My understanding is that they did not take the poster down. … In the scheme of things, that’s not a very sizeable number of people reacting against the establishment of the program. That’s potentially hopeful, we’ll say.
Weld: Are you hopeful that the state’s awareness and attitudes are shifting?
GE: I do think there’s a growing awareness and openness among people in general, but we still do not have state laws. We don’t have sexual orientation or gender identity included in hate crimes. They’re not included in hate crime laws. They’re not included in the state’s discrimination laws. They’re not included in the state-mandated anti-harassment policy. In the Alabama Code is a section that states that sex education has to include the statement that homosexual activity is a criminal offense. That’s been ruled null and void by the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Lawrence v. Texas case. Even though it’s been rendered null and void, it’s still on the books. We still have work to do.
The Vigil for Victims of Hate and Violence begins at 4 p.m, Sunday, Feb. 16. A viewing of the PBS Frontline documentary, The Life And Death Of Billy Jack Gaither: Assault On Gay America, will be prior, at 1:30 p.m. Both events will be held at the Civil Rights Memorial Center, 400 Washington Ave., Montgomery, Ala. Free admission.