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Vt. program helps students explore gender

Like plenty of other high school students, a group of about a dozen Vermont teenagers trundled into a youth center one day every week this spring to participate in an after-school program.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Like plenty of other high school students, a group of about a dozen Vermont teenagers trundled into a youth center one day every week this spring to participate in an after-school program.

But their program was different; it focused on gender.

The nine-week program, partially funded by the Burlington School District, was held at Vermont's Queer Youth Center and called "Gendertopia."

Gay, lesbian and straight students discussed a wide range of topics, from the characters in the book and movie "Twilight," to taking photos around the city that show the different ways gender is portrayed in popular culture.

"Most people come into it thinking, 'Oh, there's two genders and two sexualities' ... ," said David Kingsbury, a 16-year-old junior at Burlington High School who signed up for the program. "People assume it's boy and girl, but it's so much more than that. There's a whole world out there full of different genders."

The program is among the first of its kind to be funded, in part, with tax dollars, said Christopher Neff, the executive director of Outright Vermont, the social service organization running Gendertopia.

No objections so far
Neither the program nor the school district's participation triggered any objection. The tempered reaction locally to the program shows how far Outright Vermont and the issues it raises has moved into the main stream of youth social service organizations.

"It's got queer in its name. It scares the heck out of people. It's so important that people be able to see beyond any concerns or misconceptions that they have," said Eliza Byard, the executive director of the New York-based Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network, which has 35 chapters across the country. "Outright Vermont is fulfilling its mission in the most wonderful way."

The program was designed to help young people identify the subtle signals used to express gender and how not being aware of those signals can lower self esteem and possibly lead to an increase in at-risk activities like substance abuse or dropping out of school, Neff said.

"We often see a lot of homophobia or transphobia that happens on the basis of how someone looks," Neff said. "If you are making fun of me because I am wearing a pink shirt and that's sort of expressing my femininity, my feminine side, that translates into homophobia, but it has nothing to do with whether I'm straight or whether I'm dating boys or whether I'm dating girls. It has to do with the fact that I'm wearing a pink shirt."

Neff said the significance of the program is more than the money and the relatively small number of young people who participate.

"It's incredibly symbolic and very powerful," he said. "I was incredibly proud to be associated with them and I thought this partnership, this very unique partnership, between a queer youth center and a school district to run a gender identity based program was a new national model."

Burlington School Superintendent Jeanne Collins said no one has objected to the program.

"The district has been in the forefront on this topic for at least a decade, if not longer," Collins said. "We are very sensitive to celebrating the differences in people and accepting people for who they are and what they bring to the table."

Program is voluntary
She said a factor that helped keep the program non controversial was that it was voluntary.

"We have very robust after school program," Collins said. "This is one of the options for the students who are interested. They get a lot out of it that will help them be much more inclusive and accepting of differences in their own future, which can only help them be successful."

Steve Cable, of Rutland the founder of Vermont Renewal, an organization that promotes what he calls traditional family values, said he wasn't familiar with "Gendertopia," but he knew Outright Vermont. He said he was supportive of the group's anti-bullying efforts, but not what he said was its focus on adolescent sexuality.

"It just makes me really nervous that sexuality and these very complicated social behaviors are being normalized and talked about with kids who haven't figured out even their life yet," Cable said. "I know that Outright Vermont promotes all gender identities and expression of gender identities, no matter how weird that might be."

In 2000, Vermont was the first state that passed civil unions for same-sex couples and earlier this year was the first to pass gay marriage without being required to do so by the courts. It's also in the forefront with laws to protect gender identity and sexual orientation.

Outright Vermont describes itself as "one of the longest standing queer organizations in Vermont" and the only one focused on young people. Neff said that for years his organization has done anti-bullying presentations related to sexual orientation and gender identity in schools across the state. He said the presentations have been universally well received.

Byard said a number of national organizations have programs for girls that help them deal with the pressures that can lead to eating disorders or pressures that girls feel to be thin or beautiful.

"Now it's only relatively recently that there has been real focus on the damaging effect of these same expectations on young men," Byard said.

'It's a really good program'
About 40 students signed up for the program, Neff said, and about 12 attended the weekly program. Sometimes the group watched a movie or had food. Much of the discussion was led by the students themselves, and it wasn't just for gay and lesbian students.

"I'm straight, but I don't like using that word because then it feels like if you're gay then you're crooked, you're not meant to grow up in a certain way," Sophia Manzi, 15, a Burlington high school freshman, said during this year's final "Gendertopia" meeting. "I come because it's a really good program. The people, it doesn't matter what sexual orientation you are, they totally come in with open arms."

Neff said "Gendertopia" wasn't about sexuality or who people are attracted to.

"We're really clear that gender and gender identify is separate from sexual orientation," Neff said. "Hugh Grant and Russell Crowe have the same sex, they're both male and they're both heterosexual. But they have very different gender presentations. One is sort of seen as much more masculine than the other."

Burlington High School After school Coordinator Amy Mills said no decision had been made yet on whether to run Gendertopia again in the fall, but she'd like to.

"I think it worked well," Mills said. "They seem to have a lot of fun."