Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Interview With Commission on GLBT Youth's Chair

Recently, I was contacted by Jason A. Smith, Chair of the Massachusetts Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth. He read my story on Massresistance's use of GLBT photographs, complete with full identification of the individuals and homophobic insults written as 'descriptions.' Smith offerred to take questions on any topic related to the Commission. Since it's an important organization that empowers gay and lesbian youth - a disenfranchised group if there is any - I was glad to oblige. Here's what he had to say:

1. For starters, just because I don't think a lot of people know exactly what the Commission does - including people who know about it - can you write a bit about what you guys actually do? What happens at a typical meeting or event? etc.

The Commission as it exists now was created in June 2006 by the Legislature. There had been a Governor's Commission in existence since 1992, but the move to create the Commission as an independent agency of the Commonwealth in 2006 gives us a stability that wasn't there before.

At a minimum, the Commission is tasked with ensuring that there are school and community-based programs for suicide prevention, violence prevention, and promoting zero-tolerance policies regarding harassment and discrimination against GLBT youth. Beyond this minimum, the Commission is expected to investigate resources used to provide resources for GLBT youth and to make recommendations on policies to the government.

Our typical meetings are actually rather formal. There is a set agenda that we move through discussing each item. Because the Commission is starting anew, our meetings have had to be very focused to get through the enormous amount of material that we have to work with. I expect that we will have more interactive meetings and hearings starting in July once the Commission begins to meet around the state and move outside of Boston. The meetings in July and following should be a lot more interactive as we hope to hear from youth, service providers, and other members of the community.

2. How does the commission help deal with problems facing GLBT youth today? What are some of those problems? Are they the same today as they were 10 years ago, 20? Etc. What kinds of things does the commission do in schools across Massachusetts?
The Commission provides a voice for GLBT youth within state government at a level that can have significant impact on services for GLBT youth. The Commission doesn’t provide services for youth directly but works hard to ensure that those services are there and that GLBT youth have an advocate for them in the government.

GLBT youth can be at greater risk for suicide, violence, and substance abuse. Many of the problems GLBT youth face today are similar to ones faced in the past. Some are different. The key thing to understand about the health of queer youth is that often the problems they face are a result of an environment of GLBT oppression rather than some individual or family risk. If you fix that environment, you are on the way to solving some of the problems.
3. Your organization "has a mandate" to offer suggestions on issues surrounding glbt youth - presumably to the legislature. What kind of suggestions is your organization giving? How often and to what extent do they take your organization's input and advice?

We are required to report to the Legislature and to the Governor formally every year by June 2nd. We also provide information informally on a regular basis to the Legislature and various agencies that request it. We are working on our Annual Report for this year, and it is still in its draft stages so I can’t discuss its details. I do want to emphasize though that the Commission is in a unique position to talk about GLBT youth and their needs at all levels of society. I think you will see that in the upcoming Annual Report.

GLBT youth are often at risk because of the environment: from their families and schools to local organizations and communities and government. Queer youth need a voice and an advocate at all levels of society to ensure that each level of our society is supportive of queer youth and of GLBT experience. We have said that the health of GLBT youth is rooted in GLBT culture. This is what me mean. You can’t lift GLBT youth out of the whole GLBT experience and community. You really have to think ecologically about it and build an environment that supports our youth and gives them the skills they need to be healthy and to succeed.

4. I was reading an interesting article from the advocate the other day about how GLBT youth - and their allies (be it friends or the sons and daughters of gay parents) have made tremendously effective lobbyists to state legislatures across the country - helping get bans on bullying, violence and targeting of glbt students across the country. What kind of impact have the young made here?

Youth have made a tremendous impact in the Commonwealth. Youth were instrumental in getting the first Governor’s Commission established in 1992 and have been instrumental in moving Massachusetts forward in protecting GLBT youth. The Commission would not be able to do its work without the participation of queer youth.

It should also be noted that some youth who were involved in the Commission as teenagers are now working in the GLBT community in Massachusetts and are becoming leaders in our community.

5. Now, as I understand it, the Commission used to be a part of the Governor's office - and obviously, Mitt Romney wasn't the biggest fan. Can you elaborate on what went on there?

The Commission was a Governor’s Commission until 2006. The story is pretty simple: We have seen state and national leaders play politics and use the GLBT community for political advantage. This happens on all sides of the political spectrum, and happened here. To protect GLBT youth, committed legislators acted to make the Commission an agency in 2006. This reorganization of the Commission is good for GLBT youth in the long-term, but in the short-term we have spent a lot of time and energy rebuilding our administrative structure. In the end, there will be a stronger and more vibrant Commission for GLBT youth.

6. You read my blog on MassResistance's insistence on taking photos of teenagers in the commission - and releasing their names, with all sorts of blatantly homophobic descriptions on their website. Subsequently, I've heard that the Attorney General's office is looking into it. Has that gone anywhere? Do you know much about the laws concerning taking pictures of minors at places like the Commission hearing? What kind of dangers/problems does MassResistance's tactics cause? What is the reaction of the members - esp. the glbt youth - of the commission?

This is obviously a problem. The Commission is a public agency and as such functions in public. I understand and am committed to the need to have open and transparent public meetings. That being said, the Commission will do everything it can to protect GLBT youth and help to build an environment where they are supported and valued. Personally, I find taking pictures of GLBT youth without their permission, or by misrepresenting your intent, and then posting those
pictures with homophobic commentary to be abusive and predatory. Frankly, I simply don’t understand it, don’t believe that it rises to the level of protected speech, and believe that it can be a real threat to the health of GLBT youth.

I do not know if the Attorney General’s office is looking into this or not. The Commission has expressed its concern to the Attorney General and has sought technical clarification of minor points. Beyond that, I do not know what action, if any, she has or has not taken.

Ultimately, it is important to be clear about what has happened. The Commission has expressed its concern to the Attorney General and has sought clarification of minor aspects of the law. There’s not much beyond that. Any impression that there is more to it is merely a drive for publicity.
7. Finally, is there anything you wanted to talk about, discuss or reiterate? Are there any important projects going on? Consider this an opportunity to throw in a final word on anything that's important that I may not have addressed.

There are couple of important things that I would mention. First, it is important that the GLBT community be there and be part of supporting GLBT youth. The GLBT community is more than the fight for equal marriage, and youth really need the support of the community. I would urge the community to express your concern and support for the needs of GLBT youth to your legislators, to your school boards, to community organizations, and to your friends and families.
Second, the Commission really works best when youth are involved. In the coming months, the Commission will be looking to add more youth voices, and I want to invite anyone with an interest in the Commission to contact us. Our website is at: http://www.mass.gov/cgly/ and our next meeting is May 21st.

No comments:

About Ryan's Take