J. G. Kosciw: “You are Encouraging Brain Drain since School Desk”

Bullying at school is a universal issue, believes Joseph G. Kosciw, the Head of the Research and Strategy at the Gay, Lesbian and Heterosexual Education Network (GLSEN). However, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) students receive it even from teachers. In an interview with IQ reporter Kosciw said that this even can be partly attributed to the legislation.

IQ: Traditionally, we perceive schools as educational institutions. However, we are increasingly considering the psychological atmosphere in them. How do these two aspects relate when we talk about the students who see themselves as members of the LGBT community?

In the fall of last year, a survey of 14-18 year old students presented by the National LGBT rights organization LGL showed that most of them hear homophobic remarks from class friends or teachers very often. Teenagers complained about experiencing psychological, verbal or even physical violence due to their sexual orientation.

The purpose of school, as you mentioned, is related to personal development and children’s future. Studies show that when they feel poorly at school, they tend to skip lessons, get lower grades, feel depressed, and have low self-esteem. The problem in Lithuania is developing further: some LGBT people indicate they are thinking about emigration. This, of course, has definite consequences for the country’s economy and the future – you are raising people who don’t want to stay in Lithuania and be part of its society.

LGBT rights, like students’ rights, are a subject of human rights, because we are talking about the freedom to be oneself and, in this case, about the right to education. It should be equally accessible to everyone. However, if a young person feels poorly at school and they are bullied, they skip lessons and eventually drop out of school. We should ask ourselves – are they really guaranteed equal opportunities to get an education?

IQ: It doesn’t seem to be a one-time problem and it requires attention from the wider public. What suggestions would you give to policy makers?

It is important that teachers who interact with different students – having different experiences, different backgrounds, perhaps even speaking in different languages – every day should be able to talk about tolerance, respect and trust. Also, they should be able to identify bullying and violence, students who found themselves at the center of it, and intervene in time. On the other hand, schools must have rules that prevent any form of discrimination. They must be clear and known to all – students, teachers, and parents. It is very important for LGBT students to receive positive information about LGBT people. It is observed that this is lacking in Lithuanian schools. Children receive only negative information saying that there is something wrong with them.

Lithuania should be concerned about the Law on the Protection of Minors against the Detrimental Effect of Public Information, which essentially says that we can not speak about certain things publicly, because it might have a negative impact on children and harm their well-being.

IQ: Shouldn’t the measures and actions mentioned before be applied collectively, keeping in mind not only LGBT students but all children and adolescents?

By giving recommendations and suggestions to schools, we tell the lawmakers that we need measures that prevent general bullying. However, we can not forget that there are certain categories of people whom bulling and violence affect more. Especially if the problems are not explicitly mentioned in the law or other legislation, or in aforementioned school rules. In such cases, teachers, for example, do not know if they should take initiative and intervene in bullying. It is obvious that it is not right to bully children that come to big cities from rural areas, but when the conversation turns to sexual orientation, it becomes not so easy to talk about it.

Sex education is part of the education system. On the other hand, the fact that programs exist does not yet guarantee that they are effective. The program is just a first step. We must devote time and energy to monitor what is happening in schools and what changes it enables. Proper sex education is needed in order to normalize the conversation about LGBT and to bring the topics that affect them to light.

IQ: What role do parents play? After all, we often write off children’s education as their responsibility. On the other hand, they often demand not to intervene – who, if not they, know best how to raise their children.

Parents are also part of the school community. They must know and understand practices a school applies against bullying and violence. It’s not expected only from their children. Parents are often angry – “don’t tell me how to raise children.“ They are especially critical of sex education, until it turns out that they did not provide the necessary knowledge themselves. Parents should teach their offspring to respect and accept others, teach them to treat others as they would like to be treated themselves. Every father and mother can appreciate differences. However, sexual education is the responsibility of the school. It prepares future citizens of the country, provides the foundation for their lives and provides the most important knowledge.

IQ: When children don’t find the information they need in the environment close to them, they turn to the web. What are the risks they face there?

It’s very difficult to distinguish which source on the internet is trustworthy and which is not. This is the biggest challenge for a young person. Today, if, for example, we do not feel well, we can punch in our symptoms into Google’s search engine and get both high-quality responses and total fantasies.

On the other hand, being in a social space for some social groups – for people who feel marginalized or isolated – is extremely important. Our task is to make sure that there are as many reliable sources as possible, that the public knows them and vigilantly monitors the information they contain.

IQ: Can the challenges faced by the LGBT students be judged as politically sensitive issues? What is needed that it would be usual and normal to talk about it?

Lithuania has made a lot of progress, but it’s not enough. The aforementioned Law on the Protection of Minors Against Negative Information shows that there are things in your country it is normal to talk about and those that are perceived to be on the outside.

On the other hand, the situation in Lithuania is not very different from other countries in Eastern and Central Europe. After all, the countries in the West has a much longer history of LGBT movement. In Lithuania, such organizations have been operating for about two decades, but in the Netherlands they are already counting their ninetieth birthday. So there is a lot of room for improvement and even more opportunities for change.

34049796_10212579434266960_2692896549872074752_nJ. G. Kosciw

Head of the Research and Strategy at the Gay, Lesbian and Heterosexual Education Network (GLSEN) since 2013.

He received his Ph.D. from New York University in 2003

He has been consulting non-governmental organizations and local communities for over fifteen years.

He provides research and analysis on children and youth education, sex education, and LGBT community integration.