Beyond Bullying Project explores LGBTQ youth experience

The student looks directly into the camera and begins to speak. He's an immigrant from Ecuador, he explains, and he's gay. Students at his high school gossiped about him and even attacked him, until he enlisted the support of his teachers. Now he's a proud leader at his school. "Before, their words were hurting me, but now their words make me strong," he says.

Associate Professor of Sociology Jessica Fields, one of the Beyond Bullying Project's leaders, introducing the project as part of the women and gender studies department's fall lecture series.

Associate Professor of Sociology Jessica Fields, one of the Beyond Bullying Project's leaders, introduced the project as part of the Women and Gender Studies department's fall lecture series.

This student's story is just one of hundreds collected by the Beyond Bullying Project, which aims to use storytelling to reinvent the dialogue about the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer experience in high schools.

Discussions of LGBTQ youth are often connected to anti-bullying programs, focusing on the negative, said Associate Professor of Sociology Jessica Fields, one of the project's leaders, in a lecture on Sept. 25. "People think of LGBTQ sexuality as a site of trouble and try to figure out how to help LGBTQ youth. Everything is about what we don't want to happen, not about the lives we want to cultivate."

Through the Beyond Bullying Project, students and faculty at schools in Minneapolis, New York and San Francisco were given the opportunity to enter a private booth and record their everyday stories about LGBTQ sexuality -- tales of coming out, harassment, friendship, family, love.

The project's leaders, who also included Associate Professor of Health Education Laura Mamo, expected to collect about 100 stories. They ended up with more than 400. The stories are now being studied to understand students' needs surrounding LGBTQ issues and how they can be better addressed at high schools.

But the most important goal, Fields said, is to create awareness. "It's all about conversation. There's an impulse to provide a fix -- we're trying to resist that. I want teachers, when they look out at a classroom or a staff meeting, to imagine there are these stories circulating out there."

The project was initially funded by a $500,000 Ford Foundation grant. As they apply for additional funding to continue, the team is also working to develop a model program that schools can implement on their own. In fact, one of the pilot schools built its own storytelling booth and plans to do a similar project every year.

"I love the idea of storytelling. It lets anyone say anything," said Lisa Mears, a women and gender studies major who attended the lecture. "It gives students a voice, and it lets them know there is help."