Vincent “Vinnie” Pompei is director of the Youth Well-Being Project of the Human Rights Campaign, a national civil rights organization, and the chair of Time to Thrive, an annual national conference about LGBT student inclusion. He spent more than 10 years as a middle school teacher and high school counselor in the Paramount and Val Verde unified school districts in Southern California. Pompei is also a past president of the California Association of School Counselors.
On Oct. 5 at the EdSource Symposium in Oakland, Pompei will speak at the plenary session “Vulnerable Children: Is California on the Right Track?” and will lead a break-out session on “creating inclusive and supportive school environments.”
Q. You’re gay and 40 years old. You grew up in Sacramento, attended Elk Grove Unified schools, taught in California public schools and now work to help schools welcome students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. What was your own K-12 experience like?
A. I knew I was gay in kindergarten. It was a romantic and emotional feeling. I didn’t know what sex was. When I thought about my future, I would picture being with one of my best friends. I also received the message you are not to tell anyone and you had better fight it and pray it away. It’s a sin, you’re going to hell, you possibly will be killed. I’m from an Italian American family and homophobia was rampant. Obviously it was traumatizing and caused depression.
Q. When did things get better?
A. For me, the escape from the hostility was college. I was motivated to do well in high school. We were poor and I knew I needed to get a scholarship. At San Diego State, I was ultimately able to come out. It was a very LGBT-inclusive college.
Q. You estimate between 5 and 12 percent of California middle and high school students identify as LGBT, based on the California Healthy Kids Survey and the Youth Risk Surveillance Survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And another group of students check the box for “not sure” or “decline to state.” How are LGBT and “not sure” students doing?
A. They can turn on the TV, whether they’re watching MTV or Modern Family or Glee, and see openly LGBT individuals. There are gay-straight alliances at schools. What gives me hope is not only are more LGBT young people coming out of the closet, I’m seeing more become prom kings and queens. More LGBT students are being accepted on scholarships to universities. And corporate America is a leader in recruiting and hiring LGBT talent. Look at how many small and large companies and Fortune 500 companies are on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index as “Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality.” (The 515 companies chosen include Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Ford Motor, BlackRock, Dow Chemical, State Farm Group and Pearson.) They provide mandated training for their executives and leadership teams and have policies to prevent harassment. That excites me about the future.
A. The data are appalling. If you look at the most recent statistics, of students who identify as LGBT, 30 percent of them have attempted suicide. We have a huge number of LGBT students who are still feeling like suicide is an option — not because they are LGBT, obviously, but because they feel isolated and alone and not supported.
Q. What about bullying?
A. They are experiencing less bullying and harassment because there’s less stigma from their peers. But they are having a lot of trouble navigating because of the pushback and lack of understanding from teachers, staff and the adults who serve them. They tell me: “My teacher won’t call me by my pronoun. My teacher is telling me not to be so flamboyant.”
Q. Most of the students are more comfortable with their LGBT classmates than the adults are?
A. If I take a step back, I know that educators are mostly of my generation, some younger, some older. When I completed my teacher credential, my master’s in administration, my master’s in counseling and my doctorate in education leadership, we didn’t have a course on school climate. Nothing was taught to overcome people’s fear and discomfort.
Most schools have a vision and mission statement that says they are preparing young people for the global diverse world we live in. Inclusion is for all students who are different and also for students who aren’t so different… so they can be successful and comfortable with difference. We can’t shy away from saying the words LGBT because they make us uncomfortable or we’re worried about parent pushback. They are a protected class in the state of California, protected from bullying in an enumerated category. Not only is it the law, it is also our ethical obligation as professionals who work with children.
Q. No one wants to think of themselves as biased or insensitive. How do you get educators to let down their defenses when you talk about LGBT students feeling unwelcome?
A. My motto in professional development is to call people in, not call people out. We’re all biased. It’s not their fault, it’s the fault of the culture we live in. Think of toy commercials and major department stores. This is the pink aisle and that is the aisle that has trucks. In preschool, it’s not uncommon if a boy sees his peers holding a doll to call them on it. We’re never going to not be biased. We can get better at working on it, because it can harm folks who are often the most vulnerable and marginalized in society.
Q. Fresno school board president Brooke Ashjian recently said that presenting LGBT people in a positive way in sex education classes could result in more people who are gay — he said, “Well maybe you just swayed the kid to go that way” — an outcome he didn’t want. What are your thoughts?
A. It was a shock to hear him say that, but there are many education leaders who agree. It’s not because these are not well-intentioned individuals. I believe they can evolve. They believe what they were taught growing up. When they get factual, research-based information about LGBT individuals, and professional development with training and resources, schools can make and are making dramatic shifts in school culture.
Q. Have you witnessed moments of change in the adults?
A. After almost every training, a staff member comes up to me. One woman was in her 50s. She didn’t say I’m lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. She had tears. She said, this is really difficult for me to say — what you are talking about, that’s me, and I’ve never been able to say that to anybody and I’m tired of not being able to be that individual.
Another time a person said, my sister is a lesbian, my family and I rejected her and I haven’t talked to her in 10 years — and I have got to go home and call.
Someone will say they don’t have any LGBT students at their school. And I can look at the California Healthy Kids Survey and say, in fact, you do.
Q. How do you get educators started on making their schools welcoming places for LGBT students?
A. I have them pair up, say their names and say, “We create safe and supportive learning environments for all students, including students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.” Some of them groan, but I have them practice. These are not bad words, not sexual words. These are identities.
The fact is we have trainings and resources to help educators. There’s really no excuse why a school isn’t choosing an anti-bias curriculum in K-12. This actually takes action.