Marsha Aizumi remembers a time when her sixth grader son could not stand up in front of his classmates without crying and falling apart. Today, at age 21, Aiden Aizumi is preparing to accept a youth leadership award at the Creating Change conference, a program of the Gay and Lesbian Task Force that recognizes leaders in the LGBT social justice movement.
It wasn’t a smooth ride from shy elementary schooler to youth leader, but Aiden, a transgender person who was born female and now lives life as a male, is enrolled at Pasadena City College and has an active social life. He is also a spokesperson for a new LGBT school housed at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center.
“I wish they had this kind of school when I was growing up,” Aiden said.
The school had an open house on February 2, inviting prospective students and parents to learn more about the program, tour the facility at the Village at Ed Gould Plaza, and speak with school officials.
The new, fully accredited school, which opened for enrollment in December, is a collaboration between Opportunities for Learning and the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center’s LifeWorks program, a mentoring and development program for LGBT youth. As a charter school, Opportunities for Learning receives funding from the Baldwin Park Public School District, which means students who meet general public school criteria can enroll at no cost.
The school’s students, ranging from the grades 7-12, will follow individualized learning plans in a supervised independent study program. They’ll meet with a teacher twice each week to discuss progress, ask questions and take tests. The rest of the week, students will study on their own or with available tutors. The program has room for up to 40 students. Currently, four students are enrolled.
According to a study released by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, nearly nine out of 10 LGBT students surveyed had experienced harassment at school in the past year, three-fifths felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and about a third had skipped a day of school in the past month because of feeling unsafe.
Aiden Aizumi spent the last six months of his senior year working from home because he was so anxious about attending school, where he said he was verbally harassed.
“There was no physical abuse at my high school, but there was a lot of name calling, taunting and verbal abuse. It just was uncomfortable…in high school you are just trying to make it through and I felt like I couldn’t,” Aizumi said. “I didn’t go to my graduation, I didn’t go to my prom…because of all the harassment I had a lot of depression.”
Marsha Aizumi is supportive of her son’s lifestyle, but she recognizes that not all LGBT youth have understanding parents. Though she was able to help Aiden get his diploma, it was a very difficult task, she said.
“He could barely leave the house. It was so sad for him to be missing all the activities that go along with senior year, but that was the only way we knew how to get him his diploma at that time,” Marsha Aizumi said.
Aiden’s high school, which Marsha Aizumi declined to name, did the best they could for Aiden, she said, but there wasn’t enough awareness about how to help him.
After graduation, Aiden enrolled at Pasadena City College, got involved with Lifeworks and the Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) support group. He currently goes to school and works part-time for Opportunities for Learning.
“I realized that my son was doing really well and that he earned his diploma,” Marsha Aizumi said. “I started to think that there should be a place for these kids to get a diploma and feel safe.”
Marsha and Aiden brought Opportunities for Learning and LifeWorks together to see if a school for LGBT youth was viable. As the new school prepares to enroll more students, Michael Ferrara, director of LifeWorks, said part of his goal is to avoid what he calls the “ghettoization” of LGBT people.
“We are really aware that the youth who come here need to be able to function in the real world, which is why we have the ‘Life Out’ program, which gets our young people out into the community once a month and encourages activism in a wide spectrum of causes,” Ferraro said. “LGBT people will not be seen as equal if they are not involved in a wide variety of causes, not just LGBT causes.”
Ferraro added that straight youth are also welcome at the new school.
Daniel Solice, the Southern California program coordinator for the Gay Straight Alliance Network, a group that helps teens form clubs in their high schools, said it is important for teenagers to mingle will all kinds of people, but that safety needs to come first.
“There are some students that are gender non-conforming or transgender and that issue is a bit more challenging and confusing for many schools,” Solice said “It is important to have a safety net to catch those kids.”
Solice added that the ideal scenario would be making all schools safe for LGBT youth, eliminating the need for charter schools targeted at LGBT youth. That is the goal of the Gay Straight Alliance Network. So far, they have created 363 clubs at schools in Southern California. Solice noted that Fairfax High School has a highly successful Gay Straight Alliance groups, as evidenced by last year’s prom queen, a gay male.
Ed Zubiate, principal at Fairfax High School, said he supports the idea of an LGBT school, but that it should not be simply a place where any LGBT student could land.
“If it was my son or daughter, which I try to think about all the time, when dealing with kids, I’m not sure how I’d feel about sending them to a school that is meant specifically for LGBT students or for any one type of student,” Zubiate said. “These kids have to go out into the real world after high school and we want to prepare them for diversity. But I do think it’s all about the individual student. If a student is being harassed and is unable to learn or feel safe, I say to heck with so-called ‘real life’. Give that student a chance to be nurtured and to learn…that’s why this new school is a great thing. I’d just want to be sure they assess individual students’ needs before enrolling them.”
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