South Florida group holds workshop Saturday
Robert Loupo was lying on the sands of South Beach, bleeding from three frontal stab wounds and eight on his back. He thought that his friend, who was lying beside him motionless, was dead.It was April 1992, a month after Loupo had co-founded South Florida Educators Group (SFEG), a collection of teachers who aimed to improve LGBT safety at schools.
Loupo and his friend, Jay Vail, the editor-in-chief of then still-in-business The Weekly News, had just finished watching the play “Lesbian Vampires from Sodom” at Semper’s lounge, which would occasionally put up a play. After a few drinks, Vail wanted to smoke a cigarette. Loupo had recently quit and suggested they go to the beach, where the smell of smoke wouldn’t be too tempting for him with a breeze. They weren’t romantically involved, but a gang of teens thought they were and, in what Loupo would later learn was a routine hazing ritual for new gang members, stabbed the two.
“Everything was going black,” Loupo remembered. “It was a very traumatic time.”
The two healed up against all odds and Loupo was more energized than ever to continue his work with SFEG, in light of what he had gone through.
“I said ‘I’m going to redouble efforts to try to reduce some of this hate in the world,’” he said. And so he did. The group of teachers expanded their efforts, contacting schools and pushing legislators to adjust non-harassment and discrimination policies.
“We just felt that it was important that something be done to make sure that LGBT kids were protected in schools,” he said. “We, as educators, felt that we went into the career — like anyone who goes into education — were on a mission to make a difference in the lives of young people. How could we — as authentic educators — say that without being called to action to make sure that LGBT kids were taken care of?”
By 1993, with pressure from SFEG and other groups, Miami-Dade became the first county in the southeastern U.S. to add gender identity to its policies. Before the turn of the century, Broward County followed suit. By the time the new millennium came, the group had renamed itself Safe Schools South Florida (SSSF). It was also around this time that Loupo ended his 14-year track as an English teacher and became a counselor at Cutler Ridge Middle School.
What does SSSF do these days? It educates educators on how to deal with the issues that face the LGBT community in their schools.
“We’re working to help educators — those that see the stressors that these young people go through everyday,” he said. “Some of that stress is caused by school.”
It’s important to Loupo that the members of SSSF are instructors themselves so they are close to the scene.
“Through all of these years, I’ve continued to work as an educator,” he said. “That’s so important. We can speak with some authority and confidence about what goes on because we’re there.”
Unfortunately, Loupo said, the fact is that a lot of people still need understanding and awareness about these issues. This is why SSSF holds weekend workshops to help raise this kind of awareness. Young people are coming out earlier, so there’s a lot of bullying going on — LGBT-related and not, according to Loupo.
“So many educators don’t feel comfortable in dealing with them and haven’t gotten any training for it,” he said.
Part of these workshops is a panel of young LGBT members who talk about their experiences and answer questions. One of them is 18-year-old Hector Castaneda.
“When I was in high school, I didn’t face bullying, but I was faced with the lack of protection,” Castaneda said, adding that he’d get really depressed seeing LGBT students get bullied and harassed without any help. That’s why he chose to stay in the closet, and often considered suicide.
“I was driving home from school one day and started speeding forward,” he said. “I wasn’t talking to my family. I wasn’t thinking of anything but that. But I didn’t want to hurt anyone else, so I slowed down right before hitting a car.”
Castaneda now goes to UM, where he said “things are much better.”
“Thanks to the help of my family, I was able to regain my confidence and strength,” he said. “Now I want to fight for people’s rights and not be quiet.”
Another panelist is Jamesly Louis, a Haitian-born 20-year-old. He said that he brings diversity into the panel, “You don’t get to see a gay Haitian speak openly and proudly about themselves.”
“I used to think that because I’m Haitian, if I get bullied, the Haitian students would defend me,” he remembered. “But it was the opposite, the Haitian students were the first to bully me. It felt like a betrayal.” He joined the panel to help people who might be facing the same hardships he faced without any help.
“One time my math teacher — I asked him if he could address the issue of people making fun,” Jamesly said. “He told me if he has to stop his class every time someone made fun of him he’d have to stop his class.”
The panels, Jamesly said, give the community an opportunity to hear first-hand what’s happening in their schools.
“We give you our stories — we don’t take anything out, we don’t put anything in. We don’t try to be politically correct,” he said. “You’re going to hear the raw and naked truth of what happened to a handful of kids in the U.S.”
For more information, go to www.SafeSchoolsSouthFlorida.org
When: Sat., March 3, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: Coral Gables Congregational Church
3010 De Soto Blvd.
Coral Gables, FL 33134
(Across from the Biltmore Hotel)