Monday, December 20, 2010

A Shining Star of Activism in the Arizona Desert by Bobby Parker

Caleb Laieski, a brilliant, 16-year-old dynamo from the town of Surprise, Arizona is a one-man force for equality and safety for all school children in our state. I don't think there's anyone like him in our whole nation.  I'm giving him my Arizona GLBT Activist of the Year Award...a well-deserved honor.

With the help of the Arizona ACLU, Caleb successfully fought to have his Willow Canyon High School's discrimination policies revised. But he didn't stop there.

A child of the Internet age, on December 1st in a 12-hour non-stop barrage of 3,000 emails Caleb put all individual schools and school districts in our state on notice. He didn't stop there.

Notices were also sent to local city councils, county commissioners, legislators (state and federal) within each district, along with the State Department of Education, Attorney General's office, and the Office of the Governor. So that no one in the state was missed, at the same time he sent a press release to all news outlets in the state.

During the year Caleb contacted all 50 legislatures in our nation.

I am familiar with his comprehensive list of media outlets and personal contacts because due to his efforts the most widely reported GLBT activism event of the year was the recent suicide prevention outreach at the Mormon Temple in Mesa. All the major TV stations carried the story, with one having it as the 10 p.m. news lead story. Caleb communicated personally with each one to assure adequate coverage.

As Executive Director of Gays and Lesbians United Against Discrimination (GLUAD), an organization he founded, Caleb reminded everyone in the state of Arizona involved with keeping our school children safe of the recent spate of suicides of gay teens nationwide, their legal obligations to protect children in their schools, and gave them a comprehensive list of remedial measures they can use to correct failed policies.

However, Caleb went a step further showing that he means business. He said:

If we are acknowledged of any of the following, a suit will promptly be sought:
A suicide attempt or success due to bullying,
Issue of bullying or harassment reported and not handled properly, or inadequate punishment given,
Teacher or administrator failing to intervene or are expressing hate themselves.
He threatened to sue anyone who fails to follow policies to protect our children. He means it!

In case they need help, this is what Caleb offered:

We would be happy to refer you to organizations and experts who could work with you to develop and implement an appropriate long-term plan to create schools that are safe and productive for all children enrolled within the school district.

Please have your counsel contact me no later than Monday, December 20th about the steps and plans to be taken.

I became friends with Caleb via phone conversations around the time of the National Equality March on the Capitol in D.C. When I looked around to see whom in our state was going to coordinate it turned out Caleb and GLUAD were the first to sign up. In talking to him I had no idea he was only 15 years old at the time. His presence on the phone indicated someone in his late 20's.

Later we invited Caleb to the planning meeting as we resurrected the Arizona Stonewall Democrats, to bring us a view from the youth. We've been friends and confidants since. I relate as an activist or grandpa, whichever he needs at the time.

Here are responses from two of Arizona's leading activists re: Caleb:

Caleb came to my attention through his work at creating a national organization to work to promote a positive image of gay and lesbian people (GLUAD). Though he was still quite young, he had the determination and drive to make contact with legislators across the country and in the US Congress - asking them to support equality for all their citizens. In the intervening years, I've seen nothing less than this same level of effort from Caleb. He is a bright, articulate young man who is standing on the side of justice. I think we will find that he is long remembered by those whose lives were bettered because of his work.

- Rev. Brad Wishon, Vice-President, of No Longer Silent: Clergy for Justice

After interacting with Caleb, you have to stop to remember that he is only a teenager. He comes across as a very articulate, motivated, and professional activist who could be mistaken for twice his actual age. A review of his work lends credence to this impression, as he approaches his mission with thoroughness and thoughtfulness that would be the envy of many adults. He is an example of what true motivation and dogged determination can do for people operating in the bleakest of environments, and thus is an inspiration for many.

- Steve Brittle, Environmental Activist and Political Consultant

When he was 15, Caleb wrote the following. Since then he has been successful in changing his school, and is now focusing on all of Arizona's schools. I'm so thankful this time of year for Caleb and what he is doing. In his own words:

My name is Caleb Laieski. I am a 15-year-old gay teenager living and attending high school in Surprise, Arizona.

As a gay youth in a public school system, I have endured a relentless amount of harassment, threats, and bullying simply because I am an openly gay teenager. During my 8th grade year of school, I finally acknowledged to the public and myself that I am, in fact, gay. As the news of my gay "outing" made the rounds at school, anti-gay slurs and intolerance began. Words like fag and homo became a daily way of life for me.

The situation became worse once I started high school. The harassment, slurs, and death threats became bolder, more frequent, and the vast majority of teachers failed to intervene. In fact, one teacher said in front of other students, that all gays are "going to hell." As those issues worsened, I contacted the school district countless times for help. Help never came.

I am not alone in this. A very close friend of mine who is openly gay himself told me about how he is experiencing the same concerns. He once attempted suicide by drinking almost an entire bottle of rubbing alcohol. He has also done other things to harm his body in the past.

All of these issues contribute to the alarming statistics; a member of the LGBT youth community will attempt suicide within the next 40 minutes.

On March 24, 2010, at about 1:45 p.m., while walking home from the bus stop, I was approached by multiple male individuals in a vehicle yelling "F*** you Caleb, you f***ing faggot" followed by "f*** gay people" with finger gestures. 

The Dysart School District also claims that they do not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, religion, or age, but exclude sexual orientation and gender identity. If the school district were so serious on this matter, without hesitation it would amend and enforce a policy that covers sexual orientation and gender identity. The handbook states that first offense of hate speech will be punished a 2-3 day suspension and eligibility for a police report to be filed, yet they rarely enforce that. Additionally, their handbook claims that teachers and administrators are required to intervene. Again, they often fail to do so.

On May 13, 2010, at lunchtime, I was again confronted by a male student stating "I'm gonna sock you in the face, you f***in homo" followed by the word "Faggot". While the school administration acknowledged the incident, the vice-principal made light of the situation, stating that she knew the student involved because "He's in my office often." She said she would address it with him privately.

Concerns for my safety, well being and emotional stress caused by these repeated incidents were shooed out the door, leaving me to wonder whether or not I would make it through the day without being attacked. I was so scared that I walked out of school that day because I was afraid for my life.

Since that time, I have spoken with the vice-principal and the school district. Nothing transpired. Fortunately, I made it through school that time without any major incidents. But what does my future hold? Will I have to submit to ongoing harassment, threats, and bullying for the rest of my educational career? Will I end up being one of the teens that attempts suicide, develops a drug or alcohol problem; or end up homeless on the streets?

The school bullying resulted in a lack of enthusiasm in continuing the high school experience. It has also resulted in dramatic slipping of grades, failing math, and skipping classes out of fear.

In 2008, I became an activist one month before elections on Proposition 102 (Arizona) and Proposition 8 (California) - both defining marriage as a right only available between one man and one woman. 

After the passage of both propositions, my frustrations led me to begin researching and investigating Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) rights and offering my assistance to local and national organizations.

I gained some very essential experience and positive support from these organizations. But there is so much work to be done and I felt the need to start my own organization to achieve substantial positive change sooner!

So, I had the vision of founding my own organization -- Gays and Lesbians United Against Discrimination (GLUAD) to help support the LGBT local and national communities. I worked day and night to make sure this vision became a reality.

In January 2009, GLUAD began writing to legislatures in all 50 states with literature containing insight on LGBT issues. After a year of unexpected challenges, it became apparent to me how critical legislation is in providing essential changes towards LGBT equality. As a gay youth having survived my own issues, I felt that GLUAD could make the most crucial impact by focusing on LGBT youth communities both locally and nationally. I reached out to other LGBT youth.

I continue hearing stories from other students whose lives echoed mine. Their stories have all contained common threads of serious harassment, threats, and bullying. I've also heard stories of unheard victims of violence and abuse. It made me angry! Angry to the point that I began an intensive search for answers that shocked, saddened, and horrified me. These statistics has shown me the alarming amount of homeless teenagers and even worse -the preventable teen suicide rate. 

Currently, GLUAD is in the process of opening a homeless shelter focusing primarily on LGBT runaways or displaced people. We will provide housing for LGBT youth, adults, elderly and other members of the homeless community that have nowhere to go and no one to help them. GLUAD is continuing to work with all 50 state legislatures to address LGBT statistics, background and work for protective legislation.

My hope is to prevent people from experiencing the same type of harassment, threats, and bullying that I had to endure during my teen years. My mission is for LGBT people to have the same rights, goals and dreams of every other person in this country; to have somewhere to go, and someone to turn to when the world turns its back on them!


Anonymous said...

What an amazing and impressive guy!

He reminds me of some of the inspired guys here in the UK around the time we were working for basic acceptance and a lowering of the age of consent on its way to the parity we have now.

You can't help but admire his zeal.

Oh that you could have a 'Caleb' in every State!

Truly inspirational - thanks for posting about him.

Anonymous said...

A ray of hope...
Now all we need are about 1,000,000 more like him!

Thanks for the post, it gives hope to many.

Peace <3

Aek said...

As Gandhi said: "Be the change you wish to see in the world."

I'm glad that there are people like him changing the world out there. It's amazing what people can do when they rise to the occasion out of necessity.

Anonymous said...

Thank share

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