Public campaign will reach out to young people suffering homophobic bullying

Carrie Jacobs runs the Attic Youth Center, a haven for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, in Center City.
Carrie Jacobs runs the Attic Youth Center, a haven for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, in Center City. (GREGORY THOMAS / Staff)
Posted: June 22, 2011

Public transportation riders are in for a more colorful commute come Thursday.

That's the day the city's only independent organization serving lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youths launches its first public advertising campaign, with 100 posters on SEPTA buses and subway cars.

The Attic Youth Center, an after-school LGBT sanctuary in Center City, is taking its message, "It's OK to Be You," to the streets in an attempt to reach young people suffering from homophobic bullying.

"When we first got started, we didn't do so much [advertising] as a way to kind of protect our kids," says Attic's executive director, Carrie Jacobs, who founded the nonprofit organization in 1993. "But as things have somewhat changed, we've been able to do more and more marketing."

The campaign is the latest effort by various organizations to speak to the public about LGBT issues.

In May, Philadelphia School District elementary school counselors spent a day learning about LGBT issues from Welcoming Schools, an arm of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. The day before, a study appeared in the Journal of School Health showing that LGBT adolescents who are bullied in school because of their identity are at greater risk as adults for depression, suicide, and contracting HIV.

About 85 percent of LGBT students were harassed at school in 2008, according to a 2009 report by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a 40-chapter national nonprofit group focused on bringing awareness of LGBT issues to the classroom. It has a chapter in Camden.

The health report claims to be the first study on the personal effects of homophobic bullying, but the findings were not news to the city's LGBT community.

The Attic's ad campaign is fueled by a $10,000 grant from the city Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services.

The initiative comes after a series of teen suicides last fall cast a spotlight on gay bullying. The most noticed was the death of Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his encounter with another man was secretly videoed by his roommate and shared on Twitter.

From the deaths arose the It Gets Better campaign, a wave of homemade YouTube videos in which adults relay empowering messages to LGBT youths. The campaign is the brainchild of Seattle-based sex columnist Dan Savage and has inspired videos from President Obama, Philadelphia City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, comedian Ellen DeGeneres, and others.

In the debut It Gets Better video, which has had more than 1.4 million viewings since it was posted in September, Savage and his partner recount the difficulties of coming out to their families, grappling with high school bullying, and the fulfillment of starting a family of their own. In a moment of reassurance, Savage tells high school viewers, "You have to tough this period of it out."

Attic leaders say the message is helpful but vague.

"For some of the young people who have complicated lives, it's not so easy to just tell them to wait," Jacobs says.

Shortly after the videos appeared on the Web, the Attic, which serves about 1,000 youths a year, created its own YouTube channel with an adapted message.

"We're more focused on the It Gets Better When or It Gets Better If," Jacobs says.

At Philadelphia Outfest, an annual September event in Center City, the Attic set out a poster board with the clause "It Gets Better When . . . " in purple marker - an invitation to young people to finish the thought. One boy submitted, "It Gets Better When . . . you meet older gay men who will mentor and support you."

To that end, the Attic hosts summer training sessions for teachers and prospective mentors, working to make it better for LGBT youths.  This year, 31 adults signed up to be mentors - up from 25 last summer.


Contact staff writer Gregory Thomas at 215-854-5289 or gthomas@philly.com.

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