Being gay as a young person in rural areas and small towns can’t be easy.
Neither is working with such young people, for educators who must navigate state laws, religious beliefs, and social norms.
Christopher J. Stapel knows all of that better than most. A high school math teacher in Boston, the 25-year-old is gay and grew up in small-town Illinois, often feeling isolated. As a recent graduate student in education policy at Harvard University, he received a fellowship that helped him conduct research into the lives of rural gay youths and the educators and other professionals who cross paths with them.
He has developed a Web site —www.ruralgayyouth.com—and a guide that he hopes are useful for young people and adults who work with gay, lesbian, bisexual, questioning, and transgender youths. It’s titled, “No Longer Alone: A Resource Manual for Rural Sexual Minority Youth and the Adults Who Serve Them.”
“There are students who identify themselves as gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender in all of our classrooms. That in itself is important to recognize,” said Mr. Stapel, who teaches 9th grade math at the Boston Community Leadership Academy, a public school.
The Web site includes sections for students, teachers, and social-service providers. It’s a storehouse for all sorts of information about what it’s like to grow up gay or lesbian in a rural area, how to support gay young people, and long lists of Internet and other resources on such subjects as religion and mental health.
In his research, Mr. Stapel said he was surprised to learn there was of a lot of activity among educators, social-service providers, mental-health counselors, and others who might work with adolescents who are gay or believe they might be.
He spoke with more than 100 people and more than 30 organizations as he produced the Web site and the guidebook. The materials have been used as a resource by Iowa educators, New Mexico social workers, and leadership-training organizers for gay youths in Illinois.
Among his advice: Educators should never assume youths’ romantic interests involve the opposite sex. “There are plenty of gay people in rural places,” Mr. Stapel said.
A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2006 edition of Education Week