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<p>['Gendertopia'? or when one of the interviewees says "there's a whole world of genders out there" does it mean more hyperbole and confusion? an open question]<br></p><p>----------------------------------------------<br></p><p> Like plenty of other <span class="yshortcuts" id="lw_1244399089_0">high school students</span>,
a group of about a dozen Vermont teenagers trundled into a youth center
one day every week this spring to participate in an after-school
<p>But their program was different; it focused on gender.</p>
<p>The nine-week program, partially funded by the <span class="yshortcuts" id="lw_1244399089_1">Burlington School District</span>, was held at <span class="yshortcuts" id="lw_1244399089_2">Vermont</span>'s Queer Youth Center and called "Gendertopia."</p>
lesbian and straight students discussed a wide range of topics, from
the characters in the book and movie "Twilight," to taking photos
around the city that show the different ways gender is portrayed in
<p>"Most people come into it
thinking, 'Oh, there's two genders and two sexualities' ... ," said
David Kingsbury, a 16-year-old junior at Burlington High School who
signed up for the program. "People assume it's boy and girl, but it's
so much more than that. There's a whole world out there full of
<p>The program is among the
first of its kind to be funded, in part, with tax dollars, said
Christopher Neff, the executive director of <span style="border-bottom: 1px dashed rgb(0, 102, 204); cursor: pointer;" class="yshortcuts" id="lw_1244399089_3">Outright Vermont</span>, the <span class="yshortcuts" id="lw_1244399089_4">social service organization</span> running Gendertopia.</p>
the program nor the school district's participation triggered any
objection. The tempered reaction locally to the program shows how far
Outright Vermont and the issues it raises has moved into the main
stream of youth <span class="yshortcuts" id="lw_1244399089_5">social service organizations</span>.</p>
got queer in its name. It scares the heck out of people. It's so
important that people be able to see beyond any concerns or
misconceptions that they have," said Eliza Byard, the executive
director of the New York-based Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education
Network, which has 35 chapters across the country. "Outright Vermont is
fulfilling its mission in the most wonderful way."</p>
program was designed to help young people identify the subtle signals
used to express gender and how not being aware of those signals can
lower self esteem and possibly lead to an increase in at-risk
activities like <span class="yshortcuts" id="lw_1244399089_6">substance abuse</span> or dropping out of school, Neff said.</p>
often see a lot of homophobia or transphobia that happens on the basis
of how someone looks," Neff said. "If you are making fun of me because
I am wearing a pink shirt and that's sort of expressing my femininity,
my feminine side, that translates into homophobia, but it has nothing
to do with whether I'm straight or whether I'm dating boys or whether
I'm dating girls. It has to do with the fact that I'm wearing a pink
<p>Neff said the significance of the
program is more than the money and the relatively small number of young
people who participate.</p>
symbolic and very powerful," he said. "I was incredibly proud to be
associated with them and I thought this partnership, this very unique
partnership, between a queer youth center and a school district to run
a <span style="border-bottom: 1px dashed rgb(0, 102, 204); cursor: pointer;" class="yshortcuts" id="lw_1244399089_7">gender identity</span> based program was a new national model."</p>
<p>Burlington School Superintendent Jeanne Collins said no one has objected to the program.</p>
district has been in the forefront on this topic for at least a decade,
if not longer," Collins said. "We are very sensitive to celebrating the
differences in people and accepting people for who they are and what
they bring to the table."</p>
<p>She said a factor that helped keep the program non controversial was that it was voluntary.</p>
have very robust after school program," Collins said. "This is one of
the options for the students who are interested. They get a lot out of
it that will help them be much more inclusive and accepting of
differences in their own future, which can only help them be
<p>Steve Cable, of Rutland the founder
of Vermont Renewal, an organization that promotes what he calls
traditional family values, said he wasn't familiar with "Gendertopia,"
but he knew <span class="yshortcuts" id="lw_1244399089_8">Outright Vermont</span>. He said he was supportive of the group's anti-bullying efforts, but not what he said was its focus on adolescent sexuality.</p>
just makes me really nervous that sexuality and these very complicated
social behaviors are being normalized and talked about with kids who
haven't figured out even their life yet," Cable said. "I know that
Outright Vermont promotes all <span class="yshortcuts" id="lw_1244399089_9">gender identities</span> and expression of gender identities, no matter how weird that might be."
In 2000, <span class="yshortcuts" id="lw_1244399089_10">Vermont</span> was the first state that passed <span class="yshortcuts" id="lw_1244399089_11">civil unions</span> for same-sex couples and earlier this year was the first to pass <span class="yshortcuts" id="lw_1244399089_12">gay marriage</span> without being required to do so by the courts. It's also in the forefront with laws to protect <span class="yshortcuts" id="lw_1244399089_13">gender identity</span> and sexual orientation.
Outright Vermont describes itself as "one of the longest standing queer
organizations in Vermont" and the only one focused on young people.
Neff said that for years his organization has done anti-bullying
presentations related to sexual orientation and gender identity in
schools across the state. He said the presentations have been
universally well received.
</p><p>Byard said a number of national organizations have programs for
girls that help them deal with the pressures that can lead to eating
disorders or pressures that girls feel to be thin or beautiful.
</p><p>"Now it's only relatively recently that there has been real
focus on the damaging effect of these same expectations on young men,"
</p><p>About 40 students signed up for the program, Neff said, and
about 12 attended the weekly program.. Sometimes the group watched a
movie or had food. Much of the discussion was led by the students
themselves, and it wasn't just for gay and lesbian students.
</p><p>"I'm straight, but I don't like using that word because then it
feels like if you're gay then you're crooked, you're not meant to grow
up in a certain way," Sophia Manzi, 15, a <span class="yshortcuts" id="lw_1244399089_14">Burlington high school freshman</span>,
said during this year's final "Gendertopia" meeting. "I come because
it's a really good program. The people, it doesn't matter what sexual
orientation you are, they totally come in with open arms."
Neff said "Gendertopia" wasn't about sexuality or who people are attracted to.
</p><p>"We're really clear that gender and gender identify is separate
from sexual orientation," Neff said. "Hugh Grant and Russell Crowe have
the same sex, they're both male and they're both heterosexual. But they
have very different gender presentations. One is sort of seen as much
more masculine than the other."
</p><p>Burlington High School After school Coordinator Amy Mills said
no decision had been made yet on whether to run Gendertopia again in
the fall, but she'd like to.
"I think it worked well," Mills said. "They seem to have a lot of fun."</p>