PORTLAND — David Jacobs may not be able to forecast the future, but he certainly could peer into his past.

On Monday afternoon, before the red light of a video camera in a room next to the Rines Auditorium at the Portland Public Library, Jacobs spoke to his 13-year-old self.

Jacobs, who’s now the development and external relations manager for the library, spoke with pride of being the first openly gay city councilor in South Portland, and of being in a loving relationship for two decades.

So as hard as it is to be an isolated, bullied gay teenager, he said, “it gets better.”

“Give it another day, and another day,” Jacobs said. “Pretty soon you’ll look back and think, ‘It got better.’“

That message of hope and encouragement awaited anyone who visited the Rines Auditorium on Monday afternoon or evening for an event that included a dozen community organizations and three high school gay-straight alliances, all dedicated to reducing hate language and harassment, particularly for youths who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

An evening showing of a 40-minute documentary titled “BULLIED” preceded a panel and public discussion. The film features Jamie Nabozny, his ordeal with anti-gay bullies and his ultimately successful federal lawsuit against his school district in northern Wisconsin for failing to protect him.

“It had a very powerful message,” said Kaleigh Colson, a junior at Portland High School who is co-president of her school’s gay-straight alliance. “They have actors acting out the story he’s telling. They use dialogue from the transcript of the trial.”

The film, which Colson’s group screened last week, is available to any school district for free from tolerance.org.

In the wake of high-profile suicides by bullied teenagers came the national It Gets Better Project. Syndicated columnist and author Dan Savage got it started by creating a YouTube video with his partner, hoping to inspire young people who face harassment.

Within two months of its launch in September, the site itgetsbetter.org included more than 5,000 user-created videos and drew 15 million viewers.

In October, when Portland Phoenix reporter Deirdre Fulton searched the site, she found almost nobody from Maine. Having a camera at her disposal, Fulton figured she could change that.

She filmed and uploaded stories from more than a dozen Mainers, then doubled that number Monday. Portland City Councilor Jill Duson and state Rep. Terry Morrison of South Portland joined such national figures as President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in contributing to the project.

A recent national survey of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students showed that in the 2009-10 school year:

85 percent experienced harassment.

72 percent heard hate language.

40 percent were physically harassed.

19 percent were assaulted.

All of those things happened at school.

“These problems exist first as language,” said Betsy Parsons, who taught English in Portland schools for 30 years and now is co-chair of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. “When nothing is done about the language, there’s consistent escalation.”

Parsons said 53 Maine high schools, about one in three, now have gay-straight alliances. Greely High in Cumberland and Mount Ararat High in Topsham sent representatives to Monday’s anti-bullying event.

“All (the alliances) have to do is be visible in a school so that the student body knows they exist, to immediately lower the tension level inside kids,” Parsons said. “That says they’re in a place where somebody cares.”

Parsons said openly supportive school staff and more lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teachers coming out can also help to improve the educational climate for all students.

“High school was hard for me, and I’m straight,” said Fulton, the newspaper reporter. “Issues of isolation are universal. It’s even harder for some kids, especially when they don’t feel like even the adults, much less the peers in their life, understand.

“That’s why this message is relevant to everybody,” she said. “It’s not about being gay or straight, it’s about being human, it’s about being nice.”

 

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: [email protected]