July 8, 2019
Pride month has passed but our work to ensure the health of ALL children, especially those who are vulnerable, including LGTBQ youth, is ongoing and championed by exemplary medical providers in the field.
In Phoenix, AZ, Dr. Vinny Chulani and his team found that too often, LGBTQ youth face learning environments so hostile that they end up dropping out of school — an action with long term negative consequences. “Academic achievement directly correlates to young people’s future employment, their stability, self-confidence, and overall health and success,” Chulani explains. With more than 20 years of experience working with this population, he is a national expert.
Together with Children’s Health Fund, Chulani’s response was creating the Gender Support Program which focuses not only on physical wellbeing but on critical emotional health and safety in schools. The program goes above and beyond by assessing academic achievement, school connectedness, and safety. According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, 75% of trans students do not feel safe in schools. In the last four years, the program has helped more than 500 transgender and gender diverse youth.
Through the Children’s Health Fund supported “Crews’n Healthmobile,” patients receive weekly physical and mental health services at shelters, transitional living programs, and youth advocacy groups that serve the LGBTQ population.
Patients are connected with support groups as well as resources to help them earn their GED if necessary, and secure housing subsidies and funds for college tuition when needed. But Chulani’s main goal is “to emphasize and promote positive self-concepts” in his young, struggling patients. “In the face of anti-LGBTQ stigma and bias, it is critically important that we build up young people’s sense of self,” he affirms. And having that positive reinforcement and non-judgmental support can make a world of difference to someone facing such enormous challenges at a young age.
In 2016, a local high school, Great Hearts Academy, required students to use bathrooms assigned by birth gender. Jude Stone, one of Chulani’s male transgender patients, was negatively impacted by these policies. Then a senior, Jude would have to go well out of his way to use the gender-neutral restroom, singling him out and causing him to often be late for class. Thanks to the support he received from the Gender Support Program, Jude and his family were connected with a local support group. And, he became the face of change: in 2018, the school reformed its policies to be more inclusive of the LGBTQ population. “A large part of what we do is help these young people become empowered and engaged in changing the conditions that affect their daily lives. It’s about fostering agency and activism,” Chulani explains.
Chulani’s efforts are bringing about systemic changes to help thousands of youth through the local movement to create trauma-sensitive schools. “More and more, we recognize that trauma can negatively impact classroom behavior and learning. Our students can’t be fully present and learn when they feel unsafe,” he says. By promoting the recognition and treatment of trauma in schools, and by emphasizing that discrimination, bullying, and harassment is traumatic, Chulani has managed to forge common ground, even when the local school laws were strongly discriminatory toward LGBTQ students.
Reflecting on his advocacy with school personnel and officials who embraced the “No Promo Homo” education law that prevented LGBTQ issues to be presented in a positive light until it was upturned this spring, Chulani posited, “If I can’t get their okay with their [students’] gender identity and sexual orientation, at least I can get them on board with these trauma-sensitive policies.”
His efforts and advocacy have greatly paid off for all students, and today have earned him the Award for Leadership in LGBTQ Health through the LGBTQ Integrated Health Coalition of Southern Arizona.