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Florida high school student stands up for gay classmates after Trevor Project leadership training

By NATALIE NEYSA ALUND, The Bradenton Herald

BRADENTON, Fla. -- When Max Staebler came out of the closet he did not endure the taunts, slurs and threats that some of his classmates did after they said they were gay.

"My friends didn't reject me and my family was very supportive but I knew most people, their cases were different," the 16-year-old Southeast High School student said. "I wanted to give back to the people who had a much different situation when they came out."

And he is.

Max was recently selected as one of 20 nationwide members on the Youth Advisory Council of the Trevor Project, a national organization focused on crisis and suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth. The 1994 film "Trevor," in which a high school student attempts suicide after realizing he's gay, inspired the project. In the film, Trevor, the main character, faces prejudice from his homophobic parents and friends.

Nationwide, studies show gay youth, ages 13-24, are four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers, according to information from the Trevor Project.

Max, who last month returned from Trevor Project leadership training in Los Angeles, said he's concerned about others in the gay community who could be rejected and ridiculed as a result of their sexual orientation.

His concern also comes in the wake of news of suicides related to anti-gay bullying in California, Rhode Island and Texas.

Just because it hasn't happened in that dramatic fashion here, doesn't mean that it couldn't, Max said.

Max, a member of the Junior Leadership Manatee Program, Southeast High's Technology Student Association and National Honor Society, said he knows classmates who have told their parents and were kicked out of the house. So he plans to facilitate workshops for teachers and students to hopefully increase awareness in middle and high schools and teach others how to safely intervene with friends or classmates who express suicidal thoughts.

"I want to teach them about the power of the word, how to spot the warnings signs and tell them what they can do to help others," he said. Not only does he plan to bring the Trevor Project to Manatee schools, he's pushing to start a Gay Straight Alliance, a club which promotes unity and understanding.

If approved, the club will be the first of its kind in Manatee's public school system.

Pinellas County schools have 16 such groups and Sarasota has one club at Booker High.

Max's goal is to start one at Southeast, then branch the club out to other middle and high schools in the district.

"We are very excited for Max to create a safer space on his campus and in his community," said Laura McGinnis, Trevor Project communications director. "Part of the reason why gay youth sometimes feel so isolated is because they have no community; they feel like no one else is like them. There's no better way to create that community than by having it led by a young person."

Smith, who backs his efforts, said they're just waiting on formal approval from the Trevor Project about how Max will facilitate the workshops and start the club.

"Theres a lot of external pressures nowadays. Home lives aren't what they used to be," Smith said. "As much as we think kids are totally resilient to things, they're not. They're getting negative thrown at them from so many different directions so anytime you can help a student, that's what you want to do."

Southeast, an International Baccalaureate school on 37th Avenue East in Bradenton, has a diverse population of students from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

"I see our kids handling diversity here very well," Smith said. "When you walk into our cafeteria everybody sits with everybody. You'll always have people who have deep, embedded beliefs that will want to challenge certain things in life and anytime you have a controversial issue they have a tendency to make their place known but that's part of the democratic process. We're going to be working side by side with people all our lives. We've got to work to find ways to celebrate diversity, not just argue and get angry."

Max's mom, Patricia Staebler, stands behind her son's efforts.

"I could not be any more proud knowing my son will contribute to saving young lives," said his mother, who is past-chair of Junior Leadership Manatee. She said Max also plans to work with Junior Leadership Manatee to raise awareness.

"We're very proud of Max in showing such great leadership in trying to stop all forms of bullying," said schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal.

McGonegal said he plans to meet with Max's mother sometime this week about her son's efforts.

Blake Hanes, a Braden River High School alumnus, said he's hopeful the club will get started but doesn't expect it to happen any time soon.

"It will happen but will take a lot of effort," said Hanes, a freshman at State College of Florida, who was teased when he came out in middle school. "When the bullying started, I talked to the principal of my school at the time, I really think they just didn't know what to do. Didn't have much experience with it. So I think it's an incredible idea and I'm really proud of Max for doing that."


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