Exploratorium staff reaches out to LGBT youth

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Wednesday October 5, 2011
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One transgender employee discusses being picked on for looking like a man on a female basketball team in high school. A woman discusses attempting suicide as a teenager and being glad as an adult that she was unsuccessful.

More than a dozen staffers of the Exploratorium, a science-based learning museum located near San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, appear in a video released this week aimed at reaching LGBT youth struggling to accept their sexual orientation or gender identity. It is part of the ongoing It Gets Better project started by gay Seattle writer Dan Savage in the wake of a rash of teenage suicides last year.

Adrienne Barnett, 34, a lesbian who is the program manager of the teacher institute at the Exploratorium, instituted the creation of the video after seeing both the California Academy of Sciences and the San Francisco Giants produce their own versions. Watching those videos prompted Barnett to recall her own struggles as a teen coming to terms with her sexual orientation.

"I thought this would be a great way for the Exploratorium to give back as well as bring our team as a staff together," said Barnett, who is one of the employees featured in the video.

After discussing the idea with a select few coworkers, Barnett then pitched it to Exploratorium management, who quickly signed off on the project. A staff-wide call for help elicited 70 volunteers and led to a packed meeting to throw out ideas on how to make the video unique.

Jeff Hamilton, 52, a gay man who works as the Exploratorium's government relations director, agreed to take part. He said it became evident working on the video how the topic ties into the museum's mission of exploring not only science but also the human experience.

"Scientists throughout history have been persecuted for proposing things like the Earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around," said Hamilton. "Science is really there it get people to think."

A member of his high school swim team, Hamilton said he himself was not bullied as a kid for being gay. But he did witness a classmate be called a fag and get stuffed in a garbage can by other students.

"Even if you personally were not bullied, you saw other people get bullied. That sent the message about being gay. You knew that was something you didn't want to be," he said. "It is interesting how bullying terrorizes the whole environment."

Exploratorium volunteers create a spiral design, taking directions from a visitor to the museum. (Photo: Rick Gerharter)

Having grown up at a time when the LGBT community was not as visible or accepted as it is today, Hamilton said he was surprised to see how supportive straight colleagues have been about the video.

"Given my generation and age group, I was so shocked and moved by it," he said. "To see so many straight people walk into a room to support a 'gay' function says a lot about us as an institution."

Exploratorium Executive Director Dennis Bartels, Ph.D., in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter, said the issue of being bullied for who you are resonates with many of the Exploratorium's staff of more than 500 people. Whether straight or LGBT, the employees have often been considered outside the norm, he said, due to their interests or talents.

"The Exploratorium is a place for misfits, for people who see the world a little bit differently than the rest of the world," said Bartels. "We see things with new eyes. We can celebrate the diversity within the collection of people here. So many people come to us from nontraditional paths."

That mix of artists, scientists, tinkerers, and aspiring engineers, said Bartels, "is part of the secret of the Exploratorium."

Welcoming place

It has long been a welcoming place for LGBT people, said class=storydateline>Kurt Feichtmeir, a gay man who is the Exploratorium's director of extended learning and has worked there for 30 years. When he and his then partner, who also worked there, wanted to build a float for the 1981 Pride Parade on behalf of their country western dance group, Feichtmeir recalled that founder Frank Oppenheimer made no objections to their using the museum's machine shop.

"I think he was not totally sold on the gay thing but he did come around, as did the whole organization," said Feichtmeir, whose first partner, Jad King, died from AIDS on February 14, 1985.

Several years later Feichtmeir was part of the team that launched the Exploratorium's groundbreaking exhibit about AIDS. One aspect of the show featured the stories of people from nearly 30 local AIDS agencies.

"It showed the human face of the epidemic and the response to the epidemic," said Feichtmeir. "It really felt like we had come a long way."

The video is one way for the Exploratorium to spotlight its embracing diversity, said Diana Buchbinder, 58, a lesbian who is its human resources director.

"We are dedicated to being accessible to everyone. Making this video allows us to show those things we say in our mission statement reflects the work we do and the people we attract," said Buchbinder, who in 1999 pushed the Exploratorium to become one of the first museums in the country to offer domestic partner benefits to its employees. "We have worked really hard to make benefits fair and equal."


A core group of seven people helped determine what course to take with the video and ensure it adhered to the project's focus.

"We did not want this to turn into a marketing tool for the Exploratorium. This is about staying true to the project and reaching teens who need help," said Barnett, who has known several straight people who committed suicide.

The video is six minutes and 19 seconds long and splices together personal testimonials from a select group of LGBT staffers. It ends with a group shot of nearly 100 employees who shout, "It gets better."

"What was touching for me were the emails from staff about their experience being bullied as a teen. I had emails even from people who are not LGBT but were bullied because they were perceived as being LGBT," said Barnett. "We have a place where those misfits and people who don't feel like they fit in come here and find a home."

Barnett said she has had past jobs where she didn't feel accepted as an LGBT staffer.

"To come here and after only one year be allowed to run with this project has made a huge difference in my life where I could be myself," she said. "It sounds like a plug for the Exploratorium, but it isn't. Often you feel like you have to hide something in some way and I don't feel like that here."

Housed at the Palace of Fine Arts adjacent to the Presidio, the Exploratorium has long worked with youth. Oppenheimer recruited high school students to serve as docents and help explain exhibits to visitors. Called the Explainer Program, upwards of 100 high school students, some who identify as LGBT, are recruited each year for the program.

Ryan Ames, 29, who manages the Explainer Program, is gay and took part in making the video. Growing up in rural Maine, he said his classmates in high school would often talk about going to the local gay bar with baseball bats.

"It made it very uncomfortable for anyone coming out," he recalled.

 Even if the video only helps one LGBT youth in knowing they are not alone and that there is support out there, Ames believes it will have been worth the effort. He said it is incumbent upon LGBT adults to speak up and offer assistance to the community's next generation.

"I have no idea who it is going to help, but I want it to help whoever it reaches," he said. "I just hope it really gets the point across. I hope it helps somebody."

Barnett said she hopes it does make an impact.

"If one teen clicks on ours and it helps them not to commit suicide or get through the day, then great," she said. class=storydateline>

The video project has already had an impact on the LGBT staff, who until now had never thought of forming an LGBT employee group. It wasn't until they started working on the video that they realized just how many LGBT people work at the Exploratorium.

"People kind of came out of the woodwork," said Feichtmeir.

Another discussion that has emerged out of the video collaboration is what the Exploratorium can do to connect with the LGBT community on an ongoing basis. Ideas include taking part in the city's Pride festival and hosting events marketed to the LGBT community.

"One question is how to design programming more inclusive of different families," said Barnett, who has taken part in panels looking at making museums more LGBT inclusive during the annual conference for the Association of Science and Technology Centers. "For instance, when you host a family day making sure people know it is open to single parents, same-sex parents and grandparents who are raising their grandchildren."