Authors: Kelly Huegel
Tags: #Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth
In 2009, 14-year-old Jacob Sullivan, with the help of the New York Civil Liberties Union, filed suit against the Mohawk Central School District on the grounds that the school district allegedly failed to protect Jacob against ongoing and relentless harassment, physical abuse, and threats of violence based on Jacob's sexual orientation and nonconformity with masculine stereotypes. “People always make fun of what they don't understand, but the school has a responsibility to protect people,” Jacob is quoted as saying in an interview. “I shouldn't have to fear for my safety at school. No one should.” On March 29, 2010, the court reached a settlement that awarded Jacob $50,000 from the school district. The school district also was required to pay $25,000 in legal fees to the New York Civil Liberties Union and to pay for professional counseling for Jacob.
The National Safe Schools Improvement Act, introduced in the 111th Congress and in the Senate in August 2010, would amend the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act (part of the No Child Left Behind Act) to require schools and districts receiving federal funds to adopt codes of conduct that specifically prohibit bullying and harassment, including on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The Act would also require states to report data on bullying and harassment to the Department of Education.
Find Legislative Updates
Human Rights Campaign
For updates on the status of bills currently under debate and more information about GLBTQ-related legislation, visit the HRC website. You'll discover that the legislation discussed in this book is just the tip of the iceberg. Many more GLBTQ-rights bills are being considered at the state and federal levels.
If you've ever been singled out verbally or physically because you're GLBTQ (or perceived to be), you're not alone. According to the “2009 National School Climate Survey” conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), nearly 60 percent of students reported feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and more than a third felt unsafe because of their gender identity or gender expression. In addition, 40 percent of GLBTQ students surveyed reported experiencing physical harassment (such as being blocked from walking down the hall), and nearly 19 percent reported being physically assaulted (punched, kicked, etc.) at school in the last year because of their sexual orientation.
The anti-GLBTQ bullying epidemic came to national attention in the fall of 2010 after a series of young gay people committed suicide. In many cases, they had been victims of anti-queer bullying. One of the most publicized deaths was that of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman whose roommate posted a video of him in an intimate encounter with another male and sent messages encouraging others to watch. Clementi committed suicide after finding out what his roommate had done. His death drew attention to the skyrocketing rates of bullying and harassment occurring in schools.
“When I was in the 11th grade and being harassed constantly, the teacher did nothing. I think that she should have.”
Legislators, parents, educators, and various activists continue to debate about whether to provide young people with access to information about GLBTQ people. Advocates suggest that giving students positive and accurate information about GLBTQ issues will reduce bullying and harassment of those who are or who are perceived to be GLBTQ. Opponents claim that these efforts encourage and promote queerness. This belief hearkens back to one of the commonly held myths about GLBTQ peopleâthat we “recruit.” (See “
Myths and Generalizations About GLBTQ People
” for a list of mythsâand the truthâabout GLBTQ people.)
Many groups, including GLSEN and PFLAG, have “safe schools” movements where adults and teens work together to make school environments safer for young people who are or who are perceived to be GLBTQ. Often these groups work to institute anti-bullying policies that include harassment based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. In a study commissioned by GLSEN, 80 percent of parents favor expanding existing antiharassment and antidiscrimination policies to include GLBTQ students. The study also showed that 80 percent of parents support teacher sensitivity trainings on tolerance that include instructions on dealing with gay and lesbian harassment in schools, 63 percent favor including positive information about gays and lesbians in middle and high school health and sex education classes, and 60 percent favor including information about transgender people in those forums.
It's a tough battle, but these efforts have resulted in real accomplishments. Some school boards have added sexual orientation and gender identity to their codes of conduct. That means students, faculty, and staff are barred from discriminating against others who are or who are perceived to be GLBTQ. These rules usually already include descriptors such as race, gender, religious affiliation, disability, and more.
Bullying vs. Harassment:
What is the difference between bullying and harassment? It can be hard to tell because both involve behavior that is intended to undermine, victimize, humiliate, threaten, or harm someone. The primary difference is that whereas harassment could be a single incident (or a few isolated incidents), bullying generally involves repeatedly and directly targeting an individual with malicious behavior over time.
Some schools sponsor assemblies to educate students about GLBTQ people, while others now allow gay pride month displays. Some students form gay-straight alliance clubs (GSAs) to educate others in their schools and work for change.
In 2010, GLBTQ Online High School (
) opened its virtual doors. In addition to providing a full online education for students, the school is reaching out to traditional public schools and helping provide information on and tools for creating a more supportive and safer learning environment for GLBTQ students.
A large “safe schools” movement is underway to end bullying and help GLBTQ students feel welcome and secure at school, but if you're being bullied or otherwise discriminated against now, it might feel like it will be forever until things change at your school. What can you do to advocate for yourself?
A More Inclusive Pride Celebration:
In 2000, President Bill Clinton proclaimed June to be gay pride month in the United States. In 2009, President Barack Obama proclaimed June to be national GLBT pride month, expanding recognition to bisexual and transgender people.
Understanding homophobia and where it comes from is one thing; figuring out what you're going to do about bullying or harassment is another.
Prejudice can show itself in many ways. A GLBTQ teen might be cut from a sports team or dubbed a “troublemaker” by teachers. An administrator could turn a blind eye to bullying or tell a student that he brought it on himself. There are a number of possible ways to react to such incidents, ranging from ignoring them to confronting the people involved.
Dealing with ongoing harassment and ignorance can make you feel scared, isolated, depressed, angry, or just plain worn out. Sometimes it may feel like fighting homophobia is an uphill battle, like things will never get better. Even if you feel comfortable with being GLBTQ and good about yourself overall, facing regular harassment can be demoralizing.
“Daily, more and more people would use those wordsâ
fag, homo, queer, sissy.
Eventually things moved from not only words, but also to violence and pranks. The word
was written on the locker next to mine because someone made a mistake about my locker number. People put gum in my hair, stuck papers on my back, and threw things at me. There was physical violence and death threats. The school did âthe best they could do,' as they put it. In my mind, little was done.”
As you'll see in the sections that follow, you can address homophobia in many ways. Regardless of how you decide to handle it, it's important to remember that you're not to blame for the bad treatment you're receiving, and you're not alone in experiencing homophobia.
Homophobia is not about youâit's about other people.
Even if you understand that homophobia isn't your fault, it can still hurt. It's important to engage in activities that make you feel good about yourself. Writing, drawing, dancing, working out, or hanging out with friends are all great options. Take time to check in with yourself every so often to make sure that homophobia isn't hurting your self-esteem. For more information on being healthy and feeling good about who you are, see Chapter 8.
In addressing homophobia, it's important to understand that you can't control the words and actions of other people. So focus on what you can control, which is your response to those words and actions. In determining how best to respond, consider several issues.
Safety must be your number one concern. Before you decide how to react to homophobia, assess the situation.
1. Is the person merely being ignorant? Or do they mean to do you some kind of harm? Sometimes it's hard to tell, sometimes it's fairly apparent.
2. Is the person aggressive with her words or body language? Is she threatening you, using a threatening tone, or moving closer to you? Don't discount your gut instinctâit's usually your best indicator. If you feel even the least bit afraid, proceed with caution.
3. Has this person harassed you before? If so, has there been an escalation in the harassment? (Perhaps a taunt in the hallway has turned into shoving or worse.)
4. Are you alone or do you have friends with you? Is there an adult nearby who could help?
5. Where are you? Can you get away? It's important to always know where your exits are.
Homophobia stirs up a lot of emotions. Even so, it's important to look at the situation rather than react based on your feelings. Maybe the girl in your class wasn't trying to be mean when she made that comment, she just didn't realize how it sounded. But the bully who throws stuff at you might become increasingly violent in the future.