Do Schools Fail Gay and Lesbian Youth?

Sitting in my office three years ago, I took a phone call from Kate Frankfurt, then the advocacy director of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network. She asked me if Human Rights Watch would report on the violence and discrimination that many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students face in school.

It's estimated that between 5 and 6 percent of school-age youth in the United States are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Kate told me that many of these youth are relentlessly harassed in school, making each day an exercise in survival.

As a result of that phone call, a colleague and I spent 13 months interviewing 140 gay youth in seven states about their school experiences. We learned that harassment takes many forms—taunts, food thrown in the face, obscene notes or graffiti, the destruction of personal property. If it's not addressed from the start, it may escalate into unwelcome sexual advances or brutal physical attacks. Our report calls for school districts to develop much stronger policies on protecting these vulnerable students.

From Pranks to Abuse

"It was small pranks at first, like thumbtacks on my chair. Or people would steal my equipment," Zach C., a student in Texas, told me. "Then things elevated. I'd hear 'faggot' and people would throw things at me. They'd yell at me a lot. One time when the teacher was out of the room, they got in a group and started strangling me with a drafting line. That's about the same consistency as a fishing line. It was so bad that I started to get blood-red around my neck, and it cut me." Later in the school year, his classmates also cut him with knives. On another occasion, he reported, "I was dragged down a flight of stairs by my feet."

Lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are nearly three times as likely as their peers to have been involved in at least one physical fight at school, three times as likely to have been threatened or injured with a weapon at school, and nearly four times as likely to skip school because they feel unsafe, according to a 1999 survey administered to Massachusetts students.

Girls and boys are harassed in different ways, we found. "Gay men get more physical threats; female students are more likely to get sexually harassed and be threatened with sexual violence," Dahlia P. told me in Texas. "We'll hear things like, 'I can make you straight' or 'Why don't you get some of your girlfriends and we can have a party.'"

The High Cost of Harassment

Constant discrimination, harassment and violence take a tremendous toll on youth. "It weighs on you like a ton of bricks," Lavonn G. said to me when we spoke in Austin, Texas. Beth G., a Boston graduate, said of several months of repeated verbal threats, "I realized, it's affecting me at school; it's pushing me out of classes."

With many experiencing such abuses on a daily basis, it's not surprising that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth are more likely than their heterosexual peers to use alcohol or other drugs, engage in risky sexual behaviors, or run away from home. They are two to three times more likely than straight youth to attempt suicide.

Inadequate Response

The most common response of schools to harassment, according to the students we interviewed, is no response at all.

"I reported it," one Georgia student said. "I took a folder, wrote down the dates and times every time I was harassed. I took it down to the principal. He said, 'Son, you have too much time on your hands to worry about these folks. I have more important things to do than to worry about what happened two weeks ago.' I told him, 'I wanted to give you an idea of what goes on, the day-to-day harassment.' He took the folder away from me and threw it in the trash. That was my freshman year, first semester. After that I realized [the school] wasn't going to do anything."

We also heard numerous accounts of teachers and administrators who refused to act to protect students out of the belief that they get what they deserve. The director of a Houston group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth described a case involving a boy who openly identifies as gay at school. "The harassment began to get physical," she told us. "The assistant principal told him that if he didn't walk around telling people he's gay, there wouldn't be any problems."

And even more disturbing were the cases we heard of teachers and administrators who actually take part in acts of harassment. "Once you see a role model degrading you, it tears you apart," said one Massachusetts girl.

Not Just a Kid Problem

Discussions of antigay violence in schools often focus on the kids who commit these abuses, failing to consider the responsibility of teachers and other school officials to maintain a safe learning environment for everyone.

The help of teachers and other adults is critical to ensure that students are safe in their school and able to enjoy their right to an education. In virtually every case where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students reported to Human Rights Watch that their school experience has been positive, they attributed that fact to the presence of supportive teachers.

It doesn't take much for gay youth to feel supported. Students told me that small things, such as a few words of acknowledgement, a gesture, the tone of a teacher's voice, or seeing a poster on a classroom wall were immensely helpful to them.

Teachers' Fears

But even teachers who are themselves lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender admitted to us that they do not always stand up for students who are being harassed, telling us that they feared losing their jobs if their own sexual orientation became known.

Their fears are well-founded. Only 18 states and the District of Columbia prohibit discrimination in public employment on the basis of sexual orientation. Eleven states and DC prohibit such discrimination in private employment.

Transgender individuals are even less likely to have legal protection from discrimination. Minnesota and D.C. are the only jurisdictions that explicitly prohibit gender identity discrimination in private employment. Iowa provides this protection to its state employees, and a recent New Jersey court ruling extends the state's civil rights law to protect against discrimination against transgender persons.

Students recognize the pressures that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teachers face. When I asked a New Jersey youth group whether there were any openly gay teachers in their schools, several students criticized one of their teachers for not being out in the classroom. Paul M., 17, responded, "That's his job, man. That's his way of paying the bills. He's scared." Miguel S. agreed. "That's his personal life. What he does at school shouldn't be about that."

But youth comment that they would benefit from having openly gay teachers and other role models. "It definitely helps to have teachers who are out," said Erin B., an eighth-grader in Georgia. "You know that you're not alone."

Education Is a Right

Our findings aren't news to anybody in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. In fact, they're pretty much what Kate described in our first phone conversation, borne out by hundreds of hours of interviews with youth and adults across the country.

But many heterosexual adults are surprised to hear behavior they think of as "name calling" characterized as a human rights violation. And that's what it is—a violation of student's right to an education, the right to be free from physical and mental violence, and the right to nondiscrimination and equal protection of the laws.

The failure to address antigay harassment and violence affects the education of all students, not only those who are harassed, by sending youth the message that it is permissible to hate.


by Michael Bochenek





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