The Gay Selma

Schools ignore gay bullying at their own peril

The Gay Selma
Ellen Weinstein

Bottle-blond bangs swept over one eye — this, the other boys whispered, was not a man's haircut.

One of them — a popular, handsome specimen — grew particularly incensed at his classmate's new look. He formed a posse and found a pair of scissors. After locating the blond boy, the gang tackled him. The boy screamed for help, but none came. Lock by lock, his hair was lopped off.

Soon after, the boy disappeared from school. Eventually, he returned, his hair clipped short and back to its natural brown color.

Sex columnist Dan Savage, right, and his husband Terry Miller, left, appear in the inaugural "It Gets Better" video.
Sex columnist Dan Savage, right, and his husband Terry Miller, left, appear in the inaugural "It Gets Better" video.
Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi jumped to his death after he and a male date were spied on by Clement's roommate.
thetylerclementifoundation.org
Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi jumped to his death after he and a male date were spied on by Clement's roommate.

There was no disciplinary action, but the incident would forever haunt everyone involved, save for the lead attacker, Mitt Romney. He forgot about it, married a pretty girl, produced five handsome sons and made hundreds of millions of dollars. Now he wants to be president.

Gay kids have long been targets of bullying. Until recently, incidents could be laughed off as "pranks" and no one suffered any consequences, save for the gay kid. But in the last few years, that has begun to change.

Some say it started the night Tyler Clementi leapt from the George Washington Bridge. He'd just discovered that his roommate at Rutgers University had used a webcam to spy on a kiss he shared with another man. Police found Clementi's body seven days later.

Clementi wasn't the only gay kid to commit suicide that September — there were 10 in all. Asher Brown, a 13-year-old boy from Cypress, Texas, shot himself in the head with his stepfather's Beretta. Seth Walsh, 13, hanged himself in his rural California backyard just a half-hour after his mother had rescued him from a gang of bullies.

"It is a totally unnecessary tragedy for my children," says Wendy Walsh, Seth's mother. "I don't know where all the hate comes from."

Now bullies everywhere are being held to account. Dharun Ravi, the roommate who spied on Clementi, was charged and found guilty of a hate crime — last week he was sentenced to 30 days in jail. The Department of Justice brought harsh sanctions down on Walsh's school district, and the local Legislature passed "Seth's Law," making it mandatory for schools to formally investigate bullying claims. News of 15-year-old Billy Lucas' suicide inspired the creation of the "It Gets Better" campaign, a viral video series designed to show gay kids there's a better life after graduation.

"That September woke a lot of older, grown-up LGBT members to the fact that while it had gotten so much better for us out in the world, there had been the inverse effect of upping the temperature for kids in school," says Dan Savage, the alternative-weekly sex columnist who started "It Gets Better." "I really do think it shifted the culture."

The world swooned earlier this month when President Obama gave gay marriage his personal blessing, but his administration's efforts to combat bullying may actually be his more valuable contribution. Under his direction, the Department of Justice has vigorously pursued schools all over the country for failing to protect gay kids. Obama also endorsed the Student Non-Discrimination Act, a bill introduced by Minnesota Senator Al Franken to make homosexuality a federally protected class.

"It gives them sort of the same civil rights as racial minorities got from the '64 Civil Rights Act, that women got from Title IX," Franken says. "I think more people are beginning to see this for what it is. ... This is a group of people that just overwhelmingly are the victims of bullying and harassment."

When it comes to gay bullying, society seems to be experiencing something of a paradigm shift.

"I compare it to what happened in the South in the Civil Rights Movement," says Jamie Nabozny, the plaintiff in the country's first gay bullying case. "The fall of 2010 will be comparable to what happened in Selma."


Until recently, the only classroom conversation about homosexuality and kids was how to keep them separate. In the '70s, teachers were routinely fired for coming out of the closet. There was no such thing as a Gay-Straight Alliance club in school.

The arrival of AIDS in the '80s forced sex education programs to acknowledge the existence of homosexuality. That in turn triggered a righteous panic. In 1987, Republican Senator Jesse Helms took to the Senate floor brandishing a Gay Men's Health Crisis comic as part of his successful bid to ban federal funding for AIDS education materials that "promote or encourage, directly or indirectly, homosexual activities."

Eight states still have language on the law books derived from Helms' "no homo promo" policy. In Texas, state law still refers to homosexuality as a criminal offense, although the law banning sodomy was struck down in 2003. In Arizona, the law forbids schools from portraying homosexuality "as a positive alternative lifestyle."

"There was this fear that if you were talking about gay people, you were having inappropriate conversations with students about sex," says Kim Westheimer, director of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's Welcoming Schools project.

The gay rights movement began to push back in the '90s. An openly gay teacher in Boston named Kevin Jennings founded the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network to help educators who wanted to offer counsel to gay kids. In 1999, a judge affirmed that Gay-Straight Alliance clubs had a right to gather on school grounds.

1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
11 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
Joe L
Joe L

One thing is clear in the upcoming presidential election. There is a (very) stark difference in candidates on gay rights and protection that people should include in their consideration. There is Mitt Romney, himself with a history of serious gay bullying, outspoken in his opposition to gay rights and gay marriage, member of a church (some say cult) that very actively fights gay rights, and of course, there is Barack Obama who has come out in favor of gay marriage, ended "Don't ask, don't tell", stopped enforcing the unconstitutional "Defense of Marriage Act", and otherwise acted to protect gays.

For voters interested in these issues, it is really important to vote this time.

Russp
Russp

Bullying has been going on probably as long as there has been kids. In the past, the kids ignored it, fought back or went to an adult. What has changed to take it to the point kids now feel the only way out it suicide?

Preppy6917
Preppy6917

Did you miss the part where adults refused to intervene and even blame the victim?

Russp
Russp

While that may have occurred in a few instances, it's not a factor in many of the other cases that ended in a suicide. Some examples is the Rutgers student who committed suicide after his video kiss ended up on You Tube or closer to home, the young boy (I believe his name was Montana) that committed suicide in a school bathroom after being bullied right here in north Texas. They were not blamed and had family support. So I again ask what has changed to make kids feel suicide is the way to deal with bullying, whether over sexual orientation or just being a "geek", "nerd" or whatever ?

Steve
Steve

Kids are ruthless. Most kids get bullied at some point. Quit making it a fuckin' gay-only thing.

Nikki
Nikki

Your comment is exactly what the whole article was about. Ignoring a problem because you don't like the subject does not make it immaterial. I suppose when one of your kids grows up gay, you will have a whole different attitude.

Old Marshmallow
Old Marshmallow

Nikki, I'm not so sure Steve and others are ignoring the problem as much as denying its validity. He, in particular, appears to resent that gays - or those perceived to be gay - are the focus of any effort to improve their well-being. Thus, in his mode of thinking, the focus should be softened to the point that we equate the bullying endured by students for their perceived sexual orientation with that for their having a skin condition. Minimalizing harm done to others is an old and well-worn tool in the bully's workshop. So is the claim that it happens to everyone ("most kids").

I would hazard a guess that Steve would rather just have the "gay" part disappear, sort of like those who ultimately committed suicide, so he wouldn't have to be troubled by hearing about it.

AJ North Carolina
AJ North Carolina

Thanks Nikki. You are spot on. Can you imagine the howls for blood there would be, and rightfully so, if a bully or bullies said: Let's find us a nigger and beat the shit out of him. It's no different.Oh, Steve, by the way, Federal Law ensures that ALL students are guaranteed access to a Free and Appropriate public education. Rather hard to access such an education with a smashed in face or, worse, lying 6 feet under ground, wouldn't you say? Cheers, mate.

Steve
Steve

I'm not ignoring it. The best measure of equality I can offer to gay people (and my gay friends appreciate this) is to NOT single them out.

Kids are ruthless, equal opportunity offendors. Gay/black/zits/no tits/early tits/poor/rumored to have done something - - it's all fodder, it all can leave scars.

"Quit making it a gay-only thing" does not dismiss or ignore the problem. The article reveres homosexual-based bullying as WORSE than bullying for other reasons.

Quit branding being gay as a fuckin' badge of courage, it's not that big a deal.

KC
KC

Regardless of sexual orientation, bullying is taken place in schools. Though, depending on the reason the person is being bullied, may depend on them actually letting an adult be aware of the bullying taken place.

Teenagers can bully discreetly, and not all that are bullied will readily tell someone to prevent it from happening. I would be less likely to tell my parents or teachers someone is harassing me for being a lesbian, than if they were doing it because I was Hispanic, or they made fun of me being in band.

It's more personal, teenagers are already confused and going through many changes. They're barely discovering their own sexuality, and I'm sure not rushin to tell their parents or teachers they're being harassed for being gay. This keeps things hidden and causes more harm.

Any bullying not addressed that continues causes more distress. This just brings more light to it in regards to sexual orientation, because it's more in the shadows. Though the steps being taken are to stop all bullying.

TheRealDirtyP1
TheRealDirtyP1

couldn't agree with you more. I can guarantee you that gay kids aren't the only ones bullied, they make up a percentage that I'm guessing is below 25% at its highest. My kids have been bullied while riding their bus, nothing was done about it by the driver or the school principal. Threats were made to the students of some sort of school discipline. When that didn't work, as a good parent, I left work early and waited at the bus stop for them, they pointed to the kids, and I had a talk with them. Guess what? There was no more bullying after that, they didn't even look at my kids. Until you bully the bullies, it won't end. @AJ, would you suggest we start putting bullies 6 feet under?

 
Loading...