The Gay Selma

Schools ignore gay bullying at their own peril

"When Matthew Shepard died, that's when folks really started to really pay attention to what was happening in the lesbian, gay, bisexual community outside of AIDS, and really focusing on youth," says Laura McGinnis, communications director for The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention group.

Allies of gay youth compiled research showing gay teens are overwhelmingly more likely than heterosexuals to face harassment at school. The most recent figures from GLSEN reported that 84.6 percent of LGBT students are verbally harassed. A third of gay kids had skipped school within the past month because they were afraid of their classmates.

A Northwestern University researcher just published the first longitudinal study on LGBT youth and suicide. It found that victims of bullying were two and a half times more likely to attempt suicide or hurt themselves. It also showed that even when the kids had supportive figures in their lives, harassment still correlated strongly with suicidal thoughts.

Jamie Nabozny -- who won the first gay-bullying lawsuit against his school in 1996 -- and fiance Bo get measured for wedding tuxes.
Jamie Nabozny
Jamie Nabozny -- who won the first gay-bullying lawsuit against his school in 1996 -- and fiance Bo get measured for wedding tuxes.
Becky Collins, right, says her 15-year-old son Zach King, left, was attacked and beaten in a classroom because he is gay.
Courtesy of the ACLU
Becky Collins, right, says her 15-year-old son Zach King, left, was attacked and beaten in a classroom because he is gay.

"The vast majority of LGBT youth in our sample had experienced some kind of victimization," says Dr. Brian Mustanski, the lead author and director of the IMPACT LGBT Health and Development Program. "People had spit on them or yelled at them, threatened or physically attacked them."

By the time the suicides of September 2010 arrived, the correlation between gay bullying and self-harm was becoming too obvious to ignore.

"We should no longer accept the idea that bullying is a rite of passage for young people," says Carolyn Laub, the founder and executive director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network. "What we know from years of practice on the ground is that anti-LGBT bullying and harassment and name-calling are learned behaviors, and they can be interrupted and stopped."


What gay students go through isn't bullying as it's conventionally understood.

"Those kids have not been bullied; they've been harassed," says Dr. Susan Strauss, author of Sexual Harassment and Bullying: A Guide to Keeping Kids Safe and Holding Schools Accountable. "It requires the schools to respond differently. It's important for parents to know if the school doesn't respond, they can file charges with the state's Department of Civil Rights."

In one GLSEN survey, a scant 9 percent of school principals believed anti-gay bullying was happening "often" in their schools. Nearly all of the schools had anti-bullying policies in place, but only 46 percent specifically mentioned sexual orientation. Similarly, 49 states have anti-bullying laws on the books, but only 14 of them include protection based specifically on sexual orientation or gender identity.

"You can craft that in such a way that the school has the ability to really step in with any bullying it sees, and at the same time put other schools and students on notice," says Sarah Warbelow, state legislative director with the Human Rights Campaign. "There are certain types of bullying that occur more frequently and are a huge problem, and we won't ignore it."

It's not just a matter of semantics. A growing body of research shows that students who attend schools with "enumerated" gay bullying policies heard fewer slurs and were one-third less likely to skip class. A California Safe Schools Coalition report found that kids felt safer in school when they knew they had access to information about LGBT issues.

"We know that there are things that happen in a school that make it less likely for these kinds of behaviors to be enacted," says Dr. Stacey Horn, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

That makes laws that attempt to cover up the gay bullying problem all the more insidious. States that have "no homo promo" laws on the books have significantly fewer Gay Straight Alliances. This year, "Don't Say Gay" laws gained traction in Tennessee, Utah and Missouri — they would make any mention of homosexuality in school impermissible.

And there are troubling new programs schools use to block potentially life-saving information. In Camdenton, Missouri, a school district fought back when the ACLU's Don't Filter Me Campaign asked it to dismantle web filtering software that prevented access to educational LGBT websites such as Campus Pride. In the ensuing court case, a federal judge ruled that "Camdenton's internet-filter system stigmatizes, or at least burdens, websites expressing a positive view toward LGBT issues."

Camdenton may not be the worst of it, according to Chris Hampton, of the ACLU's LGBT Project. "We got tons of reports of this going on all over the place," she says. "We even found a few schools that blocked us while 'pray away the gay' websites are accessible."


In the internet age, bullying doesn't stop when kids leave school — it continues online.

Take Zach King for example. A 15-year-old boy from rural Ohio, King was beaten so badly in a high school classroom that two of his teeth were chipped. But it wasn't until King got home and logged in that he realized the beating had been recorded with a cell-phone camera.

"It was posted to his Facebook wall," says Becky Collins, Zach's mom. "The wording was worse than the actual fight: 'Ha-ha, my cousin beat the fuck out of Zach King.'"

There's surprisingly little research on LGBT youth and cyberbullying. One small study out of Iowa State University found that of 444 mostly LGBT students, 54 percent had been cyberbullied in the last month — and 26 percent of those who had been bullied experienced suicidal thoughts as a result.

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11 comments
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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?

 
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