The Gay Selma

Schools ignore gay bullying at their own peril

"It can reach out and get you 24-7. I think that's really hard for youth," says Vickie Henry, senior staff attorney for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. "We've had situations with youth spending a lot of time online trying to respond to these attacks."

The same Iowa study found that gay bullying victims were less likely to go to an adult for help, especially if their parents were inclined to restrict internet access or take away their cell phones.

In an attempt to stop anti-gay harassment, Facebook has stepped up its reporting options and formed a coalition with groups such as the Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Advocates have fought in and out of court with districts that claim to be absolved of responsibility for student behavior off school grounds.

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.

Tyler Clementi's parents say that if their son's complaint had been taken seriously by his dorm's resident assistant, their son might still be alive today.

"Maybe if his RA had reported it as a crime right away, if some adults had gotten involved, the police could have assisted Tyler," Jane Clementi says. "We didn't know about it until it was too late."

They hope Tyler's story will open parents' eyes before it's too late.

"We realized that losing a child is probably the worst experience a parent can have," says Tyler's father, Joseph. "We started the foundation to remember Tyler and try to keep other parents from going through this kind of suffering that we went through."

Yet social media has also been an invaluable tool for the anti-bullying movement. After Dan Savage posted the first "It Gets Better" video, he received 200 submissions in one week. Now the campaign counts 50,000 contributions — everyone from Adam Lambert to the Los Angeles Dodgers has participated.

"I just spoke at a high school journalism conference in Seattle," Savage says. "There were thousands of high school journalists, and half a dozen kids approached me and burst into tears because of the difference 'It Gets Better' has made in their lives."


When schools tell students they can't have a same-sex prom date or wear a "Jesus Is Not a Homophobe" T-shirt, advocacy firms like the ACLU, Lambda Legal and GLAAD come to their aid. They now also have a powerful ally in the White House.

"Once Obama took office, people started really running," says Deborah Temkin, the Department of Education's research and policy coordinator for Bullying Prevention Initiatives. "We are engaged with nine other federal agencies, and I believe at last count it was 32 offices within those nine agencies all working on this issue, which is unprecedented. We came together without a congressional mandate."

Despite howls of outrage from Republicans, GLSEN founder Kevin Jennings was appointed to the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools in 2009. The Matthew Shepard Act became law, making assault based on sexual orientation a federal hate crime.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently sent what's known colloquially as a "Dear Colleague" letter to every school in the country declaring this administration would consider discrimination against LGBT students a potential violation of Title IX.

"We're seeing a much more active role by this administration," says Alison Gill, public policy manager at GLSEN. "It's started to create this tipping point."

Two days after the "Dear Colleague" letter, the Department of Justice received a complaint from Wendy Walsh. She wrote that her son was harassed from the day he came out in sixth grade until the day he hanged himself. Federal investigators took the case.

"Despite having notice of the harassment, the district did not adequately investigate or otherwise respond to it," the Office of Civil Rights concluded. "Based on the evidence gathered in the investigation, the departments concluded that the school district violated Title IX and Title IV."

New York Civil Liberties Union attorney Corey Stoughton reports that the Department of Justice was eager to help when she sued on behalf of Jacob Lasher, a gay student in the Mohawk school district of upstate New York who dropped out over violent threats from other students and harassment by teachers.

"They called us. They told us they'd been looking for a case to establish this Department of Justice's approach," she says of the DOJ. "The Bush administration never would have done this."

But no school district received as much national attention as Anoka-Hennepin in Minnesota. The district experienced nine student suicides in two years, many of them directly related to LGBT bullying. A district policy mandating that teachers remain "neutral" on topics of sexual orientation left the adults standing on the sidelines.

Six student plaintiffs told of being stabbed with pencils and urinated on in restrooms. The media frenzy culminated with a Rolling Stone article that caught the attention of celebrities including Aziz Ansari and Howard Stern.

"It was the first time anyone had taken any interest in what was actually going on," says Rebecca Rooker, whose son Kyle used to plead to come home from his Anoka-Hennepin school. "We got basically everything we asked for."

Years of denial finally ended when the district tossed out its "no homo promo" policy and agreed to five years of DOJ monitoring as well as a raft of anti-harassment precautions.

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11 comments
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?

Steve
Steve

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

Preppy6917
Preppy6917

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

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.

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 ?

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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