Finally: Gay Bullying Gets Recognized as a Civil Rights Issue
ILLUSTRATION BY ELLEN WEINSTEINBecky Collins, right, says her 15-year-old son, Zach King, left, was attacked and beaten in a classroom because he is gay.
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.
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 of the United States.
Gay kids have long been a target 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 Clementi shared with another man. Police found Clementi's body seven days later.
Clementi wasn't the only gay kid to commit suicide in September 2010 — there were at least 10 instances reported in the media. 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 Tehachapi 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 "bias intimidation" — 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 California Legislature passed "Seth's Law," making it mandatory for schools to formally investigate bullying claims. News of 15-year-old Billy Lucas' suicide that month inspired the creation of the It Gets Better campaign, a viral video series designed to show gay kids that there is 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 Barack 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 Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., 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 1970s, 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 Sen. 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 their law books derived from Helms' "no homo promo" policy. In Texas, sex-ed classes are required to teach that homosexuality is "not an acceptable lifestyle and is a criminal offense." 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. Kevin Jennings, an openly gay teacher in Boston, 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.
"When Matthew Shepard died, that's when folks really started to 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.
"The vast majority of LGBT youth in our sample had experienced some kind of victimization," says Dr. Brian Mustanski, the study's 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, 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 that 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 that schools use to block potentially life-saving information. In Camdenton, Mo., 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, "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, who 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 cellphone 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.
"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 cellphones.
In an attempt to stop anti-gay harassment, Facebook has stepped up its reporting options and formed a coalition with groups like 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.
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 L.A. 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 that 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.
"This is a groundbreaking, historic agreement that will be used as a model across the country to deal with these issues," says attorney Zachary Stephenson, who helped represent the students.
One of the conditions of the settlement is that Anoka-Hennepin is required to hire several consultants on sex discrimination and mental health. In the running for one of those positions is Jamie Nabozny, who has firsthand experience. Growing up in small-town Wisconsin, he was shoved into lockers, urinated on and beaten so badly that he had to have stomach surgery.
In 1996, Nabozny sued the school's administrators. His bully took the stand and testified that their principal knew about the violent abuse. The jury found that Nabozny deserved equal protection based on sexual orientation under the U.S. Constitution and awarded him almost $1 million.
"That hadn't been done before," says Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director at Lambda Legal, the firm that represented Nabozny. "And still we're lacking a federal law that is specific on protection for students on the basis of sexual orientation."
Nabozny realized how little had changed since his experience and started speaking in schools two years ago. He has since received apologies from former classmates and even the children of his bullies.
"A lot of people in the country don't care if gay people have the right to marry — they didn't think too much about LGBT rights," Nabozny says. "Then people saw kids were killing themselves and said, 'Wait a minute, this isn't OK.' "
On a recent evening, Nabozny looked skeptically at his reflection in a multifaceted mirror. He was dressed in a sleek black tuxedo coat.
"Can't we just wear suits?" he begged.
"No," answered Bo Shafer, the man standing next to him, wearing a matching ivory tuxedo coat.
In September, Nabozny and Shafer are getting married in front of 150 guests, despite the fact that their nuptials will not be legally binding.
"We still have people who are very intolerant out there — they're fighting our right to be with who we want to be with, and love who we want to love," Nabozny explains.
"The marriage debate is much more heated and controversial. Protecting kids in school is not."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.