School of Hard Knocks
By Neil Osterweil
July 30, 2001 -- "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down," says a proverb from Japan, a nation where conformity to the social norm is prized.
In the U.S., we like to think we celebrate the individual and are tolerant of different ideas, cultures, and ways of living. But the mirror we hold up to ourselves was shattered in 1998 by the news that Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old freshman at the University of Wyoming, had been savagely beaten, lashed to a fence, and left to die on a desolate prairie outside of Laramie -- ostensibly for the purpose of robbery, but in reality for the crime of being gay.
Matthew Shepard is just one prominent example of many thousands of school-aged lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans who say their daily lives are carried out under a cloud of fear and violence. And although few suffer such extreme fates as Shepard, a majority, say human rights experts, suffer from verbal, emotional, and physical abuses each day.
'Tie the faggot to the back of the truck'
"One day in the parking lot outside his school, six students surrounded him and threw a lasso around his neck, saying, 'Let's tie the faggot to the back of the truck.' "
Dylan N. from Nevada related this experience to members of the nonprofit organization Human Rights Watch (HRW), who included it in a recent report titled Hatred in the Hallways: Violence and Discrimination Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Students in U.S. Schools.
As troubling as the incident was to Dylan, he was equally disturbed by the response from school officials:
"He escaped from his tormentors and ran inside the school. Finding one of the vice-principals, he tried to tell her what had just happened to him. "I was still hysterical," he said. "I was trying to explain, but I was stumbling over my words. She laughed."
In 1990, researchers from Columbia University reported that in a study of minority, working-class, and homosexual youths who had experienced physical assault, nearly half said the assault was gay-related, and that 41% of the girls and 34% of the boys had attempted suicide because of it.
According to a 1993 report from the Massachusetts Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, 97% of students in public high schools report regularly hearing homophobic remarks from their peers, and 53% of students report hearing such comments made by school staff.
"I was harassed in junior high and high school -- even before junior high, but junior high was when it became most intense," says Grace Sterling Stowell, executive director of the Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth (BAGLY), who served on the Massachusetts governor's commission. Her experience as a teen in the mid 1970s, she tells WebMD, included "verbal harassment, threats, being pushed around the hallway, tripped, having books kicked out of my hands, threats written on my locker."
In her 21 years with BAGLY, first as a volunteer and most recently as director, Sterling Stowell says she has heard similar stories repeated by the teens who seek the organization's support. Many students, like Dylan N., also report indifference -- or worse -- on the part of school authorities, a finding that Human Rights Watch staffers found particularly troubling.
"I would argue that any school system that allows one group of kids to be picked on sends a message to all kids that it's OK to judge and pick on [others]," says Widney Brown, co-author of Hatred in the Hallways.
Brown and colleagues found that taunts, threats, and physical abuse from their peers were only half the battle for kids who are considered to be different.
"In interviews, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth explained how teachers and administrators turned their backs, refusing to take reports of harassment, refusing to condemn the harassment, and failing to hold accountable students who harass and abuse," they write. "Some school officials blame the students being abused of provoking the attacks because they 'flaunt' their identity. Other school officials justify their inaction by arguing that students who 'insist' on being gay must 'get used to it.' And finally, some school officials encourage or participate in the abuse by publicly taunting or condemning the students for not being 'normal.'"
As the human rights champion Edmund Burke wrote in 1795, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
Who's to Blame?
Critics of studies such as the ones cited above, while agreeing that LGBT teens are subject to harassment and abuse, imply that the kids' own behavior and "lifestyle choices" are to blame.
"Never considering the possibility that homosexual behavior itself might be responsible for its documented risks, they cite the bogeyman of 'homophobia' and religious intolerance as root causes of the health difficulties of homosexuals, especially as 'repressive' social attitudes allegedly lower the self-esteem of those with homosexual tendencies," write Frank York and Robert H. Knight in an article posted on the web site of the Family Research Council, a conservative "pro-family" organization.
The FRC recently accused ABC News of bias when the program "20/20 Downtown" ran a segment on Corey Johnson from Topsfield, Mass. Corey, a co-captain of the football team at Masconomet Regional High School, came out as being gay to his teammates in his senior year, and was met with overwhelming support from friends, family, and community.
'You Should Want Your Kids to Have a Safe School'
The key to fostering tolerance and acceptance of students such as Corey Johnson, Dylan N., and others, say experts, is education and training -- and the sooner the better.
"In kindergarten, the No. 1 way to insult someone is to call him a fag. By the age of 6, they already get the message that gay is the worst thing you can be, the worst insult you can give to someone," says Pam Garramone, director of the Safe Schools Project for the greater Boston chapter of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).
PFLAG's Safe Schools Project is designed to allay fears engendered by a lack of understanding of what it means to be -- or to love someone --- who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, Garramone tells WebMD.
"Our program sends parents into the schools to tell their personal stories about what it's like to have a gay child. Kids get to see that gay teenagers -- especially the ones they're making fun of -- come from a family that loves them regardless of their sexual orientation," she says. "We think that the next time they go to make fun of that kid, they see those parents who love their child."
"Parents need to get involved -- and we can't say 'only if you're the parent of a gay kid,'" Brown says. "Parents need to get involved and understand that the impact of this is broader. You should want your kids to have a safe school, and we've got to make sure that they're mobilized against the minority of parents that are going to raise Cain [about protecting the rights of GLBT students]."
Among the key recommendations in their report, Brown and colleagues write that all school districts should ensure that their nondiscrimination policies include protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, that such policies are adequately implemented, and that staff and students receive appropriate training in tolerance and diversity. They also call on state legislatures to enact legislation to protect students from harassment and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and for the U.S. Department of Education to "monitor school districts for compliance with the principle of nondiscrimination, intervene where the policies are failing, and include sexual orientation and gender identity in any data collection tools measuring discrimination in education."
For the record, Dylan N. was shuffled from one school to the next, including an "alternative education" program for troubled and poorly performing students, and finally an adult education program, a setting where, he later learned, he would not be eligible for a diploma. He never got the education guaranteed to him by the U.S. Constitution.
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