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Gaybashing in Schools

A Human Rights Watch report has chronicled the constant abuse gay teens suffer in public schools. Conservative groups are blasting the report as pro-gay propaganda.
 
 
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In the parking lot outside his school, six students surrounded Dylan. Throwing a lasso around his neck, they shouted, "Let's tie the faggot to the back of the truck." Escaping his tormentors, Dylan ran inside the school and found one of the vice-principals. He tried to tell her what had just happened. "I was still hysterical," Dylan says. "I was trying to explain, but I was stumbling over my words. She laughed."

Everyday, thousands of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teenagers are verbally, sexually and physically harassed in America's public schools. Dominick gets to school as early as possible each morning so that he can avoid the ridicule. Derek switched high schools and wound up dropping out altogether because the harassment got so bad. Anika, a transgender youth, was subject to both physical and verbal abuse before she quit school.

"Hatred in the Hallways: Discrimination and Violence Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Students in U.S. Public Schools," a recently released report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), documents the extreme difficulties gay teens experience everyday; an abuse that is having a disastrous effect on their safety, health and education. In many cases, these teens are facing the hatred and discrimination from their classmates alone, without any support or assistance from teachers, school administrators and security officers. Some teens even say that school officials are more prone to look the other way rather than lend a hand.

The frank testimonies from gay teens that have courageously come forward to tell their stories makes this Human Rights Watch study a compelling document (www.hrw.org/reports/2001/uslgbt).

"The U.S. school system gets a failing grade when it comes to providing a safe place for gay students to get an education," said Michael Bochenek, counsel to the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch and a co-author of the report. "Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender kids face a greater risk of bullying than any other students in American high schools. That has to stop."

Derek Henkle spoke out at the Los Angeles press conference unveiling the report. Henkle, describing an all-too re-occurring scenario, said, "They'd push me up against the lockers and call me a fag. They'd chase me around campus in their cars, screaming and yelling 'fag' out the windows." Reuters news service reports that Henkle, who filed a suit against the Reno, Nevada school district, said "one day he was beaten bloody by classmates and called a 'bitch' while security officers stood by and did nothing." Henkle dropping out is not an unusual solution for many gay teens.

Sixteen-year-old Dominick Halse told ABC News' Claire Shipman that at his school in Castleton on Hudson, NY, "there was boys that said they would like to kill me and drag me behind a car, or take me to an island with all the other gays and shoot me," he says. "You don't need death threats as a child ... it's hard." Halse, an excellent student, plans to graduate a year early primarily because of the constant abuse. He's come up with different ways to protect himself from other students during the school day: "I cannot use the boys' restroom. I go to the bathroom in the nurse's office ... or there's a single restroom in the cafeteria that I go to, because you live in fear."

Anika P. is a seventeen year-old transgender youth who, according to the report, "has lived for the last seven years as a girl." A product of the Texas foster care system, Anika went to small public school in South Texas through her the first three years of high school. During that time she decided to dress as a girl and use the name she chose for herself. Harassed by her peers, she was unable to receive support from teachers or other officials who didn't understand her being transgender. "I had to quit [school] because the teachers were, like, 'You can't wear a dress, you can't wear your hair like that,'" she told Human Rights Watch. She was attacked physically once in gym class. "I'd skip [gym]. I had to use the boys' locker room; I'd have to shower in the boys' shower." Verbal threats were commonplace. "Mainly guys would be coming up to me, saying, 'What's your problem,?'" she said. They'd be, like, 'What are you going to do, faggot? You still a man? Going to kick your ass.'" Before she dropped out, school officials placed her in a special education class, supposedly for "her own safety,"

The New York City-based Human Rights Watch is not the first group to report that gay teens are seriously at risk in the nation's schools. In 1999, the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (www.glsen.org), a Washington, D.C.-based gay advocacy organization, reported that out of 500 gay teens in 32 states, 69 percent reported some form of harassment or violence against them. So, while not groundbreaking in its findings, HRW's report is important because the organization is a highly respected non-partisan international human rights advocacy group. The 203-page report, written by Bochenek, counsel to the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, and A. Widney Brown, advocacy director of the Women's Rights Division, is based on interviews with 140 youth and 130 school officials and parents in seven states -- California, Georgia, Kansas, Massachusetts, New York, Texas and Utah.

Human Rights Watch suggests a series of actions by school districts, the states, and the federal government is needed to end the abuse. Its recommendations include:

- All school district policies should explicitly prohibit harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. School districts should also ensure that these policies are implemented fully; where gaps exist between policy and practice, they should take immediate measures to close the gap by training all staff and students.

- State legislatures should enact laws to protect students from harassment and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

- The U.S. Department of Education should monitor school districts for compliance with the principle of nondiscrimination, intervene where policies are failing, and include sexual orientation and gender identity in data collection tools measuring discrimination in education.

- Federal and state government should enact legislation to protect administrators, teachers, counselors, other school staff, and all employees from discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity."

Although recent public opinion polls have found more tolerance towards gays and lesbians, there are still many who believe HRW's report either exaggerates its findings or is blatant propaganda for the so-called gay agenda. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that California is one of only five states in the nation (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Wisconsin) that "have enacted laws that explicitly prohibit harassment or discrimination against gay and lesbian students, and there is no federal law prohibiting anti-gay harassment at school." Yet despite legislation, the Chronicle notes that only a "few districts ... have taken major steps to implement the law." The law's chief sponsor, Sen. Sheila Kuehl, said that there is no statewide monitoring mechanism in place to track how the districts are doing implementing the law. She expressed her appreciation for the HRW report and hoped that students and teachers would work to guarantee that the rights of gay students would be respected and upheld.

In California, as in the rest of the country, there are a number of religious right organizations working to counter any anti-harassment efforts in the public schools. Abiding Truth Ministries (ATM), the Citrus Heights, California group headed by Sacramento attorney Scott Lively is one of the higher profile groups in the state. Lively is the author of the notoriously anti-gay book, "The Pink Swastika," which purports to "expose" the "roots of homosexuality in the [German] Nazi Party." He was recently named state director of the American Family Association of California, thus deriving more clout by being an independent affiliate of the Mississippi-based American Family Association headed by the ubiquitous Rev. Donald E. Wildmon. (You may remember the Rev. Wildmon from his 1999 failed campaign to keep the Women's Educational Media-produced film "It's Elementary" from being shown on public television stations across the country and from his current battle against WEM's "That's a Family!") Lively's Pro-Family Law Center has become "the nation's only law-centered entity devoted exclusively to opposing the homosexual agenda."

ATM's main focus this year will be its "Take Back the Schools" campaign, which aims to "eject the 'gay' movement from California schools." ATM suggests parent organize in every school district and "encourage and assist pro-family teens to form ... student clubs in public schools"; "distribute the student exemption form ... to parents to opt out their children from objectionable instruction"; "persuade every school board to adopt our equal time resolution which will require young people to be presented with our side of the issue whenever the other side is presented"; and "monitor the schools, collect documentation of anti-family abuses, identify pro-'gay' teachers, administrators and school board members and educate parents about the issue."

Bill Berkowitz is an Oakland-based freelance writer covering the Religious Right and related conservative issues and movements.