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Conservative 'Culture of Bullying' Keeps LGBTQ Youth From Feeling Safe

When a documentary about bullied children gets a stronger MPAA rating than a film about teenagers fighting to the death, you know something is wrong with our culture.

Handsome, outgoing and athletic, Jason is one of the "top dogs" in high school many boys want to be and many girls want to be with -- that is, if they are straight. Although he projects himself as heterosexual, with a girlfriend, Jason is secretly involved with the openly gay Eric, who is often bullied by Jason's macho friends. When their secret is revealed, Jason is forced to choose between coming out and joining the bullies to beat up the helpless and terrified Eric.

Jason's choice lies at the center of Man in the Mirror (2011), a short film that has made the short list of the first PBS Online Film Festival. The film's original screenplay was written in 2009 by Treviny Marie Colon, then a high school senior, for a Scenarios USA writing contest. Colon won the contest and her script was made into a film by Hollywood director Joel Schumacher ( The Phantom of the Opera).

During a recent conference call, Colon, now a Penn State student majoring in English and sociology, told reporters that  Man in the Mirror was based on personal experience and observation during high school. "It was happening. I saw it every day," said Colon, speaking of anti-LGBTQ bullying. It "is very old news," she added, in response to the recent media attention to the issue.

The film came out at an emotional time, with a recent spate of LGBTQ youth suicides forcing Americans to face the cruelty of bullying in schools. Seth Walsh, Jamey Rodemeyer, Justin Aaberg, Tyler Clementi and Eric James Borges -- the list of bullied LGBTQ teenagers who ended their lives is growing. ( See other cases here.) These suicides, especially the high-profile cases such as Tyler Clementi, opened up for Americans a dark reality in which LGBTQ teenagers live on a daily basis. The cases also prompted a much-needed national dialogue, of which the film is a part.

How Bad Is Anti-LGBTQ Bullying?

According to recent research from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN):

  • Eighty-five percent of LGBTQ middle and high school students reported verbal harassment, 40 percent reported physical harassment and 19 percent reported physical assaults at school during the previous year because of their sexual orientation.
  • The percentages of reported bullying because of students' gender expression are 64 percent for verbal harassment, 27 percent for physical harassment and 13 percent for physical assaults.
  • Nearly two-thirds of LGBTQ students surveyed did not feel safe at school.

According to the report, school environments for LGBTQ students have been improving at a slow pace. The report shows that between 1999 and 2009 there was a slight decline in verbal harassment and increase in LGBTQ-related support at schools. However, assault overall remained constant. Meanwhile, effective interventions and support are not available in most schools. In GLSEN's survey, only 45 percent of students reported having a gay-straight alliance at school, 53 percent could identify six or more supportive educators, and only 18 percent reported having an anti-bullying school policy.

If anti-LGBTQ bullying is not a recent " epidemic," as some media characterize it, it is undoubtedly a serious and urgent problem that is still claiming too many young lives and making many more lives miserable. And it is clear that we haven't made the progress we should have over the past decade.

Conservative Obstructions to Making Schools Safer for LGBTQ Students

As activists, educators, parents, and celebrities work to create a safer environment for LGBTQ teens, conservative organizations and policy makers continue to set up obstacles by promoting homophobia, silencing LGBTQ victims, and closing up the space for open discussion on sexual orientation, gender identity, and bullying among youth.

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