Reflections of a Rock Lobster: Gay Youth Still Fighting for Safer Schools
In 1980, a high school senior named Aaron Fricke sued his school for the right to escort his boyfriend to the prom. He won the case, was able to attend the prom with his same-sex date, and the landmark victory has been used to decide cases of prom-date disputes ever since.
Today, it seems that everywhere you look in the media there is a story about bullying. The recent proposal of a Sullivan, Indiana group to create a "traditional prom" barring gay students, and the case in Lake County Florida of a School Board’s intent to do away with all extra-curricular school clubs to avoid enacting a Gay Straight Alliance at Carver Middle School begs the question: Are we better off than we were in 1980?
"We’ve still got a lot to do," conceded Robert McGarry, director of education for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
According to GLSEN’s 2011 biennial National School Climate Survey, in which over 8,000 students aged 13-20 from more than 3,000 school districts participated, eight out of ten LGBT students have experienced harassment. Six out of ten reported feeling unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation, and many reported discriminatory practices by school personnel.
"We still see a high prevalence of LGBT discrimination in schools," said McGary. "Students still hear anti-LGBT language, and school is still a pretty hostile place for LGBT students."
So how is it, 33 years after Fricke won his lawsuit, in 2013 with our celebrity endorsements, "It Gets Better" campaigns, even the President standing up for gay rights, that LGBT students still face this kind of negative experience in school?
Many States Fail to Protect Their Students from Discrimination
Joshua Block, ACLU Staff Attorney told EDGE that in many states there is no law explicitly prohibiting discrimination in schools.
"LGBT youth are able to invoke their First Amendment rights for a source of protection and sometimes are able to get protection under Title Nine," said Block. "But we still are fighting for basic protections. We need to catch up."
Several pieces of legislation have been proposed at the federal level, to deal with these issues of bullying and discrimination including the Student Non-Discrimination Act, the Safe Schools Improvement Act, and the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act. Each of these bills was introduced to tackle the issues of bullying and discrimination by setting explicit definitions of who is protected, from what they are protected, and appropriate disciplinary actions and/or methods of intervention for students being harassed.
But currently, this type of legislation is decided at state level. Only 15 states and Washington, D.C., have enumerated anti-bullying statutes that specifically pertain to sexual orientation and gender identity, and only 13 states, plus Washington, D.C., have nondiscrimination laws that offer explicit protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
"Having clear and specific protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity has a huge impact on students," said Block.
Perhaps more alarming than the small number of states with explicit anti-bullying laws for LGBT students are the two states which have anti-bullying laws but prohibit the law from being specifically protective for sexual orientation and gender identity, and the eight that have "No Promo Homo" laws, which prohibit the "promotion" of homosexuality. In Arizona, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah, any course of action or education that could be interpreted as positively portraying homosexuality is forbidden.
"In addition to statutes, we have statutes then being interpreted by different school districts, which can cause a very broad chilling effect," said Block.
He points to the case of the Anoka-Hennepin school district in Minnesota (not a "No Promo Homo" state), named a "suicide contagion site" after nine students committed suicide between 2009-2011, the majority of whom were gay or perceived to be gay by their peers. Statutes in the school district’s policy that demanded that teachers remain neutral on the subject of sexual orientation came under harsh criticism, and the school’s policy has been updated.
"While lawmakers and administrators say they’re going to be neutral," purports Block, "It ends up chilling and disabling students, teachers, and allies from protecting kids who are being bullied and harassed."
One Utah school district removed a children’s picture book depicting three children and their two moms from all public library shelves. This seems to be a clear violation of the First Amendment, and a demonstration of censorship, but under these "No Promo Homo" policies, it is legal.
"The ACLU shares concerns that you can’t have anti-bullying laws that stifle the First Amendment rights of others," Block contended. "But the Student Non-Discrimination Act doesn’t pose any threat to the First Amendment. The important thing schools can and should have is anti-bullying clauses that protect students’ and educators’ First Amendment rights and can prevent harassment that deprives kids of getting an education."
Another critical resource for providing support and connections for LGBT students, said Block, are Gay-Straight Alliances.
"In addition to policy, having a GSA and an inclusive curriculum in schools creates positive effects for LGBT students," said McGary. "Just knowing that it exists makes the environment more positive for them."
GLSEN has a number of campaigns and initiatives that look to change the climate in schools to become more inclusive and accepting. More than 4,000 schools have registered with GLSEN’s Safe Space Campaign. Here, schools receive a kit complete with resources for educators, posters and stickers designating for students "safe" spaces and people to talk to.
"No Name Calling Week" is another initiative created by GLSEN that targets elementary and middle-schoolers around the country and aims to use education to stop name calling and bullying. GLSEN also provides training workshops for educators and community leaders.
"We work really hard to help educators to become more supportive and to give tools to teach more inclusively," said McGary.