George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Scared Not to Be Straight: Harassment of LGBT Teens Prompts Antibullying Initiatives

Gay students seek protection from bullies.

January 10, 2008
Credit: Getty Images

Some of us -- labeled too short, too heavy, not cool, or overly nerdy -- know what it is to be teased or bullied at school. Some derision can be shrugged off, but when harassment becomes the defining element of academic life, it is essential to have somewhere to turn or someone to rely on.

For Elizabeth, a bisexual teen from Maryland who wishes to remain anonymous, life at school was misery. "My freshman year, only once did a teacher ever stop someone saying, 'That's so gay!'" she recalls. "No one ever stopped the kids." Not knowing how or where to find help, Elizabeth became discouraged. "I didn't talk to as many people as I might have," she admits, "because I didn't want to get to know somebody who wouldn't accept me if I were gay."

In a recent national survey of more than 3,400 gay and straight students and 1,000 educators, 65 percent reported verbal abuse or physical assaults rooted in homophobia and prejudice in the last year. Commissioned by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) , the Harris Interactive Survey also indicated that 84 percent of those surveyed reported hearing derogatory remarks such as "faggot" or "dyke" at school, and nearly 70 percent reported hearing "gay" used in a derogatory manner.

In addition, almost 38 percent of students polled said that they had "frequently or often" been subjected to harassment at school and one-fourth said they had been physically harassed because of their sexual identity.

"This is not a fringe issue that affects a few kids," says Kevin Jennings, founder and executive director of GLSEN, a national organization for gay and straight students as well as supporters and school administrators. "It is a problem at the center of bullying and harassment in schools." Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association (NEA), says on the topic, "It is absolutely critical that the school environment is conducive to learning. To the extent that does not happen, we need to take steps to try to ensure that for all kids."

Though school presents challenges to all students, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students face many pressures and problems their fellow students do not. As a result, the GLSEN survey found, the LGBT students are five times more likely to skip school and are only half as likely to pursue postsecondary education, mainly because, like Elizabeth, they feel alienated and unsafe.

The survey also notes that the average grade point average for LGBT students who were harassed was half a grade lower than that of other LGBT students (2.6 versus 3.1). In fact, many simply do not attend as many classes even when they are enrolled. "There are a whole range of bad outcomes educationally," Jennings says. "The climate is a direct result of the failure of policy makers to deal with it."

Weak Alliances

GLSEN and its partner programs are working hard to keep this issue in the public eye and on state and federal political agendas. Meanwhile, many students are seeking to create gay-straight alliances and other organizations at their schools to offer support and camaraderie to LGBT students. "These alliances can be a powerful force for change in schools, as well as providing a safe place for people of all sexual orientations," Elizabeth says.

Unfortunately, many of these groups face problems of their own. "My freshman year, I joined my school's rapidly deteriorating Rainbow Alliance," she adds, noting that her school would not allow this organization to be called a "gay-straight alliance." "Pretty soon, I was the only one showing up to meetings."

In Bardstown, Kentucky, about an hour south of Louisville, Nelson County High School student Leslie Bartley also has been having difficulty organizing an alliance. "It is really hard finding a teacher sponsor, because there is apparently a negative image," she says. Another reason Bartley cites for the lack of faculty support is that only about thirty of the school's 1,300 students identify as LGBT.

Even so, Bartley is determined to make a difference. "I am going to try to start a day of action and talk to teachers to work to raise awareness," says Bartley, who is also a member of GLSEN's Jump-Start team, a national union of high- school-age student supporters that works to end discrimination against LGBT students. "I am the student council secretary and a good student, so hopefully I can talk to people and help out."

Though some of these student groups deteriorate on their own, others are subject to outside influences. In Virginia, there has been an effort to pass commonwealth-wide legislation that would require students to obtain parental permission to join any extracurricular groups, including LGBT organizations. "This policy discriminates against gay-straight alliances," says Dyana Mason, executive director of Equality Virginia (EV). "It is a thinly veiled attempt to encourage school boards who do not understand the nature of gay-straight alliances."

So far, the bills have not passed the Virginia legislature, but one has been proposed each of the last three years. Each year, says EV political-committee chair David Lampo, the wording of the measure becomes more sophisticated. "Now, they talk about 'parental choice,'" he notes. "It is no longer an outright prohibition or requirement for permission slips."

This year's bill, Lampo says, proposed an opt-in policy in which students had to get permission to join any extracurricular activity. "It was a much better bill from the perspective of its opponents," he adds, "because it mandated that every district have its own policy." But the potential complications of keeping track of a number of policies and their enforcement put off school administrators, and the bill was again stalled in the state's education committee.

States Right Wrongs

In nine other states, antibullying policies have been established that specifically mention sexual orientation. In these states, which include California, New Jersey, Washington, and Wisconsin, rates of bullying, including acts of harassment based on sexual orientation, are 25 percent lower. "They send a message as to what a school will and will not accept," GLSEN's Kevin Jennings suggests.

Tyler, a recent high school graduate in Iowa, went to work with the Iowa Safe School Task Force, and attended a conference on LGBT issues convened by Governor Chet Culver. "The fact that the governor organized this shows that there are political figures who are also tired of the bullying," Tyler says.

Another supportive politician is Michigan state senator Glenn S. Anderson. After surveying fifty-six school districts across the state and finding many to be lacking any kind of harassment protections, Anderson introduced a measure that would require every school to have at least a basic form of bullying policy that covers race, religion, color, age, sex, and actual or perceived sexual orientation.

"No matter where they attend school, every child has the right to have a safe, nonthreatening environment," Anderson says. Though forty-six co-sponsors have endorsed Anderson's bill and the state board of education, the state police, and Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm support it, legislative priorities have prevented its passing thus far.

Other state legislatures appear to be waking up to this aspect of the age-old bullying issue, but many of them need reminding and support, especially when facing off against other legislative priorities or against colleagues who do not want, or don't see a need for, LGBT students to have any special protections or rights. "I need help," Anderson admits. "People need to hear from their local communities that bullying based on sexual orientation is a problem that really needs to be addressed."

That is where organizations like the Triangle Foundation come in. Since 1991, Triangle has supported the LGBT community in Michigan and elsewhere. Now the group is working on passing policies that specifically protect LGBT students. "We're trying to pass antibullying legislation that protects all kids, including LGBT youth," says Sean Kosofsky, the foundation's director of policy. By promoting a more universal policy, he suggests, the bill, which recently passed in the state House of Representatives, is more likely to have success in the state Senate.

Kevin Jennings is disappointed with the generic bullying policies being pursued in states such as Michigan and believesthat they don't have enough impact for LGBT students. Even so, many legislators and educators agree that general policies are better than no policies, and they continue to push for them in the hope that they will lead to more understanding and better treatment of LGBT students.

"Whenever we see that these policies are nonexistent, we try to work with the appropriate folks," says the NEA's Reg Weaver. "It is not where we would like it to be, but hopefully it is better than where it was."

Matthew S. Robinson is a journalist and early-childhood educator from Boston.

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