Since the start of the school year, no fewer than six young people have taken their lives after enduring homophobic and transphobic bullying in their schools. A study by the Department of Education finds that one of every three American sixth-10th graders is affected by bullying and harassment. GLSEN’s 2009 National School Climate Survey indicates that over 60 percent of LGBTQ students surveyed felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation (probably because, as the survey also finds, about 85 percent of them were verbally harassed at school and 40 percent were physically harassed).
Whether because of a single incident of harassment or protracted patterns of it, too many young people are left feeling vulnerable and hopeless. This is as much a public-health crisis as an educational crisis, and must be treated as such. Bullied youth can suffer physical and emotional trauma that echoes well into adulthood. Youth who are bullies tend to be aggressive as adults, experiencing higher-than-average rates of arrests and incarceration. We know, of course, that these most recently publicized suicides were not the first for LGBTQ students who’d been bullied and harassed by peers, but we can strive as a community to ensure that they are the last.
To be teased and taunted, outed or threatened with outing, targeted with homophobic and transphobic epithets, assailed both physically and verbally, deliberately excluded and isolated — we call it bullying; we call it harassment. We name the behavior, we define it, and in doing so, we signify that it’s an aberration, something outside of the bounds of acceptable human interaction. But for too many young people, this is just life. For too many young people, being demeaned and tormented by classmates is an everyday occurrence. It’s part of a daily routine so embedded in our culture that it’s widely unquestioned and treated as a rite of passage that must be tolerated until at some vague, distant point in the future it will resolve itself. But patience and passivity will not make our students any safer: There are things we can do now, things that will make a difference.
In schools across our region, many students and staff members are working to create safer schools for LGBTQ youth and families. In at least 45 gay-straight alliance groups in Philadelphia, adults and young people are carving out welcoming spaces, educating peers and teachers about the impact of homophobia and transphobia, connecting with the many resources for queer youth in Philadelphia. There are brave young people every day across this country standing up and fighting back, refusing to accept a principal who says they can’t start a GSA at their public school, a school board that says they can’t wear a tux to the prom, a system that doesn’t intervene when they’ve been harassed. This is the next generation, and they are extraordinary. They also need our support.
Anyone who is concerned about this issue can contact their representatives in Congress and urge them to support both the Student Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 4530/S. 3390) and the Safe Schools Improvement Act (H.R. 2262/S. 3739). The first bill would ensure that no public schools could exclude students based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The second would amend the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act to compel all public schools to adopt effective and comprehensive policies to address bullying and harassment.
For more information on how youth and adults can help, visit the Make It Better Project at www.makeitbetterproject.org. Sponsored by the GSA Network in California and endorsed locally by Mazzoni Center, this project offers resources on suicide prevention and bullying prevention. It also provides a platform from which young people can share what they’ve been doing to make their schools safer, more welcoming places for LGBTQ students and families.
Allison Buehler is education manager at Mazzoni Center, the region’s only LGBT-specific health center. Through the Ally Safe Schools Program, Buehler works with school staff and students to help create safer climates for local LGBTQA youth.