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Anti-Gay Harrassment Still Strong in High Schools

New America Media, News Report, Carolyn Goossen Posted: Oct 27, 2008

Editor's Note: On Nov. 4, Californians will vote on Proposition 8, a state measure that would eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry. But even though same-sex marriage has been legal in the state since June, LGBT youth continue to experience harassment, and to fight back against it. Carolyn Ji Jong Goossen writes for New America Media.

Last year, students at her high school threw a bottle at Nina Almero, poured soda into her purse, called her names and spread rumors about her. Their bullying and harassment, Almero says, was a result of her high visibility as president of the school's Gay and Lesbian Student Alliance, and because she is out as bisexual in her Valencia, Calif. school.

Despite the harassment, Almero, 16, remains a passionate advocate for the gay student alliance in her school and in her life. "Having the GSA is really important," she says. "Even though some kids are scared to be there because if you go to GSA you are labeled LGBT, it's always nice to know there is a safe space for you."

While gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have achieved major gains over the last decade -- California and Massachusetts both allow same-sex marriage -- in many fundamental levels of daily life, prejudice persists and violence continues to threaten students like Almero.

That is the basic finding of a survey released last week by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a New York-based policy and advocacy nonprofit. The network's National School Climate Survey, which is the only national survey that regularly tracks LGBT young people's experiences in school, indicates that schools are resistant to changing attitudes.

The survey of 6,209 middle and high school students found that nearly nine out of 10 LGBT students (86.2 percent) had experienced harassment at school in the past year.

The survey also found that three-fifths (60.8 percent) felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and about one third (32.7 percent) skipped a day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe.

Kevin Jennings, director and founder of GLSEN, says that high levels of harassment and feelings of fear among LGBT students nationally have remained largely unchanged since 1999, when the survey was first conducted.

Yet the world looks different today than it did in 1999. It was less than six months ago that the fight for same-sex marriage was won in California. And today, as the debate rages around Proposition 8 -- a ballot measure to prohibit same sex marriage -- large numbers of high-profile people and organizations across California are openly voicing their support for equal rights for the gay community.

Jennings says that in spite of positive change in the broader society, schools aren't experiencing comparable progress. "Still, not enough places are doing the right thing to move the national needle," he says. "Only 11 states have comprehensive anti-bullying laws that include specific mention of sexual harassment and gender identity. And only 20 percent of students said they had any curriculum that dealt with LGBT concerns." Moreover, he says, any change is accompanied by resistance. "As we've seen throughout history, more visibility brings more attacks."

"Even though a lot of kids at my school aren't even old enough to vote, they still voice their opinions a lot," says Almero. "A lot of kids say, 'I would vote yes on Prop. 8 because [gay marriage] is just wrong.' I hear verbal harassment toward LGBT students everyday."

Almero asserts that her school environment is hostile to LGBT students, a reflection of what she sees as the anti-gay sentiment common in the larger community.

Almero lives in a predominantly Mormon, "pro-Proposition 8" community, not far from Oxnard, Calif., which made headlines eight months ago when Lawrence King, an openly gay 15-year old, was shot and killed by a classmate at E.O. Green Junior High School after suffering months of bullying and harassment.

"I haven't seen as much physical harassment in our school," she says, "but it is still something I worry about because we are so close to Oxnard."

The GSLEN survey also identifies factors that have helped to create a more positive and safe school climate. "The survey shows that interventions like Gay Straight Student Alliances and teacher education do work," says Jennings. "It also reinforces the basic issue that these kids don't feel safe at school, and kids who don't feel safe can't learn. I think this message is so compelling that it will cause schools to do the right thing."

Jennings founded the first Gay Straight Alliance 20 years ago as a high school teacher who had just come out. A student told him she wanted to start a group. He was surprised at first, because he often saw her making out with a boy in the hallway. "But then she told me, 'My mother's a lesbian, and I'm tired of families like mine being put down at this school.'"

Today, there are 4,200 Gay Straight Alliances across the country -- 20 percent more than last year -- registered with GLSEN. As members of the network, these student-led groups can access resources and information to help them cope with the hostility they face in school.

Students in schools with a Gay Straight Alliance say they hear fewer homophobic remarks, experience less harassment and assault because of their sexual orientation and gender expression, feel less unsafe at school, and are more likely to report incidents of harassment and assault to school staff.

Almero herself, with the support of other students in her alliance, has filed four complaints about her harrassment with the school administration. But nothing has happened. "I don't know what the administration has done with any of those complaints. I have heard nothing back from them," she said in a phone interview. The school's principal did not respond to calls for comment on Almero's complaints.

The lack of response from the administration echoes a common theme in the national survey. The study shows that the majority of young people don't tell anyone when harassment occurs, or that nothing happens when they do report it. Sixty percent of students don't even bother to tell anyone, and the majority of them say it's because nothing will happen anyway, or that when something does happen, it doesn't help much.

Jennings blames a lack of teacher education. "As someone who was a teacher for 10 years, I know that people don't go into teaching for money. They go into it because they care about young people," says Jennings. "Most people don't do anything because they don't have the training to deal with this [kind of harassment]. They are nice people but they don't have a clue."

Almero doesn't anticipate that much will change at her school this year. But she is not deterred. "This year won't be easier," she says, "but we'll be a lot more prepared for what is to come."


What You Can Do If You Feel Your Child May Be Harassed At School

Tips provided by Kevin Jennings, director and founder of GLSEN (Gay and Lesbian Education Network).

1. Raise the issue with your kids

Students usually will not tell their parents that they are being harassed -- they are ashamed and embarrassed. So it's good for parents to raise the question directly, and do it in a way that doesn't put the young person on the spot. "Do you ever see kids being bullied at school? Where does it happen?" If asked, young people will talk about it, but they won't do it on their own. You can say, "I've heard of people being harassed because of their race, sexual orientation, their size" and when you include sexual orientation in the laundry list, it may indicate to them that you are wiling to listen.

2. Make it clear to the school that you are not going to tolerate your child being harassed.

Go to the principal, and let him or her know that you are watching. "Principals live in fear of parents," says Jennings. "They generally don't have tenure positions like teachers, and parents can have a say over their future."

Related Articles:

Just Say No: A God-fearing approach to Californias Proposition 8

Editorial: Gay Marriage, Abortion on the California Ballot

Get Us to the Church on Time Gays Rush to Marry Before November

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