The Gay Selma: Schools ignore gay bullying at their own peril

The Gay Selma: Schools ignore gay bullying at their own peril
Illustration by Ellen Weinstein

Bottle-blond bangs swept over one eye — this, the other boys whispered, was not a man's haircut. One of them — a popular, handsome specimen — grew particularly incensed at his classmate's new look. He formed a posse and found a pair of scissors. After locating the blond boy, the gang tackled him. The boy screamed for help, but none came. Lock by lock, his hair was lopped off.

Soon after, the boy disappeared from school. Eventually, he returned, his hair clipped short and back to its natural brown color.

There was no disciplinary action, but the incident would forever haunt everyone involved, save for the lead attacker, Mitt Romney. He forgot about it, married a pretty girl, produced five handsome sons and made hundreds of millions of dollars. Now he wants to be president.

The suicide of Tammy Aaberg’s (right) son Justin inspired U.S. Senator Al Franken (center) to pen the federal Student Non-Discrimination Act.
Courtesy Tammy Aaberg
The suicide of Tammy Aaberg’s (right) son Justin inspired U.S. Senator Al Franken (center) to pen the federal Student Non-Discrimination Act.

Gay kids have long been a target of bullying. Until recently incidents could be laughed off as "pranks," and no one suffered any consequences — except for the gay kid. But in the last few years, that has begun to change.

Some say it started the night Tyler Clementi leapt from the George Washington Bridge. He'd just discovered that his roommate at Rutgers University had used a webcam to spy on a kiss he shared with another man. Police found Clementi's body seven days later.

Clementi wasn't the only gay kid to commit suicide that September — there were ten in all. Asher Brown, a thirteen-year-old boy from Cypress, Texas, shot himself in the head with his stepfather's Beretta. Seth Walsh, thirteen, hung himself in his rural California back yard just a half-hour after his mother had rescued him from a gang of bullies.

"It is a totally unnecessary tragedy for my children," says Wendy Walsh, Seth's mother. "I don't know where all the hate comes from."

Now bullies everywhere are being held to account. Dharun Ravi, the roommate who spied on Clementi, was charged and found guilty of a hate crime — last week he was sentenced to 30 days in jail. The Department of Justice brought harsh sanctions down on Walsh's school district, and the local legislature passed "Seth's Law," making it mandatory for schools to formally investigate bullying claims. The news of fifteen-year-old Billy Lucas, who hanged himself in September 2010 after being bullied by classmates in his native Indiana, inspired the creation of the "It Gets Better" campaign, a viral video series designed to show gay kids there's a better life after graduation.

"That September woke a lot of older, grown-up LGBT members to the fact that, while it had gotten so much better for us out in the world, there had been the inverse effect of upping the temperature for kids in school," says Dan Savage, the alternative-newsweekly sex columnist who started "It Gets Better." "I really do think it shifted the culture."

The world swooned earlier this month when President Obama gave gay marriage his personal blessing, but his administration's efforts to combat bullying may actually be the more valuable contribution. Under his direction, the U.S. Department of Justice has vigorously pursued schools all over the country for failing to protect gay kids. Obama also endorsed the Student Non-Discrimination Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Al Franken to make homosexuality a federally protected class.

"It gives them sort of the same civil rights as racial minorities got from the '64 Civil Rights Act, that women got from Title IX," says Franken. "I think more people are beginning to see this for what it is.... This is a group of people that just overwhelmingly are the victims of bullying and harassment."

When it comes to gay bullying, society seems to be experiencing something of a paradigm shift.

"I compare it to what happened in the South in the civil-rights movement," says Jamie Nabozny, the plaintiff in the country's first gay bullying case. "The fall of 2010 will be comparable to what happened in Selma."

Not all that long ago, the only classroom conversation about homosexuality and kids was how to keep them separate. In the '70s teachers were routinely fired for coming out of the closet. There was no such thing as a Gay-Straight Alliance club in school.

The arrival of AIDS in the '80s forced sex-education programs to acknowledge the existence of homosexuality. That in turn triggered a righteous panic. In 1987 Republican Sen. Jesse Helms took to the Senate floor brandishing a "Gay Men's Health Crisis" comic as part of his successful bid to ban federal funding for AIDS education materials that "promote or encourage, directly or indirectly, homosexual activities."

Eight states still have language on the law books derived from Helms' "no homo promo" policy. In Texas sex-ed classes are required to teach that homosexuality is "not an acceptable lifestyle and is a criminal offense." In Arizona the law forbids schools from portraying homosexuality "as a positive alternative lifestyle."

"There was this fear that if you were talking about gay people, you were having inappropriate conversations with students about sex," says Kim Westheimer, director of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's Welcoming Schools project.

The gay-rights movement began to push back in the '90s. An openly gay teacher in Boston named Kevin Jennings founded the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network to help educators who wanted to offer counsel to gay kids. In 1999 a judge affirmed that Gay-Straight Alliance clubs had a right to gather on school grounds.

Next Page »