"When Matthew Shepard died [1998], that's when folks really started to really pay attention to what was happening in the lesbian, gay, bisexual community outside of AIDS, and really focusing on youth," says Laura McGinnis, communications director for the Trevor Project, a suicide-prevention group.

Allies of gay youth compiled research showing gay teens are overwhelmingly more likely than heterosexuals to face harassment at school. The most recent figures from GLSEN reported that 84.6 percent of LGBT students are verbally harassed. A third of gay kids had skipped school within the past month because they were afraid of their classmates.

A Northwestern University researcher just published the first longitudinal study on LGBT youth and suicide. It found that victims of bullying were two and a half times more likely to attempt suicide or hurt themselves. It also showed that even when the kids had supportive figures in their lives, harassment still correlated strongly with suicidal thoughts.

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.

"The vast majority of LGBT youth in our sample had experienced some kind of victimization," says Dr. Brian Mustanski, the lead author and director of the IMPACT LGBT Health and Development Program. "People had spit on them or yelled at them, threatened or physically attacked them."

By the time the suicides of September 2010 arrived, the correlation between gay bullying and self-harm was becoming too obvious to ignore.

"We should no longer accept the idea that bullying is a rite of passage for young people," says Carolyn Laub, the founder and executive director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network. "What we know from years of practice on the ground is that anti-LGBT bullying and harassment and name-calling are learned behaviors, and they can be interrupted and stopped."

What gay students go through isn't bullying as it's conventionally understood.

"Those kids have not been bullied; they've been harassed," says Dr. Susan Strauss, author of Sexual Harassment and Bullying: A Guide to Keeping Kids Safe and Holding Schools Accountable. "It requires the schools to respond differently. It's important for parents to know if the school doesn't respond, they can file charges with the state's department of civil rights."

In one GLSEN survey, a scant 9 percent of school principals believed anti-gay bullying was happening "often" in their schools. Nearly all of the schools had anti-bullying policies in place, but only 46 percent specifically mentioned sexual orientation. Similarly, 49 states have anti-bullying laws on the books, but only 14 of them include protection based specifically on sexual orientation or gender identity.

"You can craft that in such a way that the school has the ability to really step in with any bullying it sees, and at the same time put other schools and students on notice," says Sarah Warbelow, state legislative director with the Human Rights Campaign. "There are certain types of bullying that occur more frequently and are a huge problem, and we won't ignore it."

It's not just a matter of semantics. A growing body of research shows that students who attend schools with "enumerated" gay-bullying policies heard fewer slurs and were one-third less likely to skip class. A California Safe Schools Coalition report found that kids felt safer in school when they knew they had access to information about LGBT issues.

"We know that there are things that happen in a school that make it less likely for these kinds of behaviors to be enacted," says Dr. Stacey Horn, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

That makes laws that attempt to cover up the gay-bullying problem all the more insidious. States with "no homo promo" laws on the books have significantly fewer Gay Straight Alliances. This year "Don't Say Gay" laws gained traction in Tennessee, Utah and Missouri — they would make any mention of homosexuality in school impermissible. Although Missouri's HB 2051 never got out of committee, it picked up an impressive nineteen co-sponsors.

And there are troubling new programs schools use to block potentially life-saving information. Last year the Camdenton School District fought back when the ACLU of Eastern Missouri asked it to dismantle Web filtering software that prevented access to educational LGBT websites like Campus Pride. In the ensuing court case, a federal judge ruled that "Camdenton's Internet-filter system stigmatizes, or at least burdens, websites expressing a positive view toward LGBT issues."

Camdenton may not be the worst of it, according to Chris Hampton, of the ACLU's LGBT Project. "We got tons of reports of this going on all over the place," she says. "We even found a few schools that blocked us while 'pray away the gay' websites are accessible."

In the Internet age bullying doesn't stop when kids leave school — it continues online.

Take Zach King for example. A fifteen-year-old boy from rural Ohio, King was beaten so badly in a high school classroom that two of his teeth were chipped. But it wasn't until King got home and logged in that he realized the beating had been recorded with a cell-phone camera.

"It was posted to his Facebook wall," says Becky Collins, Zach's mom. "The wording was worse than the actual fight: 'Ha-ha, my cousin beat the fuck out of Zach King.'"

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