There has been a lot of progress on LGBTQ issues over the past couple of decades, with the legalization of same-sex marriage, the spread of laws that legally protect LGBTQ people from discrimination, the inclusion of LGBTQ people in federal hate crime laws, and more and more growth in the representation of gay and transgender people in mainstream media.
But for all of these gains, a new report put out this week shows there is still a lot of progress to be made on LGBTQ issues, especially for those not quite at marrying age. “Like Walking Through a Hailstorm,” from Human Rights Watch (HRW), documents the horrifying levels of discrimination that LGBTQ kids still face in school — not just from other students but even teachers, administrators, and the laws and policies schools enforce as well.
School can be bad for all kids. But it’s particularly bad for LGBTQ kids.
“Schools can be difficult environments for students, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, but they are often especially unwelcoming for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth,” the HRW report, released Wednesday, explained. “A lack of policies and practices that affirm and support LGBT youth — and a failure to implement protections that do exist — means that LGBT students nationwide continue to face bullying, exclusion, and discrimination in school, putting them at physical and psychological risk and limiting their education.”
HRW researchers spoke with more than 350 current or former students and more than 140 teachers, administrators, parents, service providers, and advocates in Alabama, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, and Utah. They found brutal, heart-wrenching examples of abuse and bullying among nearly all LGBTQ students they talked to.
“Almost all of the students interviewed for the report reported encountering verbal harassment in their school environment, even in the most LGBT-friendly schools,” HRW found. Other studies back this up: A 2012 Human Rights Campaign report found that “LGBT youth are still more than twice as likely as non-LGBT youth to be physically attacked at school, twice as likely to be verbally harassed at school, and twice as likely to be excluded by their peers,” according to HRW.
All of this bullying takes a toll on LGBTQ kids. Citing a federal survey, HRW noted, “Data showed that an alarming 42.8 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth respondents had seriously considered suicide in the previous year, and 29.4 percent had attempted suicide, compared with 14.8 percent of heterosexual youth who had seriously considered suicide in the previous year and 6.4 percent of heterosexual youth who had attempted suicide.”
Some states have explicitly anti-LGBTQ laws
What’s worse, some policies allow or encourage anti-LGBTQ abuse. Thirty-one states don’t have laws that explicitly ban bullying based on sexual orientation or gender identity in schools.
And eight states have what are called “no promo homo laws,” which ban schools from discussing LGBTQ people and issues, particularly in a positive way. Alabama’s law, for instance, tells schools to communicate that “homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public.”
LGBTQ teachers and school administrators also aren’t safe. Most states don’t have laws that explicitly ban employers, including schools, from firing people solely due to their gender identity or sexual orientation.
So if someone finds out a teacher is gay or trans, he can be fired solely on that basis. Because of this, LGBTQ students often “lacked teacher role models,” HRW concluded.
LGBTQ students reported harassment from other students and school staff
“I’ve been shoved into lockers, and sometimes people will just push up on me to check if I have boobs,” Kevin, a trans boy in Utah, said. When he complained to school staff about his mistreatment, he said one administrator blamed him for being “so open about it.” He added, “I’ve reported slurs and they say they’re going to go talk to them, but they never do.”
In some cases, school staff actually participated in some of the bullying, according to the report. Lynette G., the mother of a South Dakota girl whose father is gay, said that when her daughter was 8, “she ran home because they were teasing her. Like, ‘Oh, your dad is a cocksucker, a faggot, he sucks dick.’ … She saw a teacher laughing and that traumatized her even worse.”
In this setting, clubs known as gay-straight alliances are often established to create a safe space for LGBTQ people. But as HRW found, school policies, staff, and parents can stand in the way of setting these up:
In each of the five states visited, students at some schools described being unable to form a GSA because teachers were unwilling to sponsor the club. Noah P., a 14-year-old transgender boy in Texas, explained: “Our school doesn’t have a GSA because none of the teachers would sponsor it.” Paolo V., a 19-year-old transgender man in Texas, said: “[W]hen we tried to get teachers for the GSA, they’d say, ‘I don’t think I can,’ or ‘I don’t want to risk it.’ You could tell that they were a little bit afraid.”
Students’ perceptions were confirmed by teachers themselves, who said they were concerned that being openly supportive of LGBT youth could cost them their jobs. Renee F., a teacher and GSA advisor in Utah, said “The first time I was approached to be the GSA advisor, I was like, I’m not tenured, I’d better not.” Sharon B., a teacher and GSA advisor in Alabama, recalled: “I didn’t know this at the time, but when I started the GSA, parents went to the school board and tried to get me fired.”
The report concluded that states should revise their policies to be inclusive toward and protect LGBTQ people. Until then, anti-LGBTQ bullying and abuse is not only common for LGBTQ students but also tacitly endorsed under state law.
If you or anyone you know is threatening suicide, please seek help: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 800-273-8255; the Trevor Project, which helps LGBTQ youth, can be reached at 866-488-7386; and the Trans Lifeline can be reached at 877-565-8860.