Tyler Clementi was just a few weeks into his first semester at Rutgers University in September 2010 when his roommate used a webcam to stream — without Clementi’s knowledge — live video of Clementi kissing another man, launching a wave of ridicule and shaming online. A few days later, Clementi went to the George Washington Bridge, jumped off, and died.
Now, a Democratic group of lawmakers in Congress is pushing a bill that, they hope, will help prevent this kind of bullying from happening again.
For the first time, the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act of 2017 would require that colleges and universities receiving federal aid — which encompasses nearly all such schools — establish and distribute an anti-harassment policy that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and religion, on top of already protected categories like race, color, national origin, disability, and sex.
The bill would also explicitly recognize cyberbullying as a form of harassment banned under the law. And it would set up a “competitive grant program” encouraging higher education institutions to initiate, expand, or improve anti-harassment programs.
The bill aims to fill part of a gap in civil rights law: As it stands, most states’ laws and federal law do not explicitly protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in any setting, from work to school. And although some universities have policies protecting LGBTQ people from bullying, it’s not legally required for them to do so. The 2017 bill aims to encourage more schools to find what works best to prevent bullying and harassment, enact such policies, and more stringently enforce them.
Trump’s administration has inspired a renewed push for the bill
The bill is particularly important, lawmakers and LGBTQ advocates say, at a time when there are increasing reports of harassment against people in schools based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, and more. They argue that President Donald Trump’s administration has fostered an environment in which this kind of hate is more tolerated — by, for example, rescinding a guidance that asked public schools that get federal funding to respect transgender people’s rights and protect them from discrimination.
“Especially now, with a bully-in-chief in the White House, we need to make it clearer than ever that this kind of behavior simply should not be accepted,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) said in a statement. “No student should ever have to fear discrimination and harassment in their pursuit of education, no matter who they are, what they believe, or who they love.”
The bill has support from Clementi’s parents and a several LGBTQ advocacy groups, including HRC and GLSEN. Sens. Murray and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), as well as Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), are pushing for the legislation in Congress. The effort goes back to 2011, but legislators think it’s gained new impetus due to reports of rising acts of hate after Trump’s election.
Even before Trump, there’s long been evidence that bullying and harassment against LGBTQ students was already pretty bad. Approximately one in four LGB students and one in three trans students face harassment in college due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, according to a 2010 survey by Campus Pride.
A Human Rights Watch report, looking at K-12 schools last year, also found 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.” Rates are estimated to be even worse among trans youth.
In most states, the law doesn’t protect LGBTQ people from harassment and discrimination
There’s no solid data on states’ and local institutions’ higher education policies for bullying and harassment. But generally, state and federal laws don’t protect LGBTQ people from discrimination.
For example, most states do not have laws that protect LGBTQ people from bullying or harassment in schools. In fact, some states have laws that explicitly prohibit school districts from protecting LGBTQ students, as well as laws that forbid discussing LGBTQ issues in the classroom. These laws generally apply to K-12 schools, but they also show the kind of legal atmosphere that all LGBTQ students currently live in.
Similarly, LGBTQ people aren’t explicitly protected under most states’ laws or federal law from discrimination in the workplace, housing, and public accommodations. This means that a person can be fired from a job, evicted from a home, or kicked out of a business just because an employer, landlord, or business owner doesn’t approve of the person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Some advocates argue that federal law should already protect LGBTQ people. They say that bans on sex discrimination, which exist under federal law, should cover LGBTQ people, because discrimination against someone based on his sexual orientation or gender identity is fundamentally rooted in sex. For example, if someone discriminates against a gay man, that’s largely based on the expectation that a man should only love or have sex with a woman — a belief built on the idea of what a person of a certain sex should be like.
But not all courts have legally validated this argument. So for the time being, LGBTQ people aren’t explicitly protected under the law — leading lawmakers to push a bill for anti-LGBTQ harassment in college to fill at least one part of this large void in civil rights law.