LGBT Students Remain Suicide Risks Despite Changing Attitude & Laws
Nik Castillo self-identifies as trans. "I identify with both genders, but I feel more masculine," he says. The articulate San Bernadino, Calif., high school junior was forced to relocate from another city, Kernville, Calif., because of the daily incidents. They got so bad, he stopped attending school altogether.
"I couldn't go into the bathrooms or walk the hallways without having things thrown at me or people yelling at me." recalls Castillo. "I didn't know I had any rights or know that I could go to someone and talk about it."
When he did, his gender dilemmas were met with indifference. When he told his two phys ed teachers he couldn't change in the locker rooms, "They just told me to deal with it. I though that if I went to the administration, they'd tell me the same thing." These days, "I'm educated about policies in California. I know about the complaint procedure and who I can talk to if I'm having trouble in school. I know what I can do if nothing is being done--and that's helped me a lot."
Castillo says his new school is very supportive of LGBT students. He looks back upon his earliest experiences and wishes his teachers "would have been educated and informed themselves. It was obvious I was getting harassed; some teachers were even harassing me. Someone could have told me I had rights. That would have helped a lot.
Jenny Viets, 17, a senior at Walkersville (Md.) High School, identifies as lesbian. Viets, who came out to her father a week after her fourteenth birthday, came out to her classmates when she began her freshman year at a new school. "If I got close to friends and then came out to them, it might change things," she recalls.
Viets describes her overall high school experiences as positive. But she still hears occasional negative comments. "But most," she adds, "have been from people I don't know and never had a conversation with. It shows that as you get to know those who identify as LGBTQ, you come to see they're actually people."
Viets started her school's Gay/Straight Alliance with two friends during her freshman year. Although the group is small in numbers, their recent participation in GLSN's Ally Week saw 208 out of the school's 1,200 students sign a pledge to not participate in LGBT bullying. This week, they're sponsoring an optional after school assembly featuring guest speakers who identify as trans. Viets has invited GSAs across the county to attend.
"My admin is really supportive for my area," she says. "My principle listens to what I have to say and met with me personally, and I told him what my goals were. Because we have such a great opportunity, my administration backs me, I can try to start changes that could expand to other schools in the area."
How Laws Can Help
Important anti-bullying laws to explain to list reasons a person may be tarteted, including sexual or and gender identity. Maryland is one of a handful of states that includes sexual orientation and gender identity in its bullying laws, which happened only in May 2008--in the face of opposition that the law would elevate gay students.
"Just knowing I am protected and my voice would be heard if something were to happen makes me feel a lot safer at school," Viets says. "I told everyone before we had our law, I just assumed if I was the one being victimized, someone would stand up for me, which I now know is not the case. If I had known I wasn't [protected] at that point, I would have had second thoughts" about coming out.
"A lot of it is people not targeting someone, but not realizing their words can hurt," Viets observes. "If people perceive them being weird, they're automatically called gay or queer. If a boy expresses feelings or has emotions assoc with the feminine, students will make a joke about them being a girl."
Viets experience contrasts sharply with Costillo, who luckily survived his ordeal. Many don't. Today, in at least one city, there is a school--the Harvey Milk School, run by the New York City Board of Education--where LGBT students at risk can learn in a supportive environment.
When such a school was proposed last year in Chicago (by the superintendent since elevated to a federal position in the Obama Administration), people arguments that "segregating" LGBT students wouldn't help them. No one cited any statistics about these students dropping out, hurting themselves or even committing suicide. Because, until very recently, those statistics didn't even exist.