Gay student suicides underscore problem of LGBT bullying

by Joseph Erbentraut
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Sep 14, 2010

As one Minnesota school district continues to mourn the suicides of three LGBT students within the last year, another gay teenager some 600 miles away killed himself.

Billy Lucas, 15, took his own life inside his family's barn in Greenburg, Ind., on Sept. 9. His and the other suicides point not only to bullying as a lingering issue facing many LGBT youth, but also to a culture that continues to condone anti-gay harassment and discrimination in schools across the country.

In the Anoka-Hennepin district, the largest in Minnesota, the death of 15-year-old Justin Aaberg on July 9 launched area activists into action. The district had already suffered the tragedies of two other suicides of LGBT youth within the year on the heels of a widely publicized case where two teachers conspired to harass a student who they thought was gay. Many activists feel the district should be doing more to trump up anti-bullying policies and train staff on how to address LGBT issues with they arise in the classroom.

In response to criticism, Brett Johnson, spokesperson of the Anoka-Hennepin district, issued a statement outlining steps it already taken to protect the safety of LGBT youth in their schools. Johnson said the district has worked the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network and other groups in adding LGBT themes to its anti-bullying training videos and sending key staff to attend training sessions on LGBT issues.

But Peter Gokey, spokesperson for the Gay Equity Team, a group that formed after the teacher harassment case last year, told EDGE those steps are not enough. Gokey took particular issue with the district's adherence to a "neutrality policy" on how school staff can speak of LGBT topics in the classroom. He said the policy leaves staff feeling confused on how to address gay issues when they come up, even within the context of bullying. Such a policy, Gokey said, contributes to LGBT youth feeling invisible.

"The neutrality policy erases homosexuality from existence, which is a real problem. It's not how multicultural education is done and makes gay kids feel not worthy enough to be addressed in curriculum," Gokey told EDGE.

Gokey further argued the district's claims of action misrepresent the reality facing LGBT students in Anoka-Hennepin schools. According to Gokey, the district's bullying policies do not explicitly protect students on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity and other policies on parental notification also need an update.

"Some of the efforts the district has made recently have been welcome improvements, but this really just scratches the surface of what needs to be done," added Gokey, a former teacher in the district. "How many kids need to die before these policies get yanked away? We're behind the times and we've got to drag this district into the current millennium."

Working with the local activists in the Anoka-Hennepin district are GLSEN, the Trevor Project and a number of other national groups. Phil Duran, staff attorney for OutFront Minnesota, also confirmed to EDGE his group is in conversation with activists in the district as they plan a new response to the response that will likely be more forceful.

Sobering statistics
The controversy surrounding the recent suicides in Minnesota and Indiana coincide with the release of GLSEN's biennial National School Climate Survey, which paints a sobering picture of LGBT students' safety nationwide. The survey of more than 7,000 students reported nearly nine out of 10 respondents experienced some form of harassment. Specifically, 61 percent of students felt unsafe at school due to their sexual orientation-nearly 40 percent of respondents felt the same way due to their gender expression. More than 84 percent of students were verbally harassed and nearly 19 percent of respondents reported being physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation.

The numbers mark a slight improvement over the 10 years since the organization first began collecting the data but, according to Dr. Joseph Kosciw, senior director of research and strategic initiatives for GLSEN, "it is still the minority of LGBT students who report having sufficient support in school."

And a lack of support in school-particularly when it is lacking from other sources-can have tragic results. Charles Robbins, executive director and CEO of The Trevor Project, an LGBT suicide prevention-focused organization, said the fall is often a particularly difficult time for gay and questioning youth heading back to school. He sees a marked spike in calls to their phone line. Robbins, too, sees a dire need for strong anti-bullying policies and legislation, as well as staff being trained to meet policy expectations.

"School districts will point to an anti-bullying policy and that's all well and terrific, but the reality is that lives are still being taken away," Robbins told EDGE. "This is more than just policy; education has to occur. Bullying students have to realize their words and behavior can have fatal consequences."

Only 11 states offer policies on harassment and bullying in schools that are fully inclusive of LGBT students. And neither Minnesota nor Indiana are among them.

The federal Safe Schools Improvement Act, introduced in the U.S. Senate earlier this year, has yet to gain much traction and Focus on the Family and other groups have criticized it for undermining parental rights and promoting LGBT activists' agenda in the classroom.

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to to read more of his work.


  • dennis, 2010-09-14 23:39:44

    So sad Has the worlds churches seen what they are doing teaching hate judging others. God is the only judge, churches are to bring people in and teach love teach gods word not judge people not turn them away. Not teaching to hate people that are different. Just this past week I saw a church turn a family away that had been a part of a church for 20 years because there son was gay and dead. What do you think a churches goal should be?

  • , 2010-09-16 16:09:55

    One correction: Billy Lucas never came out as gay; he may have simply been perceived that way.

  • , 2010-09-21 17:50:38

    I agree with the above comment about churches teaching hate. So because you are gay you cannot be a christian?? That is yet another reason I do not identify with catholicism. You criticize GLBTG and yet you cover up molestation within your own parishes?? It is when you have issues in your own life that you do not want to deal with that you criticize and judge others. Almost everyone has been subject to some sort of bullying and instead of intolerance in schools it is over looked regardless of schools "no tolerance" policies that are a joke!! How many kids have to kill themselves before people really start to do something whether the kids are gay or not??

  • , 2010-09-30 11:47:11

    I am fortunate to belong such a Church, its only thought of as a fairy tale to exist. Its Open and Affirming, Multicultural and Multiracial, Justice for Peace and Earth Chapter. No on is turned away or asked of anything. We are working on awareness and one of our goals is to make this bullying VISIBLE. This is when people need to come together and instead of being silent and turning a blind eye. Its hard enough growing up, let alone to have others torments you, a family that doesn’t understand you and Media that censors/filters the truth. @Dennis - Churches goal should be "Unconditional Love".

  • , 2010-09-30 18:38:14

    Its sad that a being such as man..with a brain ’hardwired’ to be empathetic and kind is turning away from his nature to adopt traits that are unnatural such as intolerance and bigotry. If one scenario proves true..that we will some day soon, even given many peoples gayphobia no matter the lathering of right wing ideology will prevail. It is the true nature of how our minds evolved and only recently (evolutionarily speaking) has this contempt for others become popular.

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