New efforts made to fight anti-gay bullying

by Steve Weinstein

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday March 24, 2009

No matter how many strides we've taken toward visibility and acceptance, homophobia still runs rampant among teenagers. Campaigns on several fronts are under way to fight what remains a huge problem.

Cases like Lawrence King, the California student shot to death in his school last year, highlight the problem. King was not afraid to be out, and ultimately it was his self-presentation that inflamed so much hatred in his killer, Brandon McInerney. Many more, however, suffer because of the most subtle variant in behavior.

Debra Chasnoff interviewed teens across the country for her new documentary "Straightlaced: How Gender's Got Us All Tied Up." She found that teens--whether straight, gay or just perceived as gay--have to maintain the stricted self-discipline at all times.

"Just about everybody was aware of how a person cannot be perceived as gay," she says about her extensive teen-age sources. "In terms of how they dress, activities they participate in, how much affection to show their friends--they constantly need to prove their heterosexuality."

The 1950s play and film "Tea and Sympathy" showed a boy in a boarding school who was mocked because of his behavior. His roommate tried to show him how to walk, talk and carry himself. According to Chasnoff, not much has changed in the ensuing decades: "Such self-regulation still extends to how they talk, how they dress, how smart they are in class, whether they laugh at each other's jokes," she comments, "it can all be turned around in a second and have them accused of being gay."

The result of such taunting is catastrophic. As reported on EDGE, teen suicide is exponentially higher among gay youth--four times more likely, according to one recent study.

"Younger students are reporting more harassment," Joe Kosciw, research director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, told reporter Scott Stiffler. "It's more common in middle school than the older grades. Even in the higher grades, most of our students, a high incident of harassment and assault."

GLSEN's latest "National School Climate Survey" showed that 9 in LGBT teens said they had been harassed in the past school year. Almost half said they had been physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation.

Progress Through Education & Laws
The situation is not all bleak. There is progress on several fronts. On March 23, GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard, along with students and teachers, had the first-ever meet with U.S. education secretary, Arne Duncan. They brought home the importance of anti-bullying efforts to fight the rampant homophobia.

Naysayers claim that anti-bullying legislation is unnecessary or won't curb inherent behavior. Nonsense, scoffs Kosciw. Whereas, overall, his latest survey of the "National School Climate" doesn't show tremendous changes since the survey began in 2001, "Where we do see improvements is in states that have enacted safe-school laws and protect around bullying and harassment and that specifically make mention of sexual orientation."

Such laws only work, however, if a school's faculty and administration understands their importance and implements them. "When schools do things and pay attention, there are differences," Kosciw says. "But by and large, if schools aren't paying attention to laws helping LGBT students or teachers aren't trained to spot LGBT harassment in school, we don't see differences."

Chasnoff agrees that the attitude and awareness of adults supervising students make all the difference. "Adults can play a much, much stronger role in the messaging that gets put out in school climates," she says. "In increasing numbers of schools, there are policies you can't bully someone because of sexual orientation. But just because it's on the books, it doesn't change a teacher's behavior."

Some teachers apparently have their heads buried in the sand. Kosciw points to teachers who maintain they have no gay students or remain blissfully unaware of anti-gay harassment. "Teachers even in New York City have told me they don't have any gay kids in their classes or school," he says. "You'd be surprised how, even in New York City, people aren't aware of these issues."

To increase awareness, Chasnoff's sponsoring organization, Groundspark, is taking her film on an 80-city road trip. The film will also be available for distribution in schools.

An enlightened school administration can turn the most hateful comments into a teaching moment. In Plattsburgh, a northeastern New York town, Fred Phelps and his clan from Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church, protested a school production of "The Laramie Project," play based on transcripts of conversations with residents of that Wyoming city about the death of Matthew Shepard, who was killed for being gay.

The congregation has traveled extensively around the country and in Britain to protest such productions and to carry signs saying "God Hates Fags." The high school organized students to discuss acceptance and diversity.

Late last year, the Advertising Council, which sponsors public service announcements in various media, announced its first-ever ads addressing an LGBT issue. The campaign seeks to end using the phrase "so gay" as a universal putdown, as expressed by its theme, "When you say, 'That's so gay,' do you realize what you say? Knock it off?" Promoted by GLSEN, the campaign features celebrities like Hilary Duff and Wanda Sykes.

How the Right Abets Harassment
It doesn't make it any easier for GLSEN or Groundspark when legislators deny there's even a problem or fight anti-harassment measure tooth and nail.

Americans for Truth About Homosexuality is trying to enlist parents to confront local schools and teachers about the Day of Silence, which is meant to promote awareness of anti-gay bullying. AFTAH accuses the Day of Silence, not as promoting tolerance or fighting hate, but as part of a conspiracy of "viciously demonizing Christians and equating religious moral teachings with hate."

AFTAH apparently equates fighting bullying with "working to deny Christians the right to live by their own moral code and 'silencing' viewpoints with which they disagree."

The Illinois Family Institute likewise warned, that the Day of Silence will " promote GLSEN's socio-political goals and its controversial, unproven, and destructive theories on the nature and morality of homosexuality."

In Tennessee, a state legislator recently tried to push through a bill that would have outlawed any mention of gay-related subjects in schools through the eighth grade. Lest anyone think such legislation is as archaic as the Jim Crow laws, consider this: According to Chasnoff, eight states, all in the South, do indeed have laws on their books mandating that schools cannot mention homosexuality in their curriculum.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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