Activists say proposed Mass. anti-bullying law needs to include gender identity

by Peter Cassels

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday November 23, 2009

Massachusetts lawmakers are mulling a bill that would put teeth into a law on the books since 1993 that addresses bullying in public schools. LGBT activists are pleased, but they remain concerned over the lack of transgender-specific protections.

Proposals to strengthen the statute come partially as a result of the suicide of an 11-year-old boy last April after classmates bullied and harassed him because they thought he was gay. They called him "faggot," and said he acted like a girl and made fun of his clothes.

Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, a junior at New Leadership Charter School in Springfield, hanged himself with an electrical cord in his bedroom. He left a note to his family that said he loved them and gave his Pokémon cards to a six-year-old brother.

His mother, Sirdeaner Walker, was among those who testified the Joint Committee on Education on Nov. 17 to support House Bill 483, the most comprehensive of 11 bills before Beacon Hill lawmakers.

"What could make a child his age despair so much that he would take his own life? That question haunts me today,'' she told committee members. "Those kids called him those names because they knew they were the most hurtful things they could say to him, and they hit their mark.''

Sponsored by state Rep. John Rogers [D-Norfolk,] HB 483 would require schools to report all incidents of bullying and abuse to the state. Massachusetts enacted a law 16 years ago that prohibits bullying and harassment in schools based on sexual orientation, but it doesn't include a mandatory reporting mechanism.

Activists credit Kevin Jennings, who founded the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network in Boston in 1990, for helping make the 1993 law a reality. He left GLSEN in Nov. 2008 and now heads the

U.S. Department of Education's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools.

EDGE interviewed Eliza Byard, his successor as GLSEN executive director, by phone at her New York office. She said she feels as good as HB 483 is, the bill does not go far enough because it omits gender identity.

"The other issue is that the bill as currently written would not have necessarily helped specifically in Carl's case," she explained. "Anti-discrimination measures refer specifically to the identity of the target. We do not know what Carl might have thought of his sexual orientation and unfortunately will never know."

Whether Walker-Hoover was gay or not is beside the point, Byard emphasized. She further stressed someone subjected to anti-LGBT bullying should not have to prove their sexual orientation or gender identity to get the protection they need. And Byard further addressed two concerns bill opponents continue to raise-it will inhibit free speech and create new criminal statutes.

She pointed out the First Amendment does not protect slurs such as "faggot," a term bullies frequently used against LGBT students. And Byard added she believes education, not criminalization, is the way to address the problem.

"These are problems that involve two people in need of help-the target and the bully," she explained. "Students who bully have the need to express power over other students. They need help, too."

Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley, who testified at the committee hearing, agreed.

"[HR 483] will not create new criminal statutes," he pointed out. "It will not infringe upon free speech. It will not create new grounds for a lawsuit. What it will do is provide a comprehensive and common-sense framework for school districts to create and enforce their anti-bullying policies."

Byard said GLSEN will let lawmakers know its concerns with the bill and is working closely with its Massachusetts chapter, the Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth and other local organizations.

BAGLY Executive Director Grace Sterling Stowell also stressed her position on the importance of including gender identity in the bill language in a phone interview with EDGE.

"It's often most visible and often makes those young people more of a target," she said.

Stowell further echoed Byard's comments about perception.

"The issue is not who someone is," she emphasized. "It is how they are perceived to be."

BAGLY, she added, works more with LGBT youth in the community than in schools. And bullying is just as much a problem outside the classroom.

"Facebook, My Space, twittering, e-mails--there are many ways bullies can target LGBTs and people in general," Stowell said.

She added she feels bullying seriously affects its targets--they are unable to perform well in school and may become victims of assault or violence. And they may even harm or kill themselves as Walker-Hoover did.

Peter Cassels is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's Excellence in Journalism award. His e-mail address is [email protected].