A new report released by Human Rights Watch has found that bullying and harassment of gay and transgender students remain serious problems in America’s public schools, despite rising acceptance of LGBT rights and the legalization of same-sex marriage.
The findings of the report, “Like Walking Through a Hailstorm”: Discrimination Against LGBT Youth in US Schools, are based primarily upon interviews conducted by the Human Rights Watch staff with more than 350 students and 145 parents and faculty members in Alabama, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, and Utah. The report recommends that school administrators amend anti-bullying policies to include “enumerated protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Though the Human Rights Watch interviewers found that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students all reported bullying, the types of harassment varied depending on gender.
Gay male students are often cut off by their friends and isolated if their sexual orientation becomes public, said Ryan Thoreson, a fellow in Human Right Watch’s LGBT Rights Program and the primary author of the report. Such ostracization is tougher to deal with than more active instances of bullying, Thoreson noted.
Whereas schools can take steps to discourage physical or verbal harassment by outlining clear consequences for bullying, Thoreson argued that reversing the “extreme distancing” that gay male students experience will require changing the greater school environment.
School administrators need to ask “what are steps we can take to show that LGBT students are as much a part of this school environment as heterosexual and cisgender students are,” Thoreson said. “The only way that we can target isolation and exclusion is by intentionally committing to having an inclusive environment in schools.”
Lesbian and female bisexual students, however, reported being subject to sexual harassment by their straight male classmates, including outright sexual propositioning. “I’m bisexual, and every time I come out to a guy, it’s always, ‘Can I see you make out with a girl, or want a threesome?’” one Alabama student told the researchers. The report quotes another Alabama student as saying, “I started identifying as asexual last year, and all of a sudden everybody wants to be in my pants. I’m a challenge now.”
Even teachers and other faculty members who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender face harassment and discrimination, the researchers found. The report notes that Alabama has no statutory employment protections that cover sexual orientation or gender identity. The interviewers also found that many teachers, including those who were not LGBT, were afraid to openly support LGBT students or sponsor Gay-Straight Alliance student groups for fear of professional repercussions.
“[F]aculty have no protections if they are gay, and those that might be willing to be supportive–and I’ve had them tell me this–they’re afraid to be a strong advocate or ally, because they’ll be shunned by colleagues, and they’re not sure their principal will support them,” Glenda Elliott, an associate professor emerita of the UAB Counselor Education program and a member of the Alabama Safe Schools Coalition, told the Human Rights Watch interviewers.
The report includes the testimony of an anonymous Alabama teacher that when she started a Gay-Straight Alliance at her school, “parents went to the school board and tried to get me fired.”
Enacting non-discrimination policies that include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity is vital to alleviate LGBT faculty members’ fear of retaliation, but there are other steps that administrators can take as well, Thoreson said.
“I think that employment protections are particularly meaningful in that whether or not a teacher has the support of administration, they know that the weight of the law is behind them and works in their favor,” he said. “Beyond that, I will say that there is a lot that individual schools can do either to bolster those statewide protections where they exist or to close the gaps where they’re lacking. I think that teacher-counselor training . . . on LGBT issues is really important because it can be very helpful for LGBT faculty and staff to know that their administration is behind inclusivity and that their peers have been trained to listen for homophobic or transphobic language and intervene when hear it.
“I think that the dangerous thing is that when LGBT faculty and staff feel like they’re totally alone in a school environment, it makes it very difficult for them to teach authentically and openly as LGBT people. So anything that schools can do to show that they support their LGBT teachers, I think that can make a big difference.”
The report also urges the repeal of state laws restricting discussion of homosexuality in schools, which the report describes as “no promo homo” laws. Such laws are currently on the books in eight states, including Alabama. Section 16-40A-2 of the Alabama Code, which outlines the state’s requirements for sex education, mandates “[a]n emphasis, in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.”
Bans on homosexual activity were deemed unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in 2003, and Alabama’s state ban on sodomy was declared unconstitutional by the Alabama Supreme Court in 2014. But the requirement that teachers tell students that homosexual conduct is illegal remains in force.
Thoreson said he and his fellow researchers found that such laws have a chilling effect on teachers. The report found that such laws discourage teachers from discussing LGBT issues even in areas outside of sex education, such as English, history, social studies, and psychology classes “where LGBT themes and issues might naturally arise in the curriculum.” Because many school districts do not instruct their teachers as to what such laws do and do not prohibit, many teachers err on the side of caution and simply avoid LGBT issues in all academic settings, the report states.
The report quotes one Alabama student who says, “We learn about the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, but not LGBT movements. We even tried to bring it up in class and got shot down . . . it was the teacher shutting it down.”
The report also includes testimony from an anonymous Alabama teacher who explains, “Teachers, their default is just to not talk about [LGBT subject matter]. They’re not trained to talk about subject matter like that. . . we have to be careful about what we say in the classroom because all it takes is one student complaining to mom and dad and it becomes a huge problem–a school problem, and potentially a school district problem.”
Thoreson argued that these laws were the result of a pervasive oversexualization of LGBT individuals and the assumption that any discussion of issues relating to sexual orientation or gender identity must be prurient in nature.
“People think that any discussion of LGBT issues at school is inherently sexual or inherently inappropriate without realizing that it’s 2016 and being LGBT is just part of the fabric of who someone is and it’s not necessarily a specifically sexual part of who that person is,” he said. “It’s part of a whole bigger history and civil rights movement that merits discussion outside of the realm of sexuality.”
Human Right Watch’s report, “Like Walking Through a Hailstorm”: Discrimination against LGBT Youth in US Schools, can be found at www.hrw.org/report/2016/12/07/walking-through-hailstorm/discrimination-against-lgbt-youth-us-schools.