Gay Kids Need the Help of Antibias Laws

Commentary by Gabriel Rotello

New York -- It started in the seventh grade when the other students began taunting Jamie Nabozny. Just little stuff at first. "Faggot," they'd call him in the hallway. "Queer." Jamie appealed to the guidance counselor and principal of his Ashland, Wisconsin school, but his tormentors got only mild reprimands, if that, and things soon escalated. Jamie began to be kicked and punched in the halls.

One day, when a teacher left the classroom for a moment, two boys pulled him to the floor and pretended to rape him while the rest of the class looked on and laughed. When Jamie fled to the principal's office, he says he was told that since he was obviously gay, he had to "expect this kind of stuff to happen."

It's not that Jamie had made any particular announcement. This seventh grader was no activist wearing his sexual orientation on his sleeve; he, like many gay and lesbian kids, was simply perceived to be homosexual. As the years went by the abuse got worse. Jamie says he was routinely beaten, and when his parents protested to school officials, they were told that this was to be expected. Boys will be boys. At one point, Jamie says, he was urinated on. At another, he recalls, even a teacher called him a "fag."

Jamie eventually attempted suicide, thankfully without success, and finally dropped out of school. But, as a young adult, he has decided to fight back. With the help of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, he is suing school administrators for failing to stop the violent harassment directed against him. Last month his lawsuit wound its way into the US Court of Appeals, where observers are hoping it will prove a landmark case.

Jamie's lawsuit is unique, but sadly his story is not. Studies indicate that over ninety percent of lesbian and gay youth report having suffered verbal abuse and harassment in school, and more than a third report being the victims of anti-gay violence. People who believe that gays and lesbians would be fine if they just shut up about their sexual orientation and didn't "flaunt it" should note that in most cases of teenage abuse, the victims are not even out of the closet. Indeed in many cases the victims have not even accepted their own sexual orientation.

Anybody who cares about eliminating anti-gay violence in our nation's schools should hope that Jamie's lawsuit will set an important precedent. But experts in child abuse say there are many things parents and educators can do right now to try to ease the pervasive climate of anti-gay harassment in the schools.

The first is to rewrite harassment and personnel policies to explicitly include sexual orientation. Most schools already have rules that forbid sexual harassment and abuse of racial, ethnic and religious minorities. By failing to extend the same protections to homosexuals, we send a clear message that it's still okay to target gay and lesbian kids.

Parents and teachers should also make up their minds to directly intervene whenever they hear students use words like fag and dyke and sissy, the same way they do when kids use racial slurs. And adults should teach children themselves to intervene when they see or hear abuse being directed at others, as well as teach kids the skills they need to protect themselves. Parents and teachers should also include homophobia in their discussions about bigotry. There's nothing more alienating for a gay or lesbian child than to hear an otherwise compassionate adult call for fairness and inclusion, but then pointedly include homosexuals out. Bigotry is bad enough when it comes from bigots.

Finally, educators and parents need to make clear that if a child comes to them with problems or questions concerning sexual orientation, they will be understanding and gay affirming. Most gay and lesbian kids automatically assume that their parents and teachers would despise and reject them if their secret came out, no matter how open minded the teacher or parent may be. There's no way to counter that impression, really, without being explicit.

In a sense Jamie Nabozny is one of the lucky ones. He survived to tell his story and fight back. Many don't - a federal study concluded that gay and lesbian kids account for one third of all of youth suicides. Such tragedies are often the result of the kind of harassment that was directed against Jamie, harassment that's played out every day in school districts across the nation Ultimately no court or lawsuit can stop that. Only parents and educators and fellow students can. One child at a time.

Nabozny was featured last month in Oasis as a "Profile in Courage."
This article originally appeared in Newsday. Reprinted with the author's permission. Rotello is online at Gabo3@aol.com.
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