There is no evidence that the increased reports of gay teen suicides represent an actual change in patterns of behavior among students. The tragic story of Tyler Clementi has crystallized for many the complex harshness of peer mistreatment, the failure of education institutions to address the problem, and the brutal despair that too often results. But those who work with young people in these settings can attest to the fact that similar scenarios have been playing out often in the shadows for a very long time, and across every racial and ethnic group.
In my new book, The Right to Be Out, I document what we know from court records, research literature, and extensive memoirs written by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people themselves regarding these issues and concerns. Many gay and gender non-conforming students are happy, well-adjusted, valued, and fully accepted members of their family, their school, and the larger community. Many others, however, face radically different circumstances, and are encountering horrific mistreatment on an ongoing basis. Still others are somewhere in the middle, experiencing a combination of support and denigration that can make day-to-day realities rocky and unpredictable.
Bullying is a term that is often employed to describe peer harassment and mistreatment, and it includes behavior that can range from name-calling, threats, and social exclusion to serious criminal acts of libel and repeated physical attacks. It remains a significant issue for LGBT youth, but the relevant research clearly shows that bullying is a problem for everyone, gay and straight alike. A single bullying event is often not an endpoint, but the beginning of a series of events that may have truly tragic consequences for many people.
Summarizing the latest scholarship in the area, Robert Kim explains in a 2009 National Education Association Report that bullying of LGBT students and those perceived as LGBT stems largely from discomfort with students who do not conform to traditional gender roles in their appearance. The student's actual sexual orientation may be far less relevant to his or her social victimization than his or her gender identity or gender expression.
There is much that can be done to address this problem, under the law and as a matter of policy, but of all the strategies I identify in my book, perhaps the most important step is to bring these issues and concerns out into the open, on every level. The law has increasingly recognized a right to be out in the public sector, a right of both students and educators to be open about fundamental aspects of identity and personhood.
Genuine openness in this context will benefit everyone. Teenagers who come out are able to take advantage of support networks that have proliferated across the country, and educators who come out can serve as valuable resources in professional development programs and school-family-community partnerships. Moreover, addressing LGBT issues openly in a collaborative, professional, and problem-solving manner can go a long way toward improving the lives of everyone in education settings.
It is not possible to solve problems without being able to talk about them. In places that have been successful in building a supportive and inclusive school climate, LGBT issues are talked about all the time. People do not speak in hushed tones when discussing these matters, and use of the word gay as a pejorative term is not tolerated.
In such settings, educators learn about the challenges still being faced by so many gay and gender non-conforming youth today, and they also learn what has transpired in recent LGBT-related litigation. Indeed, they are cognizant of the fact that the courts are increasingly intolerant of faculty and staff complicity that contributes to and too often exacerbates the mistreatment of LGBT students.
There are many within public school communities who still seek to keep any mention of LGBT status or LGBT issues out of the discourse, whether it be in the classroom, in the hallways, in faculty meetings, or in professional development. Yet not talking about problems only allows them to fester. And they have festered, in too many places and for far too long.
School officials often approach LGBT issues with the perception that things are highly polarized. Yet there is great opportunity for progress here, identifying a reasonable middle ground that can be both palatable and inclusive for all members of school communities. Educators cannot and should not be required to change their personal values or their religious beliefs. But if things are to get better, all students must be treated with equal dignity and equal respect.