LGBT People Need to Take the Fight Back to School

DADT repeal and same-sex marriage won't solve the problem of homophobic bullying in schools -- solutions to this problem are going to have to focus on schools themselves.
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I'm hoping it's just the few people who I see on listserves and the few, better-known gay and pro-gay people out there who think that DADT repeal and same-sex marriage would solve the problem of homophobic bullying in schools. They won't -- gay teen suicides resulting from bullying happen in states from across the spectrum, even in very gay-friendly Massachusetts -- and solutions to this problem are going to have to focus on schools themselves.

There's a lot of energy and attention in this moment, and people are looking for the solution. Partly due to a lack of creativity and partly due to living in our self-constructed bubbles and partly because we queer people often have little to do with schools after we've left and partly because liberal politics generally has forgotten about education because there is no clear enemy and it's expensive and the ideological lines are very messy, we're looking in the wrong direction for that solution.

It's hard to think about solutions that will help young people while they're in schools, but that doesn't mean we should become distracted and allow these recent deaths to be co-opted by other causes. The take-home lesson of these suicides is not that DADT needs to be repealed or ENDA needs to get passed or any other big-ticket LGBT bill should be passed because it would send some sort of message that we're "equal" (those laws should be changed for other reasons). Consider the case of Jamie Nabozny, one of the few harassed gay students to successfully sue his school for failing to protect him:

In the seventh grade, Jamie realized he was gay and decided not to "closet" his sexuality. Considerable harassment and abuse from other students ensued throughout Jamie's middle and high school years, including name calling, striking and spitting on him. On one occasion two boys held Jamie down and performed a mock rape on him while twenty other students looked on and laughed. In an assault in a bathroom, Jamie was knocked down and urinated on by several boys. In the most serious physical assault, Jamie was kicked in the stomach for five to ten minutes by a boy while a group of students looked on in laughter. Jamie later collapsed from internal bleeding. Jamie was hospitalized several times for suicide attempts during his secondary school career. He withdrew to attend a Catholic school and also to live elsewhere with relatives. Jamie also ran away once but his parents convinced him to return with the unfulfilled promise that he would not have to attend Ashland High. Jamie and his parents repeatedly met with school officials after incidents of abuse, but received no satisfaction or an end to the abuse. Instead, Jamie was told that he deserved and should expect such behavior from his fellow students if he was going to be so openly gay. Finally, in the eleventh grade, Jamie left school and moved to Minneapolis where he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He completed his GED there.

Now, I don't think that he would have avoided PTSD if only he had known that one day he could be shipped to Afghanistan (wudda given the boy some hope). The solution to his problems, yes, included changing the broader culture that taught other students homophobia, but policy changes wouldn't have made those kids who already thought urinating on him was appropriate suddenly realize that he's a human being to be treated with respect. He needed change in the school, not from the outside.

The Washington Post ran a column yesterday from a professor in education policy on solutions to anti-gay bullying. She cited a large study with sample legislation and offered the following solutions:

• Adopt proactive school climate initiatives that demonstrate a commitment to inclusive policies and shared values within our pluralistic society.

• End discriminatory disciplinary practices and the inappropriate referral of LGBT students to special education.

• Implement LGBT-specific programs or activities at individual school sites, which may include safe zones, gay-straight alliances, and suicide prevention programs.

• Develop and implement LGBT-related professional development, locally determined and agreed upon by faculty and staff, for all school-site personnel.

• Align classroom pedagogy with shared values and respect for differences.

• Include age-appropriate LGBT-related content in the curriculum.

• Involve key members of campus athletic programs in LGBT-related initiatives.

• Make it clear that homophobic comments and actions by coaches and student athletes are completely unacceptable.

• Encourage student athletes to participate in targeted programs such as initiatives addressing bullying and hate violence, as well as gay-straight alliances, safe zones, and wellness programs.

The study itself mentioned my pet issue:

LGBT educators can serve as valuable resources in this regard, both day to day in the schools and in professional-development settings. But instead of taking advantage of the fact that openly LGBT teachers, coaches, and school-site administrators can play a central and highly positive role, too many districts continue to put explicit or implicit pressure on these educators to keep their identities closeted.

I've noticed that in the videos in Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" Project, the way it gets better for most people in the videos is that they're able to move away from their small towns and choose their own friends. Homophobia doesn't decrease; rather, we find ways to shield ourselves from it.

And then the next generation goes to school with the kids of those adults who shielded themselves from gay-friendly messaging and queer people themselves, who have the same prejudices as their parents and perpetuate homophobia. The homophobes still exist, they're just far away, doing their own thing, having queer kids and anti-queer kids and indifferent kids and the odd gay-supportive kid, going back to school only to hear "it gets better," but first it'll be terrible.

We can't be blamed for not wanting to hang out with people who hate us. But the solution can't just be, "try to survive until you're old enough to choose who you interact with and then make some good choices." That abstract hope may help some of these teens, but one of the defining characteristics of adolescence is not seeing the long-term picture.

The solution will require us to go back to schools and fight for policy changes there; to go to the LGBT youth themselves and support them as they try to change things for the next class that'll be going through their schools systems; and to go to the legislature to make rules that even rural and private schools will have to follow. We may not all have kids, but our labor funds those schools and our community is supposed to be served by them just as much as anyone else is, so we do have a claim on the public education system.

And the homophobes will get mad. They'll get madder than if we just focused on trying to get to serve in the military or get anti-discrimination legislation passed because they'll know that we're attacking their power at its source: their ability to get the next generation to believe there's something wrong with them if they want to live their lives differently, that there's something disgusting about same-sex love, that they should feel contempt for those who decide to be the person they know they are on the inside.

The homophobes will say that their parental rights are being violated, as if parents own their children like slaves and can prevent them from becoming responsible citizens and secure adults. They'll say that their religious rights are being violated, insulting their religion by implying that mistreating others is one of its central tenets. They'll say that we just want to have sex with children, because they know that such a wild accusation drives everyone insane and has been making us retreat for decades.

And then we'll see some positive change. The logic that big-ticket LGBT federal legislation will change attitudes and help fight LGBT teen suicide is perfectly backwards; working on changing attitudes in schools, teaching kids that it's wrong to pick on someone for their sexuality, and giving young LGBT people more confidence and a better education will make that legislation easier to pass.

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