Gay Teens Fight Back
With the antigay crusades of the religious right and the verbal gay-bashings of politicians like Trent Lott legitimizing the demonization of homosexuals, it is hardly surprising that homophobia is alive and well among gay kids' classmates. In November 1998, a poll of 3,000 top high schoolers by Who's Who Among American High School Students--its twenty-ninth annual survey--found that 48 percent admitted they are prejudiced against gays, up 19 percent from the previous year (and these are, as Who's Who proclaims, "America's brightest students").
All this means that, as Jon Lasser, an Austin, Texas, school psychologist (and heterosexual parent) who has interviewed scads of gay kids for his PhD thesis, puts it, "Many have a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome that affects their schoolwork--the fear of getting hurt really shakes them up and makes it hard to concentrate."
The mushrooming growth of Gay/Straight Alliances in middle and high schools in just the past few years has been the gay kids' potent response. There is strength in numbers: GSAs break the immobilizing isolation of gay students and raise their visibility, creating a mechanism to pressure school authorities into tackling harassment; educate teachers as well as other students; create the kind of solidarity among straight and gay kids that fosters resistance to bigotry and violence; provide meaningful safe-sex education; and help gay adolescents to speak and fight for themselves. The GLSEN national office has identified at least 400 GSAs, but since the GSA movement has been student-initiated and many self-starting groups are still not in touch with national gay organizations, the figure is undoubtedly much higher. There are eighty-five GLSEN chapters around the country, and while GLSEN began seven years ago primarily as an organization of teachers and other school personnel, it is making an increasing effort to include students in its organizing.
Another strategy that has frightened reluctant school administrators into steps to protect gay youth has been lawsuits by the kids themselves. The first on record was brought by a 16-year-old Ashland, Wisconsin, student, Jamie Nabozny, who in 1996 won a $900,000 judgment against school authorities who failed to prevent Nabozny's torturous harassment from seventh through eleventh grades, including beatings that put him in the hospital. Currently there are nine similar suits pending, including cases in Illinois, Washington, New Jersey, Minnesota, Missouri and several in California (one brought by the first-ever group of lesbian student plaintiffs, in the San Jose area). But as David Buckel, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund's staff attorney specializing in school matters, points out, "A lot of people call and say 'I can't afford to go to court,' or 'We live in a small town and I can't put my family through that,' or 'If we sue and win it'll raise our neighbors' taxes and we'll get bricks through our window.'" (And in late December, Orange County gay students filed a lawsuit against school officials, seeking to lift their ban on a GSA at El Modena High School on the grounds that the interdiction violated their First Amendment rights.)
In a civilized country, one would think, legislation to protect kids from violence and harassment in their schools should be unexceptionable. However, despite a loopy New York Times editorial praising the Republican Party for a kinder-and-gentler attitude toward gays, the GOP has taken the lead in opposing state-level safe-schools bills protecting gay kids. In Washington last year, for the second year in a row, openly gay State Representative Ed Murray--a progressive Seattle Democrat--led the fight for his bill that would have added lesbian and gay students to a law forbidding sexual and malicious harassment in the schools. "We had the votes to pass it this year in the House, which is split forty-nine to forty-nine--we had all forty-nine Democrats and picked up sixteen Republicans. But because of the tie in party membership, all House committees are co-chaired by Democrats and Republicans, and the GOP education committee co-chairman refused to let the bill out of committee. If it had been sent to the Senate, where Democrats have a majority, it would have passed."