V. GENDER AND HOMOPHOBIA
Human Rights Watch examined the treatment of female students both by peers and administrators, how lesbians may have experienced harassment differently than gay students, and how students who are or are perceived to be transgender were treated. It quickly became obvious from our research that the abuse of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth is predicated on the belief that girls and boys must strictly adhere to rigid rules of conduct, dress, and appearances based on their sex. For boys, that means they must be athletic, strong, sexist, and hide their emotions. For girls, that means they must be attentive to and flirtatious with boys and must accept a subordinate status to boys. Regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, youth who violate these rules are punished by their peers and too often by adults.
Boys who reported the most harassment were those who were least stereotypically masculine. Transgender youth are the most vulnerable to both violence by peers and harassment from adults.
Harassment of Young Lesbians and Bisexual Girls
Although both girls and boys are exploring their sexual orientation and gender identity at younger ages than previous generations, girls continue to identify openly as lesbian and disclose their sexual orientation to family and friends at a later age than their male peers. Thus it was more difficult to find young women who identify as lesbian or bisexual to interview. Most youth service organizations working with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth consistently report serving more gay male youth than lesbians or transgender youth.
Service providers had different explanations for why gay boys are more likely than young lesbians to be open about their sexual orientation and to use their services. "More boys come out to their parents and need our support than girls. Boys can't have sleepovers or be close in the way that girls can be without causing speculation," explained Sara Marxner of the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center in San Francisco. "Also girls do seem to come out later than boys."139 Other service providers expressed concern that there were fewer young lesbians and transgender youth using their services because service providers had failed to understand their needs or make it safe enough for them to participate.
Some youth service providers tended to downplay harassment of lesbians. Many service providers and youth with whom we spoke offered the opinion that boys were more often targeted for harassment than girls. "They're a lot more aggressive toward the guys," Shelby L. told us, speaking of students who harassed those whom they perceived to be gay. "They'd try to beat them up, start fights, knock their stuff around."140 Vega S., a sixteen-year-old lesbian, told us, "I think guys do have it worse than girls, but girls go through a lot too."141
"The girls who can pass have an easier time," said Michael Ferrera, clinical director of group homes for Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services, in Los Angeles. "The lipstick lesbians are objectified, but the butch girls get challenged all the time. The butch lesbians have the hardest time, and the teachers just don't know how to deal with them."142
Others however, argued that it is not that simple; that in fact, what girls experience is much more complicated. "There's the perception that young gay men are the ones getting harassed," says Linda Ellis, executive director of Youth Pride, an Atlanta youth group. "But this is a difficult place for young gay women."143
"Sometimes you get harassed just because you're a woman, but lesbians get harassed more," Dahlia P. told us. "It's degrading. Not necessarily that they're calling me a lesbian or a dyke-but it's the simple fact that they want to give you hell. It's every day."144
In fact, we found that young lesbians and bisexual girls are harassed in ways that may be different from but often no less serious than the abuse faced by gay and bisexual boys. "Gay men get more physical threats; female students are more likely to get sexually harassed and be threatened with sexual violence. We'll hear things like, `I can make you straight' or `Why don't you get some of your girlfriends and we can have a party,'" Dahlia P. told us.145
Young lesbians do not experience sexism and homophobia as separate events; instead, the two forms of harassment are mutually reinforcing. It is simplyimpermissible, according to rigid rules of social behavior, for girls to reject boys. It is an unforgivable transgression for girls to "compete" with boys for the attention of other girls. Thus lesbians, and particularly lesbians who identify as or are perceived to be "butch," are punished for violating gender norms and because of their sexual orientation. There is a perception that lesbians who are "femme" are punished less by their peers, largely because the harassment takes the form of boys
wanting to "watch" and then "join" the girls. Girls perceive this harassment not only as an invasion of their privacy but also as an implicit threat of sexual violence. When adults downplay or ignore this type of harassment, they are downplaying the harassment as merely an expression of desire rather than a threat of violence.146
A 2000 study of students in western Massachusetts by social worker Susan Fineran found that young lesbians and bisexual girls experienced more sexual harassment than heterosexual girls did. For example, 72 percent of lesbian and bisexual girls reported that they were "called sexually offensive names" by their peers, compared with 63 percent of heterosexual girls. Lesbians and bisexual girls were significantly more likely than heterosexual girls to be "touched, brushed up against, or cornered in a sexual way" (63 percent, as compared to 52 percent of heterosexual girls) and to be "grabbed or have their clothing pulled in a sexual way" (50 percent compared to 44 percent). And 23 percent of young lesbians and bisexual girls reported that their peers had "attempted to hurt me in a sexual way (attempted rape or rape)," while 6 percent of the heterosexual girls surveyed had experienced sexual violence of this nature.147
This study underscores the point several young women made to Human Rights Watch: That the majority of girls, regardless of their sexual orientation, aresexually harassed by their peers. Thus, some girls who identify as lesbian or bisexual are probably already accustomed to hearing sexually harassing slurs and comments. If school officials fail to protect girls from sexual harassment by boys in school, it follows that young lesbians and bisexual girls will not turn to school officials for help when they are harassed because of their sexual orientation. Furthermore, both students and service providers consistently noted that the girls who are most targeted for abuse were girls who failed to conform to gender stereotypes. But again, girls may be reluctant to turn to school officials for protection, as adults as well as peers are critical of girls for violating gender norms.
"Girls in my school expect to be harassed," explained Sabrina L.148 "The boys mess with us all the time-I don't even think most of the time that I get it worse because I am a lesbian. But we know not to say anything-it's like, unless you've been raped the administration doesn't want to know about it. They'll just say you are lying," Halona T. told us. "It would have to be really bad before I would even try to tell anyone."149
Another way that sexism seemed to impact young lesbians was their lack of support from their gay peers. Unlike young gay men we interviewed, none of the girls Human Rights Watch talked with reported feeling protected or supported by gay male peers. But several students noted that girls support gay and bisexual boys and sometimes even protect them from abusive peers. In fact, one boy suggested that the best way to survive was to become close friends with the girls dating the jocks because they would not let the jocks harass their friends. But most young lesbians interviewed by Human Rights Watch did not receive support either from other girls or boys. Young lesbians who were perceived to be "butch" or "dykes" not only were more vulnerable to harassment and abuse but also were even rejected in some cases by their lesbian peers, who may see them as straying too far beyond the limits of socially acceptable gender roles. "Lesbian girls, we dress like girls. `Dyke' is out of here," said Marianne T.150
As with gay boys, young lesbians may appear to be successful students who are doing well in school even as they struggle internally with self-hatred, depression, isolation, and thoughts of suicide. Julie W. told us that she sank into depression during her freshman and sophomore years of high school at the same time that she was a straight-A student and a star on the basketball team. Eventhough disclosing her sexual orientation has meant coping with lots of harassment and threats of violence, she felt that it has been better for her mental health.151
Similarly, Kellsie N. told us that she watched her life fall apart as she tried to cope with her own fears and harassment at school. "They started calling me a lesbian in fourth grade," she said. By high school, she reported, "The guys called me `dyke' all the time and grabbed my butt. The girls just had a whisper campaign." She protected herself by always having a boyfriend. Her test scores showed her to be a gifted and talented student when she entered high school, but when she became pregnant she was tracked into a program for pregnant girls and eventually dropped out. She has her graduate equivalency degree now, but she told Human Rights Watch that she did not feel safe enough in school to learn and succeed.152
The Relationship Between Sexism and Homophobia
Sexism and homophobia are related. Several of the male students we interviewed described peer pressure to treat their female counterparts in a demeaning manner, implicitly asserting the view that boys are superior to girls. One of the easiest ways for boys to demean girls was to treat girls as sexual objects. A sixteen-year-old girl who identified as heterosexual but was attending a school for mostly gay youth told us that she left her high school because of the way boys treated her. "They would talk about my breast all the time, sometimes they would grab them. They would say `put a bag over her head and she'll be fine,' meaning to have sex with."153
An integral component of antigay harassment is attacking lesbians for "daring or wanting to be like a man" and gay men for being effeminate. In their crudest forms, these attacks are based on the constructions of sexuality as males literally dominating females. A "butch" lesbian must be put in her place because she is perceived to take on a dominant sexual role and a "femme" gay man must be punished for acting emasculated. It is not surprising then that lesbians are frequently threatened with being raped, an act of violence aimed at achieving literal sexual domination while gay men are attacked and challenged to defend themselves "like a real man."
"As a male, I was expected to be misogynistic, aggressive, competitive, and homophobic," Burke D. told us. "I was expected to drink and smoke. To protectmyself from being identified as gay, I was supposed to be sexist. In fact, I concentrated on working hard to get good grades, which was unacceptable to my peers. But as bad as it was for me, I would not have wanted to go through my high school as a woman."154
Gay boys who were not "out" to their peers and who participated in team sports reported being constantly subjected to abusive locker room banter that focused on sexually objectifying the girls in the school and trashing as "queer" any student who was different. "I felt suicidal, I tried too hard to be perfect, to participate in sports and to hide. My teammates would always talk about how they could tell if someone was a `faggot' just from the way they walked. They never suspected me-but I heard it [the slurs] every day," explained Luke G., a high school football player.155
Halona T., a young African-American lesbian who attends school in a major metropolitan area, talked about how girls get harassed endlessly by male students. Black girls get harassed for "being good," "acting white," and "being political." The boys feel free to grab the girls as they walk down the halls, but when girls complain to the administration, they are accused of lying. She is open about the fact that she is a lesbian, and she plans to start a gay-straight alliance this year. She worries more about the sexual harassment than the random homophobic comments, although she acknowledged that might change if she became involved with another student.156 Burke also pointed out that, although most of the lesbians he knew in high school were not out, they could not escape being harassed because they were girls.157
Some of the girls we interviewed told us that it is much more difficult to reach out to school officials when they are harassed because of their sexual orientation. "Lots of boys would say `you're a whore' or `you've got big boobs,'" said Marie J. "But at least when I was harassed as a girl, I could talk to the support counselor-not the principal, but the counselor. When I was harassed as a lesbian, I couldn't talk to anyone . . . . I just lied, lied about everything."158
One counselor we interviewed also expressed concern that girls rarely excelled once they were publicly identified as lesbian. Boys were sometimes able to find a niche for themselves in the drama club, as a band major, or even as theclass clown to survive, but girls rarely, if ever, seemed able to find such a niche for themselves.159 Girls at the counselor's school are put down consciously and unconsciously. The boys believe that girls and women should "keep in their place" and believe that place is definitely subordinate to men. A guidance counselor in Texas also noted the relationship between sexual harassment and gay harassment in the school. She said that she saw a great deal of disrespect of girls by boys. Although some dismiss it as funny, she says it is very hurtful to the girls.160
Some lesbians find protection from this double harassment in athletics. But sports is not always a safe haven for lesbians. In some schools particularly "butchy" girls are forced out of sports to protect the reputation of the program. It depends on the tone set by the coaches.161
And it is not just heterosexual boys who act disrespectfully toward young women. Several of the young gay men we interviewed expressed very sexist and sometimes homophobic views of lesbians. One young man thought there was nothing wrong with calling girls "bitches" but thought that calling gay men "faggot" was unacceptable.162
Lesbians who can prevail against the sexism and homophobia they face report feeling empowered. Alix M. told us that it took her three years to get the courage to start a small gay-straight alliance in her Kansas City school. Faced with deepening depression and painful feelings of isolation, she turned to the Internet to get information on how to start a gay-straight alliance. Although she got some negative responses, including being yelled at by a teacher about sin, she now feels that she has made the school much safer for gay students who come after her and that she has become a strong individual who has conquered her fears.163
Although gender identity and sexual orientation are distinct, many youth believed that they were being harassed, threatened, and judged for their failure to dress, speak, and act in ways which conform to stereotypical notions of what is appropriate for young men and women. Thus, regardless of their gender identity, they are being harassed and typically assumed to be gay or lesbian.
"There are the ones that can pass and those that can't," Michael Ferrera notes. "Those that can't are unsafe everywhere. They're always worried about making sure they have someone with them."164
"I didn't get called faggot that much because I was playing soccer," Andre T. observed.165 But a boy who is, in Gabriel D.'s words, "a little femme kid," often finds himself targeted with unrelenting abuse.166 Recognizing this dynamic, Lavonn R. told us, "I tried to act butch, more macho, but I guess I was doing something wrong because it never worked."167
He concluded, "If you're a flamboyant person, you're pretty much damned to hell. I can't think of any gay flamboyant person who has his education."168
139 Human Rights Watch interview with Sara Marxner, Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center, San Francisco, California, November 18, 1999.
140 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000 (we interviewed Shelby L. and Kimberly G. together at their request).
141 Human Rights Watch interview, Long Beach, California, October 12, 2000.
142 Human Rights Watch interview with Michael Ferrera, clinical director of group homes, Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services, Los Angeles, California, October 22, 1999.
143 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 13, 1999.
144 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.
145 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.
146 As one federal district court has noted, "harassment, like other forms of victimization, is often motivated by issues of power and control on the part of the harasser, issues not related to sexual preference." Tanner v. Prima Donna Resorts, Inc., 919 F. Supp. 351, 355 (D. Nev. 1996). The mistaken view that harassment must be motivated by desire is similar to the now-discredited assumption that rape is primarily an act of sexual gratification. See, for example, A. Nicolas Groth, Men Who Rape: The Psychology of the Offender (New York: Plenum Press, 1979), pp. 12-13; Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project, The Human Rights Watch Global Report on Women's Human Rights (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1995), pp. 1-7; Karen Crawford and Thomas Hutchins, "Eliminating Immigration Judges' Discretion to Mis-Characterize Rape as an Act of Sexual Purpose or Pleasure in Asylum Proceedings," Bender's Immigration Bulletin, vol. 5 (2000), p. 669.
147 Susan Fineran, "Sexual Minority Students and Peer Sexual Harassment in High School," Journal of School Social Work, vol. 11 (2001).
148 Human Rights Watch interview, Orange County, California, October 22, 1999.
149 Human Rights Watch interview, San Francisco, California, November 16, 1999.
150 Human Rights Watch interview, Long Beach, California, October 13, 2000.
151 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.
152 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.
153 Human Rights Watch interview, Dallas, Texas, March 27, 2000.
154 Human Rights Watch interview, Decatur, Georgia, December 15, 1999.
155 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.
156 Human Rights Watch interview, San Francisco, California, November 17, 1999.
157 Human Rights Watch interview, Decatur, Georgia, December 15, 1999.
158 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.
159 Human Rights Watch interview, Lubbock, Texas, March 21, 2000.
160 Human Rights Watch interview, Lubbock, Texas, March 20, 2000.
161 Human Rights Watch interview, Dallas, Texas, March 26, 2000.
162 Human Rights Watch interview, Dallas, Texas, March 27, 2000.
163 Human Rights Watch telephone interview, March 30, 2000.
164 Human Rights Watch interview with Michael Ferrera, October 21, 1999.
165 Human Rights Watch interview, Dallas, Texas, March 27, 2000.
166 Human Rights Watch interview, San Francisco, California, January 28, 2000.
167 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 23, 2000.
168 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 23, 2000.
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