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To the more than two million lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth of school age living in the United States and to those who are questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity, Dylan N.'s story is all too familiar. It is a story of harassment, abuse, and violence; a story of deliberate indifference by school officials who disclaim any responsibility for protecting Dylan or ensuring his right to an education; a story of escalating violence; a story of the failure of legal protection; and finally, a story of a young man denied an education because of his sexual orientation. In this report, Human Rights Watch documents attacks on the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth who are subjected to abuse on a daily basis by their peers and in some cases by teachers and school administrators. These violations are compounded by the failure of federal, state, and local governments to enact laws providing students with express protection from discrimination and violence based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, effectively allowing school officials to ignore violations of these students' rights. Gay youth spend an inordinate amount of energy plotting how to get safely to and from school, how to avoid the hallways when other students are present so they can avoid slurs and shoves, how to cut gym class to escape being beaten up-in short, how to become invisible so they will not be verbally and physically attacked. Too often, students have little energy left to learn. In interviews, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth explained how teachers and administrators turned their backs, refusing to take reports of harassment, refusing to condemn the harassment, and failing to hold accountable students who harass and abuse. Some school officials blame the students being abused of provoking the attacks because they "flaunt" their identity. Other school officials justify their inaction by arguing that students who "insist" on being gay must "get used to it." And finally, some school officials encourage or participate in the abuse by publicly taunting or condemning the students for not being "normal." For gay youth who survive by carefully concealing their sexual orientation or gender identity, they learn that they will be protected only if they deny who they are-a message that too often leads to self-hatred and a fractured sense of identity.

In violation of its obligations under international law to provide protection from discrimination, the federal government has failed to enact measures that would explicitly provide protection from violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Only five states have enacted laws that explicitly prohibit harassment or discrimination of gay and lesbians students. As a result, the vast majority of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth are not only leftunprotected by school policies but are treated as if they are the problem when they report harassment and violence to school officials. This denial by school officials that they have any responsibility or duty to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students from harassment and violence stands in sharp contrast to their response to other forms of discrimination. For example, virtually every public school in the United States has a policy prohibiting race-based discrimination. Every student, teacher, and administrator we interviewed was clear that as a matter of school policy and usually of practice, race-based attacks on students will be condemned and punished.

In contrast, the vast majority of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth trying to escape the hostile hallways of their schools confront school officials who refuse to recognize the serious harm inflicted by the attacks and to provide redress for them. In fact, there is not even a token consensus among public school officials that gay youth deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

The systematic failure of the public school system in the United States to protect these students means that they are left to choose between struggling in isolation to survive the harassment as they seek an education or escaping the hostile climate by dropping out of school. The burden these students bear is exacerbated in many cases by the rejection of their families, condemnation within their communities, being demonized by individual teachers and administrators, and rejection by members of the adult lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities who are too scared of being identified themselves to offer support to gay youth.

But societal discomfort with the existence of gay youth in no way excuses the failure of the state to protect these students from discrimination, harassment, and violence in public schools. Society's deeply held prejudices against marginalized groups can never justify violations of the principle of nondiscrimination.

In this report, we document the devastating impact of pervasive animus towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. The problem is not that these youth are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. The problem is impunity for school officials who, through acts of commission and omission, violate these students' right to be free from persecution and discrimination.

Furthermore, at the local, state, and federal level, the government has failed to address these deep-seated prejudices against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Few jurisdictions have enacted laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. In fact, government at all levels has repeatedly bowed to pressure from society to allow explicit discrimination against gay people.

This report contains stories of pain and rejection, resilience and defiance, courage and grace. A common thread running through virtually all these stories is isolation and the almost total failure of the public school system to take seriously the human rights of these students. Each day, most gay youth walk into their schools wondering what they will have to face-taunts, food thrown in the face, lewd mockery in the locker room, being slammed "accidentally" against lockers during the change in classes-all in front of teachers who hear and see no evil. For some, the burden of coping each day with the endless harassment is too much. They drop out of school. Some commit suicide. Others just barely survive as they navigate the open hostility of peers and the deliberate indifference of school officials. They try to do well academically, but much of their energy is focused on surviving another day. A few fight back, demanding that the school administration take the harassment seriously, that recognition of gays and lesbians be integrated into the curriculum, that they be allowed to organize gay-straight alliances, and that they be encouraged to celebrate their identities.

This report is about the failure of the government, specifically public school officials, teachers, and administrators, to fulfill their obligation to ensure that all youth enjoy their right to education in an environment where they are protected from discrimination, harassment, and violence. No child should have to go to school in survival mode. No school district should heave a sigh of relief when yet another gay student has dropped out, allowing the district to claim that "there are no homosexuals here."

Despite what some adults may want to believe, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth are everywhere-growing up in rural communities, in small towns, in suburbs, in immigrant communities, in communities of color, in inner cities, in religious communities, and on the streets. Their sexual orientation and gender expression are two pieces of the mosaic of their identity. Every youth deserves to be treated with respect and to be protected from violations of their human rights, including to be free from discrimination, harassment, and violence and to be encouraged to learn and to grow intellectually and emotionally without being asked to deny an essential component of his or her identity.


Human Rights Watch conducted research for this study from October 1999 to October 2000 during visits to California, Georgia, Kansas, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, and Utah. Two researchers from two divisions of Human Rights Watch interviewed 140 youth between the ages of twelve and twenty-one for thisreport. We also interviewed 130 adults, including youth service providers, teachers, administrators, counselors, and parents.

We developed a list of questions on key topics for these interviews in consultation with a youth advisory group and based on discussions with attorneys, researchers, and advocates and a review of news accounts, academic research, and legal cases. Guided by our checklist, we asked open-ended questions, with the exception of a few queries for demographic information such as age, school grade, and self-identified sexual orientation and gender identity. While we did not adhere formulaically to our questionnaire in every interview, we did ask each person about every one of the subjects addressed in this report. Most of our individual interviews with youth lasted between forty minutes and one hour.

We attempted to interview youth of diverse ethnic and racial, socioeconomic, and geographic backgrounds, including youth who lived in rural areas as well as in urban and suburban locations. We identified youth through local service providers, attorneys, and local chapters of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). We chose this approach because we wanted to be able to refer youth to appropriate resources if we found that they were in immediate need of support, and we wanted to ensure that we interviewed a large number of youth in each of the states we visited.

We arranged interviews through youth groups and other support groups in two ways. Some groups permitted us to make presentations at their regular meetings after discussing our project and the purpose of our visit at prior meetings. In those cases, we introduced ourselves, described the work of Human Rights Watch, outlined the scope of our research, and invited those who were interested to speak with us individually after the presentation and a general question-and-answer session. Other groups identifed youth who were willing to speak with us and arranged individual appointments for us.

In our discussions with group coordinators and in our introductory presentations, we attempted to ensure that youth understood that they were free not to participate, that they could end the interview at any time, that we would publish a report based on our interviews, and that we would not publish their names or other identifying information . We also repeated these statements at the beginning of each interview before asking youth whether they were willing to talk with us. We did not keep track of the number of youth who declined to be interviewed, but we observed at many group meetings that between one quarter and one half of those who heard our introductory presentations chose not to speak with us individually.

We recognize that youth who are likely to participate in the groups we met with are not representative of the population of lesbian, gay, bisexual, andtransgender youth as a whole. Our reliance on youth and other support groups meant that we conducted most of our interviews in urban areas, although we discovered that youth who are able to do so often travel great distances to attend these meetings-from other neighborhoods or remote counties, across state lines, and sometimes from hundreds of miles away. Our focus on such groups also meant that we did not interview youth who had not disclosed their sexual orientation or gender identity to others. In addition, the youth we saw had access to support from peers and adults that youth in more isolated areas generally lacked.

We occasionally interviewed youth in pairs at their request. In a few cases, time constraints or the policies of a particular group did not permit us to interview youth individually. Wherever quotations or other information cited in this report came from joint interviews or group discussions, we note that fact.

The names of all youth have been changed to protect their privacy. In addition, we did not name teachers and administrators when they requested confidentiality.

International Standards

We assess the treatment of youth according to international law, as set forth in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; and other international human rights instruments. These instruments establish that students have the right to protection from mental or physical harm, the right to freedom from discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, the right to an education, and the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Chapter XI discusses the scope of these rights and the protection they are accorded under U.S. law.

In this report, the word "child" refers to anyone under the age of eighteen. Article 1 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child defines as a child "every human being under the age of eighteen years unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier."

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Dylan N., Nevada
Matt P., New Hampshire
Erin B., Georgia
Anika P., Texas
Dahlia P., Texas
Eric C., California
Wendy Weaver, Teacher, Utah
Nikki L., California
Alix M., Midwestern United States