III. YOUNG AND QUEER IN AMERICA
Estimates of the number of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth in the United States vary, but most researchers believe that between 5 and 6 percent of youth fit into one of these categories. Based on the 1990 census, there are more than 45 million school-age children in the United States.1 This means that as many as two million school age children in the United States are dealing with issues related to their sexual orientation. No definitive data on the prevalence of people who identify as transgender exist.2 However, regardless of the number of school age youth who identify as transgender or are perceived to be transgender, there is no dispute that these students are particularly vulnerable to being attacked both by their peers and by adults. Furthermore, as youth explore their sexual orientation and gender identity at younger and younger ages, school officials can no longer plausibly claim that this is not an issue for the students in their schools. Nor can school officials continue to ignore the pervasiveness of the harassment and the constant hostility that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth face.
"They're here. They're queer. They're thirteen," a recent issue of Nerve magazine announced.3 Recent studies confirm that youth are "coming out"-identifying themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender-at younger ages. "The world, schools, and businesses will have to adapt," said Leslie H., a sixteen-year-old student in Dallas. "They can't keep things the way they were and expect us to conform."4
A 1996 study of youth found that, on average, girls are aware of an attraction to other girls at age ten and have their first same-sex experience at age fifteen. Boys now have their first awareness of same-sex attraction at age nine and theirfirst same-sex experience at age thirteen. Both girls and boys begin to identify themselves as lesbian or gay at age sixteen.5
The youth we interviewed fit the trend. Many said they realized that they were lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender in elementary school or middle school. "I knew when I was thirteen," Casey G. told us.6 "I knew when I was eight," Jerome B. said.7 "I realized in first grade," said Payton R., a Los Angeles County high school student.8 These findings mean that children are beginning to be aware of their sexual orientation by the third or fourth grade.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth are often disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity to their peers, teachers, and families in middle school or early high school. When she was twelve, Gina T. told her classmates that she was a lesbian.9 Jobey L., a twelve-year-old in Texas, described one of his seventh-grade classmates as "really, really gay-completely out."10 Erin B., an eighth grade student in DeKalb County, Georgia, started to tell her friends that she was a lesbian when she was in the sixth grade.11
In some cases, youth accept their lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender peers more readily than the adults in their schools and communities. Discussing the decision she made at the end of her sophomore year to be open about her sexual orientation, Andy J., a seventeen-year-old lesbian, told us, "I think the teachers careabout it more than the students."12 Steve Bewsey, who works with homeless and runaway youth in Texas, agreed: "The crap comes from the staff."13
Some students are able to find acceptance within their school districts after initial challenges of being identified. "The kids are really open," Eric C. said of the last San Francisco school he attended. "All of the gay students there were really open with themselves, and there were a lot of gay kids there. The straight kids don't see the gay kids as a problem. Like, in my leadership class I talked about some problems I was having with my boyfriend. The other kids just acted like it was completely normal."14
Although some lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students in the United States experience a positive, welcoming environment at school, the vast majority are not so fortunate. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are nearly three times as likely as their heterosexual peers to have been assaulted or involved in at least one physical fight in school, three times as likely to have been threatened or injured with a weapon at school, and nearly four times as likely to skip school because they felt unsafe, according to the 1999 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey.15 As Human Rights Watch documents in this report, many are targeted for harassment and violence from their peers because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In many instances, teachers, administrators, and other staff fail to protect youth from harassment. "The teachers didn't care," Danny W. stated, an assessment we heard frequently from the youth and adults we interviewed.16 "My kids complain a lot about the teachers turning a blind eye. They'll hear things like `faggot' and `suck my dick' in the classroom, and the teacher won't address it," says Michael Ferrera, clinical director of group homes at Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services (GLASS) in Los Angeles.
"The kids will say that if the comments were racial, the teachers would stop them. Because the comments are about sexuality, they don't," Ferrera continued.17 Of course, the mere existence of school policies to address racial discrimination does not mean that implementation is automatic; in fact, a March 2001 report of the California Attorney General's Civil Rights Commission on Hate Crimes relates numerous accounts of racial or ethnic bias that went unaddressed by school officials.18 But because such policies exist, and are backed up by state and federal law, teachers and administrators are accountable for their failure to respond to incidents of racial and ethnic discrimination. There is no such accountability in most states if school officials fail to protect students from harassment based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
Some school districts recognize the importance of addressing all forms of verbal harassment, including harassment directed at students or teachers because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. In Denver, for example, a May 1998 memo on the district's antiharassment policy asked the district's high school principals to "ensure that students are informed that intolerance against others, including gay and lesbian students, will not be tolerated. . . . Remind staff members that they should not ignore inappropriate remarks or slurs, for in doing so, they endorse them."19 And when teachers and administrators fail to respond to verbal harassment, it can often escalate into physical abuse.
This failure on the part of many adults means that youth are forced to advocate for their safety and well-being and educate their peers and their teachers at the same time that they are developing their identity. "It forces us to take on the role of adults," observed Dylan N., nineteen.20 "I learned about the cruel politics of high school bureaucracy," Gabriel D., sixteen, told us. He summarized the lessons he learned: "You need to put constant pressure on them. Don't yell, don't be angry, don't be emotional, but be persistent. . . . Document everything: the incidents of harassment, who was there, who was a witness."21
Some school officials expect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth to take the lead in providing information to their peers about sexual orientation or gender identity issues. After Anika P. was identified as transgender by her peers, school officials asked her to give a talk to her classmates about her gender identity. Anika felt that the school officials neither recognized how vulnerable speaking before the hostile students would feel to her nor were they willing to lay the groundwork to make it safe for her to be open about her identity. "They wanted me to go in front of all the kids," she told us. "They told me, `We have a few gay students who are also willing to go talk to them.' But I just chose not to tell my personal business." When she refused to take the lead in educating her peers, she felt that the school administration wanted her to leave, so she dropped out of school.22
Youth have been a driving force behind many of the positive changes in recent years. Beginning in 1996, youth activists in California have held Queer Youth Lobby Day; in 1999, youth played a critical role in securing the enactment of the state's Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act of 2000 after the measure was initially defeated by one vote.23 In May 2000, students in Naperville, Illinois, called on their district's school board to include protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in its policies.24 And in September 2000, students prevailed over hostile schoolboards in California and Utah that had sought to deny them the right to form clubs known as gay-straight alliances, in violation of the federal Equal Access Act. California's Orange Unified School District settled a lawsuit with El Modena High School students, permitting their group to meet on school grounds and use the school's public address system to announce club meetings. The same month, Utah's Salt Lake City School Board voted to permit student noncurricular groups to meet on school grounds, reversing a 1995 decision that had abolished all noncurricular clubs in an effort to prevent students from forming a gay-straight alliance at East High School.25
In fact, most of the youth we interviewed for this report were involved in school gay-straight alliances, student clubs that provide peer support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth. Many had started their school's gay-straight alliance, often in the face of opposition from school administrators, the local school board, and the community.
Every state we visited had groups for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. Youth with computer access can find a community on the world wide web through gay youth oriented web sites.26 By talking with their peers on the web, gay youth can escape the isolation many report feeling at school, and they can talk with other gay youth on the web without being publicly identified. And about fifteen cities around the country hold proms for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth-not only Boston, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, but also places such as Hartford, Connecticut, and Lincoln, Nebraska.
"I look around at kids today and I feel really envious," a twenty-four-year-old college activist commented to us. "I mean, when I came out in high school there was nothing."27
The increasing awareness of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues has fostered a public debate that is playing out in courtrooms and statehouses around the country. A small but increasing number of states have made it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in the workplace. California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Wisconsin explicitly prohibit harassment and discrimination in public schools based on sexual orientation.
Several states have programs in place to address harassment and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. Massachusetts and Vermont, the only states that include questions relating to students' sexual orientation on state youth risk behavior surveys, have state programs that provide support to lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth.28 (Neither program explicitly includes transgender youth.)
In the absence of explicit legal protection from discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students, some school districts attempt to protect students from antigay harassment through their policies and codes of conduct. In February 2001, however, a federal court of appeals found that a Pennsylvania school's policy impermissibly restricted students' freedom of speech, basing its holding in part on the fact that the policy "prohibits harassment based on personal characteristics that are not protected under federal law."29 Although the court recognized that school regulations may offer students greater protection than that in existing federal and state law, its decision raises the prospect of similar constitutional challenges to school policies in other districts. These difficulties underscore the need for federal protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Moreover, antigay sentiment flourishes in much of the country. Efforts to provide a safe, supportive environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students are hampered by discriminatory legislation in some states-sometimes referred to as "no promo homo" laws-that restrict student access to information relating to sexual orientation or gender identity. These laws prohibit school officials and teachers from acknowledging that homosexuality exists or saying anything which could be perceived as either neutral or positive about homosexuality.30
The Boy Scouts of America, traditionally viewed as an organization open to all boys, secured approval from the U.S. Supreme Court to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth if it wishes to do so.31
In Vermont, a campaign against civil unions legislation began to target a youth group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender teens. Referring to materials that provide information on avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, the campaign charged that Outright Vermont "could expose our children to the gay sex life" by telling youth "exactly how to perform gay sex acts." Outright director Keith Elston notes that the group does not distribute the materials in schools and does not do safer sex work in schools; instead, it makes brochures-approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-available to youth who come to the group's drop-in center and request information on safer sex practices.32
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth are aware of-and will soon confront, if they haven't already-other legal barriers to equality. These barriers include state prohibitions on same-sex marriage and on adoption by same-sex couples and the military's ban on lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals serving openly.
The Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth Population
Estimates of the number of gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth in the United States range from just over 1 percent to just under 9 percent, with the best estimates at 5 to 6 percent of the total population. These figures depend in part on whether the studies measure same-sex attraction, same-sex behavior, or both, whether they ask youth if they are unsure of or questioning their sexual orientation, and whether they ask youth to label themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
The nature of adolescence complicates any attempt to assess the sexual orientation of youth. Adolescence is a time of exploration and experimentation, a period in which youth begin to develop a sexual identity. As Ritch Savin-Williams has noted, many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth are not sexually experienced. Many have heterosexual experiences, and heterosexual youth may have same-sex experiences. Some youth identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual without having had any same-sex sexual experiences nor, for that matter, any heterosexual experiences.33
Asking about same-sex attraction is a way of measuring the incidence of sexual orientation in a group that includes individuals who are not sexually active. The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, perhaps the most comprehensive of the studies that include questions about same-sex attraction, includes over 12,000 youth in grades seven through twelve drawn from high schools and middle schools across the United States. Six percent of participants between the ages of thirteen and eighteen reported same-sex romantic attraction, with 1 percent identifying same-sex attraction only and 5 percent reporting attraction to both sexes.34
Studies that ask youth how they identify themselves yield lower figures, a result that is consistent with research finding that youth are generally reluctant to label themselves as lesbian or gay.35 Of those who completed the 1995 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 2.5 percent identified themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual; when those who described themselves as unsure of their sexual orientation were included, the figure was 3.8 percent.36 A 1992 study of junior and senior high school students in Minnesota yielded an even lower incidence of sexual minorities, with 1.1 percent describing themselves as bisexual or predominantly homosexual, 10.7 percent as "unsure" of their sexual orientation, and 88.2 percent as predominantly heterosexual.37 As might be expected, younger youth are more likely to be unsure of their sexual orientation. The 1992 Minnesota study found, for example, that one in four twelve-year-olds was unsure of his or her sexual orientation, while only one in twenty was questioning his or her sexual orientation at age eighteen.38
As a percentage of all youth surveyed, the figures for those that have engaged in same-sex behavior does not differ markedly from measures of same-sex attraction. In Vermont, for example, the 1999 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that about 3 percent of youth had engaged in same-sex behavior.39
A different picture emerges if one examines only those youth who are sexually active. The majority of youth surveyed in Vermont's 1999 Youth Risk Behavior Survey-64 percent of girls and 59 percent of boys-had never had sex. Of those who were sexually active, an analysis of Vermont's 1995 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 8.7 percent of boys in the eighth through twelfth grades reported that they had had one or more male sexual partners.40
The 1999 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey asked students if they had had any same-sex sexual contact and if they identified themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, finding that 5.5 percent of students participating in the survey fit one or both of those categories.
We interviewed eight youth who identified themselves as transgender, the umbrella term used to describe the identities and experiences of people whose gender identity in some ways does not conform to society's stereotypical concepts of "maleness" or "femaleness."41 It includes transsexuals who may or may not have had or plan to have sex reassignment surgery, male and female cross-dressers, and intersex persons.42 Both self-identified transgender people and people perceived to be transgender are subject to discrimination and persecution. Gender identity is separate from sexual orientation, though many people who are wrongly perceived to be transgender are gay or lesbian. Human Rights Watch uses the termtransgender in this report to refer to any youth we interviewed who were questioning their gender identity, challenging gender norms, intersex, or transsexual.
Children of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Parents
An estimated two million to eight million parents in the United States are lesbian or gay.43 Their children are no more likely than any other youth to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, but they are often targeted for harassment and violence because of their parents' sexual orientation or because their peers believe that they share their parents' sexual orientation. "My mom's a lesbian. I used to get a lot of crap for it," said Leslie H., sixteen. "They'd say, `Yeah, the lesbian's daughter. Does it run in the family?'"44
1 The Census Bureau reports that in 1990 the population of children between the ages of five and seventeen was 45,249,989. See U.S. Census Bureau, "General Population and Housing Characteristics: 1990," factfinder.census.gov/servlet/BasicFactsServlet (accessed on March 28, 2001).
2 However, the DSM-IV suggests that 1 per 30,000 adult males is male-to-female transsexual and 1 per 100,000 adult females is female-to-male transsexual. See American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV, 4th ed. (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1994).
3 See Stacey D'Erasmo, "Getting Out Early: They're Here. They're Queer. They're Thirteen," Nerve, August/September 2000, p. 100.
4 Human Rights Watch interview, Dallas, Texas, March 27, 2000.
5 See G. Herdt and A. Boxer, Children of Horizons, 2d ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996). In contrast, adults surveyed for a 1988 study reported an average age of thirteen for men and between fourteen and sixteen for women for their first awareness of an attraction to a person of the same sex. The average age for the first same-sex experience was fifteen for men and twenty for women. The adults who participated in the study identified themselves as gay or lesbian, on average, when they were between nineteen and twenty-one, for men, and between twenty-one and twenty-three, for women. See R.R. Troiden, "Homosexual Identity Development," Journal of Adolescent Health, vol. 9 (1988), p. 105. Troiden's study is based on retrospective assessments-that is, on adults' recollections of these developmental milestones-while Herdt and Boxer surveyed youth who were reporting on relatively recent events in their lives.
6 Human Rights Watch interview, Los Angeles, California, January 20, 2000.
7 Human Rights Watch interview, Los Angeles, California, January 20, 2000.
8 Human Rights Watch interview, Long Beach, California, October 21, 1999.
9 Human Rights Watch interview, Houston, Texas, March 17, 2000.
10 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.
11 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, March 2, 2000.
12 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.
13 Human Rights Watch interview with Steve Bewsey, director of housing and homeless services, Lifeworks, Austin, Texas, March 23, 2000.
14 Human Rights Watch interview, San Francisco, California, January 27, 2000.
15 See Massachusetts Department of Education, 1999 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey (Boston: Massachusetts Department of Education, 2000), www.doe.mass .edu/lss/yrbs99/ (accessed on April 3, 2001).
16 Human Rights Watch interview, Dallas, Texas, March 27, 2000.
17 Human Rights Watch interview with Michael Ferrera, clinical director of group homes, Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services, Los Angeles, California, October 22, 1999.
18 See California Attorney General's Civil Rights Commission on Human Rights, Reporting Hate Crimes: Final Report (Sacramento, California: Attorney General's Civil Rights Commission on Hate Crimes, 2001), p. 16.
19 Brian Weber, "Students Start Club for Gays at East High," Rocky Mountain News, September 30, 1998, p. 5A.
20 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 15, 1999.
21 Human Rights Watch interview, San Francisco, California, January 28, 2000.
22 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 23, 2000.
23 See "The Story Behind the Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act of 2000," in Make It Real: A Student Organizing Manual for Implementing California's New School Nondiscrimination Law (AB 537) (Los Angeles: Bay Area Gay-Straight Alliance Network/Tides Center and L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, 2000), p. 11.
24 See Tracy Dell'Angela, "Students Push for Policy Against Homophobia," Chicago Tribune, May 24, 2000.
25 See Chapter IX, "Efforts to Suppress Gay-Straight Alliances" section.
26 See Jennifer Egan, "<lonely gay teen seeking same>," New York Times Magazine, December 10, 2000, p. 110.
27 Human Rights Watch interview, Chicago, Illinois, October 6, 2000.
Children of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender parents are enrolled in school districts throughout the United States, not only in urban areas. In primarily rural central Illinois, for example, a February 2001 study of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons found that 22 percent of those who responded were parents.45 "This group of kids is suffering many of the same repercussions that LGBT kids do, and in much higher numbers," says Felicia Park-Rogers, director of Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere.46
28 In addition, Oregon and Wisconsin include a question asking students if they have been harassed in the previous thirty days because they were perceived to be lesbian, gay, or bisexual.
29 Saxe v. State College Area School District, 240 F.3d 200, 210 (3d Cir. 2001).
30 See Chapter X, "Health Education" section.
31 See Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640 (2000).
32 See Kai Wright, "Youth Group Under Attack in Vermont," New York Blade News, October 27, 2000, p. 8.
33 See Ritch C. Savin-Williams, "Gay and Lesbian Adolescents," in F.W. Bozett and M.B. Sussman, eds., Homosexuality and Family Relations (Binghamton, N.Y.: Harrington Park Press, 1990).
34 Of the remaining youth, 82.6 percent reported opposite-sex attractions only and 11.4 percent reported attractions to neither sex. See Stephen T. Russell and Brian D. Franz, "Violence in the Lives of Sexual Minority Youth: Understanding Victimization and Violence Perpetration" (paper presented at the annual meeting of the American SociologicalAssociation, Chicago, Illinois, August 1999), p. 6.
35 See, for example, R.C. Savin-Williams and R.E. Lenhart, "AIDS Prevention Among Lesbian and Gay Youth: Psychosocial Stress and Health Care Intervention Guidelines," in David G. Ostrow, ed., Behavioral Aspects of AIDS (New York: Plenum Publishing, 1990).
36 The 1995 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey also asked youth if they had ever had same-sex sexual experiences. See Robert Garofolo et al., "The Association Between Health Risk Behaviors and Sexual Orientation Among a School-Based Sample of Adolescents," Pediatrics, vol. 101 (1998), p. 895; Robert Garofalo et al., "Sexual Orientation and Risk of Suicide Attempts Among a Representative Sample of Youth," Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, vol. 153 (1999), p. 487.
Similarly, in a New Zealand study, 2.8 percent of those questioned at age twenty-one either identified themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual or reported relationships with same-sex partners between the ages of sixteen and the time of the survey. See David M. Fergusson, L. John Horwood, and Annette L. Beautrais, "Is Sexual Orientation Related to Mental Health Problems and Suicidality in Young People?," Archives of General Psychiatry, vol. 56 (1999), p. 876. These data were gathered as part of the Christchurch Health and Development Study, a twenty-one-year longitudinal study of 1,265 children born in Christchurch, New Zealand.
37 G. Remafedi et al., "Demography of Sexual Orientation in Adolescents," Pediatrics, vol. 89 (1992), p. 714. The sample was representative of youth in Minnesota, consisting of 34,706 students in grades seven through twelve of diverse ethnic, geographic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
38 Ibid. See also Gary Hollander, "Questioning Youths: Challenges to Working with Youths Forming Identity," School Psychology Review, vol. 29 (2000), p. 173.
39 Vermont Department of Health, Office of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs, 1999 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey (Montpelier, Vermont: 2000), p. 62, www.state.vt.us/adap/1999YRBS/YRBSST991.htm (accessed on April 3, 2001).
40 See also Robert H. DuRant, Daniel P. Krowchuk, and Sara H. Sinal, "Victimization, Use of Violence, and Drug Use at School Among Male Adolescents Who Engage in Same-Sex Sexual Behavior," Journal of Pediatrics, vol. 132 (1998), p. 13.
41 See Jamison Green, "Introduction to Transgender Issues," introduction to Paisley Currah and Shannon Minter, Trangender Equality, A Handbook for Activist and Policymakers (San Francisco and New York: National Center for Lesbian Rights and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, 2000), pp. 1-6.
42 Intersex individuals are people born with "ambiguous" genitalia and who, under existing though controversial medical practices, are often "assigned" a gender by their doctor.
43 See C.J. Patterson, "Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children," in A.R. D'Augelli and C.J. Patterson, eds., Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Identities over the Lifespan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 262. See also Virginia Casper and Steven B. Schultz, Gay Parents/Straight Schools: Building Communication and Trust (New York: Teachers College Press, 1999), p. 4.
44 Human Rights Watch interview, Dallas, Texas, March 27, 2000.
45 See Ramona Faith Oswald, Eileen Gebbie, and Linda Sue Culton, Report to the Community: Rainbow Illinois: A Survey of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender People in Central Illinois (Urbana, Illinois: Department of Human and Community Development, University of Illinois, 2001), p. 11.
46 Human Rights Watch interview with Felicia Park-Rogers, director, Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere, San Francisco, California, October 26, 1999.
P., New Hampshire|
Weaver, Teacher, Utah|
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