I don't feel like adolescents should have to go to school in survival mode.
Damaging in itself, verbal harassment that goes unchecked may quickly escalate into physical violence, including sexual assaults. And when teachers and administrators fail to act to prevent harassment and violence, they send a message that it is permissible for students to engage in harassment, and they allow the formation of a climate in which students may feel entitled to escalate their harassment of gay youth to acts of physical and sexual violence.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth are not the only victims of harassment and violence. Because those who commit such acts do so based on their perception of sexual orientation and gender identity, "straight students are targets of homophobic harassment," notes Rea Carey, former executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Youth Advocacy Coalition. "A lot of times it's not until that fact is pointed out to them do school administrators perk up their ears."49 Unfortunately, when school officials respond only after a straight student is "mistakenly" targeted, they reinforce the notion that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students are not worthy of protection.
When teachers and administrators fail to protect students from peer harassment and violence, the state violates its obligation under international law toprovide youth with the "measures of protection" they are due as children.50 In addition, if teachers and administrators extend lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender students less protection that they would to heterosexual students in similar circumstances-if, for example, they routinely investigate complaints of sexual harassment by straight girls but brush off such complaints when made by gay boys-the state runs afoul of its duty to respect and ensure the right of youth "without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law."51
Unsurprisingly, those who endure such abuse on a daily basis report that it affects their school performance and general well-being. "It was interfering with my education and other students' education. It was interfering with teaching. It was not a good learning environment," said Dempsey H., a sophomore in East Texas.52
The failure to address antigay harassment and violence affects the education of all students, not only those who are harassed. Emphasizing "the importance of education to our democratic society," the U.S. Supreme Court has observed that it is "perhaps the most important function of state and local governments," "the very foundation of good citizenship," and "a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values."53 Ultimately, the failure to respond to harassment and violence subverts these principles by sending all students a message that it is permissible to hate.
If the experiences of the youth interviewed by Human Rights Watch are any measure, verbal harassment is very common in U.S. middle schools and high schools. Nearly every one of the 140 youth we interviewed described incidents of verbal or other nonphysical harassment in school because of their own or other students' perceived sexual orientation. For many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, relentless verbal abuse and other forms of harassment are "all part of the normal daily routine," as Dylan N. notes.54
"They used to call me all kinds of names-faggot and stuff like that," said Jesús M., a bisexual seventeen-year-old, in a comment typical of those we heard. "The worst thing about my first school was that they were screaming things to me in the hallways. Sometimes they would say these names in class."55 "People called everyone `faggot,'" said Chance M., an eighteen-year-old senior in Massachusetts. "That's like the word of the century. It turned into a routine."56 "That's how you pick on someone, straight or gay. You call them a fag," said James L., a sophomore in the Los Angeles area. "I hear it a lot of times during the course of the day, a lot, at the very least ten to twenty times a day."57 "These guys, they'll stand in front of the lockers. They'll be, like, `Look at that faggot.' You hear it every day," Tommy L. told us.58
Most of the other students we spoke with had similar experiences. Aaron G., a twenty-year-old college sophomore, told Human Rights Watch, "I got a lot of harassment in high school. `Fucking fag,' stuff like that."59 "I had people harass me for liking girls," recounted Kimberly G., a nineteen-year-old who graduated from a Texas high school in 1999. "I got a lot of that during my senior year. . . . It got to the point with me during the last three months before graduation, it probably happened every day."60 When Casey G.'s classmates at his North Carolina school discovered that he was gay, they harassed him daily. "They'd come up to me and say, `I'll pray for you tonight.' Or just call me `faggot,'" he told us.61 The same thing happened to Dalia P. when her classmates learned shewas a lesbian during her sophomore year; "people would be yelling `dyke' down the hall," she said.62 And Erin B., an eighth grader in Georgia, told us about the verbal abuse one of her classmates receives. "Taylor is the only openly gay male student at school," she said. "He gets teased so badly every five seconds."63
Whisper campaigns are a related method of harassment. "People will start rumors about me because I'm the only gay person who's out in the whole school," said Miguel S., a New Jersey high school student. "The worst was when people were saying that I had AIDS."64 Lavonn R. told us, "Sometimes there didn't need to be much said at all. It could be looks, whispering, horrible rumors. In junior high, the rumors can start in sixth grade and haunt you through the rest of junior high."65
Harassment can also come in the form of written notes, obscene or suggestive cartoons, graffiti scrawled on walls or lockers, or pornography. "Someone wrote `FAG' on my locker," Chance M. told us.68 Lavonn R. reported that his classmates "would always be sticking things in my locker."69
On another occasion in the school library, Chance told us, "Someone put a book on how to cope with homosexuality into my bookbag. The alarm went off [when he left the library], and the librarian pulled it out of my bag. It was very embarrassing."70 Dahlia P. had a similar experience.71
Beth G. came to school one day to see "large red letters across the wall saying, `Beth's dead.'"72 One of Ron T.'s classmates vandalized the school theater,scrawling messages such as "[Ron] is a faggot" and "all gays must die"; to his school's credit, Ron reports that "that was taken care of quickly."73
Dylan N. reported that his classmates passed fake love letters to other boys with his name signed at the bottom.74 Mimicking behaviors are another common method of harassment. "Lots of straight guys play as if they were gay," Drew L. said.75
The unrelenting verbal attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students creates a hostile climate that can be unbearable for them. It can undermine students' ability to focus at school as well as their well-being. When school officials routinely ignore the pervasive verbal harassment or dismiss its seriousness, they create an atmosphere that the gay students are powerless to change and from which they can only escape by dropping out of school. Although the youth we interviewed frequently focused on fear of physical and sexual violence, many noted that the experience of being called "faggot," "queer," "dyke" and other slurs on a daily basis was devastating. One young gay youth who had dropped out of an honors program angrily protested, "Just because I am gay doesn't mean I am stupid," as he told of hearing "that's so gay" meaning "that's so stupid," not just from other students but from teachers in his school.76
Many youth we interviewed emphasized that verbal harassment was not harmless behavior. "It's not just name calling," stressed Gabriel D. "I don't know how schools can isolate it like that. When are they going to see it as a problem? When we're bloody on the ground in front of them? In front of the media? It would be a lot more proactive to educate people to stop it now. . . . Otherwise, when is it going to stop?"77
Asked if he thought students who used terms like "fag" were just playing around, Chance M. responded, "A few times, I'm sure that's true. But a lot of times it's pure hate . . . . By ninth grade, they're old enough to know that words hurt. They can stop; it's not that hard."78
"People do use the term `gay' as an adjective to describe anybody stupid or crazy or not cool. It's degrading the whole term and what it represents," Melanie S. told us. "Words hurt," she added. "A gay kid could be on the brink, ready to give up, and hears that word all the time. I can be in a conversation down the hall, and I can hear it. It grabs me. You can't avoid it. People should understand not to do that."79
"It hurts because it feels like harassment," commented Danny W., a seventeen-year-old in Dallas.80 "I know that when people do that I get affected," Drew L., fifteen, said of hearing the word "faggot." "It's kind of like if I heard black people called names, I would get offended. It's a word that I've never been taught as meaning something friendly. It's not a gesture that I take lightly."81
"It's so persistent," Michelle Golden, of Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services (GLASS), told Human Rights Watch. "People will say, `It's just a comment,' but it really creates a climate."82 Every time a slur is ignored by school officials, the students who are targets of those slurs are reminded that neither their teachers nor the school administrators are willing to defend them or to make the school a safe place for them. At the same time that students who are the targets of the harassment get the message that they are not worthy of protection, the students engaging in acts of harassment get the message that they can get away with harassing their gay peers. It is precisely this impunity that those who harass rely on when they escalate their attacks against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students.
"There's an emotional consequence to name calling," said Jack S., an eighteen-year-old senior. "When is it equal for all?" asked Gabriel. "It's not like someone calling someone else an idiot. Not everyone gets called a faggot." "It's only for people who are different," said Jack.83
Verbal harassment in itself has serious consequences for school performance and general well-being. When Dr. Gerald P. Mallon interviewed fifty-four gay and lesbian youth in the child welfare system, he found that "[f]or many, verbalharassment causes as much hurt as physical violence because it profoundly damages self-esteem."84
Many youth find it particularly damaging to be harassed because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation. A 1993 survey by the American Association of University Women Education Foundation found that 86 percent of students-87 percent of girls and 85 percent of boys-stated that they would be very upset if they were identified by their peers as gay or lesbian. "No other type of harassment-including actual physical abuse-provoked a reaction this strong among boys," the study noted.85
An atmosphere of discrimination, harassment, and violence is not conducive to learning. "I was conscious of the fact that I was not getting an education," Dylan N. told us.86 Many of the youth we interviewed told us that they had skipped school because of persistent harassment or threats of violence.
Some youth switch schools to escape harassment and violence. Eric C., for example, was able to graduate after he transferred to a school with a reputation for acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, but he had to commute across town after his transfer.87
Others, such as Alex M. and Anika P., miss a semester or more of classes until they find a school that they can attend without fearing violence or experiencing persistent harassment. When we interviewed Tanika R., a thirteen-year-old in Los Angeles, she had not attended classes for nearly four months.88
A few simply drop out of school altogether. Some are able to receive a General Educational Development diploma (GED, often referred to as a graduate equivalency degree), as Dylan N., Kylie T., and Dalhia P. did. But these youth are the exceptional few who are able to manage an independent study schedule while coping with the long-term effects of harassment and violence and, frequently,beginning to adjust to life on their own. Many more youth, such as Lavonn R., never complete their GEDs after dropping out of school.89
Human Rights Watch found that some of the students try to match the attitude of the teachers and administrators who ignore the harassment. Faced with school officials who downplay the verbal harassment or who tell the gay youth they must "get used to it," some students internalize the message they are just going to have to learn to live with harassment. "I got `fag,' `homo,' all those derogatory terms for people. But I've never been harassed," said Chauncey T., a seventeen-year-old in Georgia. Asked to explain how he defined harassment, he replied, "Well, no one's ever wanted to fight me." Later in our conversation, he returned to the topic of verbal harassment, saying, "I've gotten verbal abuse . . . not once, not twice, but incessantly."90
"They don't see it as harassment," says Carol Petrucci of the Houston Area Teenage Coalition of Homosexuals (HATCH). "They see it as what it's like to be a kid-this is what you have to take."91 They get this message from their teachers. Jesús M. told us that when he was harassed by his classmates, "Nothing happened. The teachers didn't hear or would ignore them."92 In fact, some of the youth seemed to think it was their fault that they found the hostile climate unbearable. Alex M., a sophomore in Georgia, told us that he missed fifty-six days of school the previous semester. "I'm not proud of that. I know I should've done better. I just couldn't deal with it anymore," he said.93
Whether the message is explicit or implied,
lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students are being taught that
verbal harassment is an inevitable consequence of being gay and that they
have no right to expect adults to confront their harassers or condemn the
54 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 15, 1999.
55 Human Rights Watch interview, Long Beach, California, January 19, 2000.
56 Human Rights Watch interview, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, May 10, 2000.
57 Human Rights Watch interview, Los Angeles, California, January 19, 2000.
58 Human Rights Watch telephone interview, March 24, 2000.
59 Human Rights Watch interview, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, May 10, 2000.
60 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000 (we interviewed Kimberly G. and Shelby L. together at their request).
61 Human Rights Watch interview, Los Angeles, California, January 20, 2000.
62 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.
63 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, March 2, 2000.
64 Human Rights Watch interview, Bergen County, New Jersey, October 31, 1999 (group discussion).
65 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 23, 2000.
66 Human Rights Watch interview, Dallas, Texas, March 27, 2000.
67 Human Rights Watch interview, Houston, Texas, March 17, 2000.
68 Human Rights Watch interview, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, May 10, 2000.
69 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 23, 2000.
70 Human Rights Watch interview, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, May 10, 2000.
71 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.
72 Human Rights Watch interview, Boston, Massachusetts, May 8, 2000.
73 Human Rights Watch interview, Lubbock, Texas, March 21, 2000.
74 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 15, 1999.
75 Human Rights Watch interviews, Dallas, Texas, March 27, 2000.
76 Human Rights Watch interview, Long Beach, California, October 21, 1999.
77 Human Rights Watch interview, San Francisco, California, January 28, 2000 (we interviewed Gabriel D. and Jack S. together at their request).
78 Human Rights Watch interview, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, May 10, 2000.
79 Human Rights Watch interview, Salem, Massachusetts, May 23, 2000.
80 Human Rights Watch interview, Dallas, Texas, March 27, 2000.
81 Human Rights Watch interview, Dallas, Texas, March 27, 2000.
82 Human Rights Watch interview with Michelle Golden, Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services, Boston, Massachusetts, May 8, 2000.
83 Human Rights Watch interviews, San Francisco, January 28, 2000 (we interviewed Gabriel D. and Jack S. together at their request).
84 Gerald P. Mallon, We Don't Exactly Get the Welcome Wagon: The Experiences of Gay and Lesbian Adolescents in Child Welfare Systems (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 85.
85 Hostile Hallways: The AAUW Survey on Sexual Harassment in America's Schools (Washington, D.C.: The American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, 1993), p. 20.
86 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 15, 1999.
87 Human Rights Watch interview, San Francisco, California, January 27, 2000.
88 Human Rights Watch interviews, Atlanta, Georgia, December 15, 1999; Austin, Texas, March 23, 2000; Los Angeles, California, January 20, 2000.
89 Human Rights Watch interviews, Atlanta, Georgia, December 15, 1999; Greenfield, Massachusetts, May 31, 2000; Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000; Austin, Texas, March 23, 2000.
90 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, March 3, 2000.
91 Human Rights Watch interview with Carol Petrucci, director, Houston Area Teenage Coalition of Homosexuals (HATCH), Houston, Texas, March 17, 2000. HATCH runs a drop-in center and provides support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth.
92 Human Rights Watch interview, Long Beach, California, January 19, 2000.
93 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, March 1, 2000.