Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page


When harassment goes unchecked it may escalate into more serious behavior. "It was horrible," said Dexter P., a nineteen-year-old high school senior, who reported that other students started harassing him in the first grade. "At first they made fun of me because I was `different.' Then it was because I was gay. They'd call me things like `fag' and `cocksucker.' It went on through middle school and got really bad in high school."

He publicly identified as gay during the middle of his sophomore year. "After I came out, it was like I had a death wish or something. I was pushed around, thrown into lockers. I can see it all in my head. It was just constant. Everybody was always harassing me."94

Not every student reported suffering harassment as early as the first grade, but many agreed that verbal abuse starts by middle school. "Yeah, it started in fourth or fifth grade," said Chance M., an eighteen-year-old senior. "It started between fourth and fifth grade and didn't stop until the second semester of my senior year," when he enrolled in college classes.95

Similarly, harassment began in middle school for Kimberly G., a 1999 graduate. "It's weird because I was not out at all then." She described having other students calling her a lesbian after they saw her holding hands with her best friend. "Dyke, lesbian, nasty comments like that. They just screamed stuff down the hall. Basically rumors spread really fast."96

Lavonn R., a nineteen-year-old who had quit school three years before, recalled, "Ever since I was in junior high, I was totally just picked on and harassed."97 "It was the sixth grade when he was most targeted," Tod R.'s mother said of her eleven-year-old son.98 "I'd been pegged in middle school," said Anisse B., a 1998 high school graduate.99

Drew L., fifteen, told us that many of his classmates at his Louisiana middle school harassed him. "A lot of them said I was gay because I didn't play football,no sports," he told us. "You just kind of dealt with it. . . . They'd be like, `Are you a faggot?'"100

Students told us that harassment intensified when they entered high school. "In middle school, it's little remarks: `fag,' `you're gay,' stuff like that, nothing violent that I witnessed," said Ashley G., a seventeen-year-old in Massachusetts.101 "It was a lot more easier to deal with in junior high than in high school," Lavonn R. commented. "As I got older in high school, people tended to get a lot meaner. I'd be walking through the halls, people would say things, they'd laugh. Anyone who was my friend would get accosted and hassled. People would make them feel they shouldn't be seen around me."102

Sexual Harassment

Peer harassment and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth is often sexualized. Sometimes this takes the form of unwelcome physical contact with sexual overtones. "People would grab my breast area," Leslie H. said.103 "They'd come up and grab my waist, put their arm around me," Kimberly G. recounted.104 "They'll flash you, try to chase you down. That's what's going to happen," said Dempsey H.105

Sexual harassment may also consist of sexually suggestive remarks or gestures. "Guys will grab themselves, or they'll make kissing noises," said Andre T.106 "They mimic homoerotic acts. They'll mimic anal sex, mimic oral sex," Gabriel D. told us.107

Young lesbians and bisexual girls are more likely than other youth to experience sexual harassment, according to a recent study of peer sexual harassment among high school students. The study found that young lesbians and bisexual girls are more likely than heterosexual girls to be called sexually offensive names, have rumors told about them, be called "gay" or "lesbian" in a derogatoryway, receive sexually offensive photographs or messages, and be touched or grabbed in a sexual way.108

It goes almost without saying that experiencing sexual harassment has mental health consequences for youth. Many students who are subjected to sexual harassment report symptoms of depression that may include loss of appetite, loss of interest in their usual activities, nightmares or disturbed sleep, feelings of isolation from friends and family, and feelings of sadness or anger. They may also have difficulties at school, such as missing school days, not performing as well in school, skipping or dropping classes, or being late to class.109

Physical Abuse

Ultimately, persistent and unchecked harassment may lead to physical abuse. A number of the youth we interviewed reported just one or two attacks. Although limited in number, these assaults had considerable psychological impact, especially because they often came after persistent verbal and other nonphysical harassment that had gone unchallenged by school officials.

For example, Beth G. reported that several months of verbal threats and other harassment culminated in physical violence. "I got hit in the back of the head with an ice scraper," she told us. By that point, she said, she was so used to being harassed that "I didn't even turn around to see who it was."110

Chance M. told us, "Somebody threw a beer bottle at me during tenth grade and hit me in the neck. I had to crawl over to a friend's house for help. I don't think it was by accident. And in seventh grade I did get held down while someone punched me."111

In other cases, the physical abuse was severe and frequent. "It was small pranks at first, like thumbtacks on my chair. Or people would steal my equipment," explained Zach C., who was put into a drafting class composed mostly of seniors when he was in his freshman year. "Then things elevated. I'd hear `faggot' and people would throw things at me. They'd yell at me a lot. One timewhen the teacher was out of the room, they got in a group and started strangling me with a drafting line. That's about the same consistency as a fishing line. It was so bad that I started to get blood red around my neck, and it cut me." Later in the school year, his classmates also cut him with knives. On another occasion, he reports, "I was dragged down a flight of stairs by my feet."112

In Dylan N.'s case, verbal harassment escalated almost immediately into physical violence. Other students began spitting on him and throwing food at him. One day in the parking lot outside his school, six students surrounded him and threw a lasso around his neck, saying, "Let's tie the faggot to the back of the truck." After that incident, the harassment and violence intensified. "I was living in the disciplinary office because other harassment was going on. Everyone knew," he said. "It gave permission for a whole new level of physical stuff to occur." He was pushed up against lockers by students who shouted "fag" and "bitch" at him. On one occasion, a group of students surrounded him outside the school, punching him and jeering while security officers stood nearby. When the assault ended, he had a split lip and a broken nose and was bleeding profusely from his ear.113

A 1996 Wisconsin lawsuit starkly illustrates the escalation from verbal taunts to horrific violence. The suit was brought by a gay student who was repeatedly attacked throughout his middle school and high school years. After he told his seventh grade classmates that he was gay, they referred to him routinely as "faggot" and began to hit him and spit on him. He was subjected to a mock rape in a science lab by two of his classmates, who told him that he should enjoy it; twenty other classmates looked on and laughed. He attempted suicide at the end of his eighth grade year.

In high school, the abuse worsened. He was attacked several times in the school bathroom and urinated on during at least one of the attacks. When he took the bus to and from school, other students regularly called him "fag" and "queer" and often threw objects such as steel nuts and bolts at him. In the ninth grade, he again attempted suicide.

The next year, he arrived at school early one day and was surrounded by eight boys, one of whom kicked him in the stomach for five to ten minutes while theothers looked on and laughed. Several weeks later, he collapsed from internal bleeding caused by the attack. He left school in the eleventh grade.114

The student testified that he asked the principal to intervene to stop the harassment and explained in detail both the attacks and the antigay bias motivating the attacks. Despite the principal's promises to intervene, she took no action. In its decision, the court noted that "after the mock rape, [the student] escaped and fled to [the principal's] office. [Her] alleged response is somewhat astonishing; she said that `boys will be boys' and told [him] that if he was `going to be so openly gay,' he should `expect' such behavior from his fellow students."115 In November 1996, a federal jury found school officials liable for not protecting the student. The district agreed to pay the student over $900,000 in a settlement reached after the verdict.116

Students suggested that most incidents of physical violence are not reported. "I think they're unreported to a great extent," said Renata B., a Georgia senior. "I've had friends harassed and physically hurt. Few of them ever report anything."117 Many students who have been blamed by school officials for "provoking" verbal harassment believe that if they report physical violence they will just be blamed again. "The principal thought I was a hard ass and to blame for everything that happened before I was hit by a brick-why would he change his mind now?" asked Nikki L., a fourteen-year-old lesbian.118

"It's very embarrassing for boys especially. I think the harassment and violence is really underreported," says HATCH director Carol Petrucci. "When a boy is beaten up or threatened because of his sexual orientation, if he's not out, it's going to be very difficult for him to tell anybody about it. If he is out, some are going to be thinking, `Maybe I deserved it.'"119

But the limited data that are available suggest that it is common for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth to suffer physical assaults because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Youth who report same-sex or both-sex romantic attraction are more likely to have been in a fight that resulted in the need for medical treatment, according to a 1999 study that reviewed national data.120 An

analysis of the 1995 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey reached similar conclusions. Not only were boys who have same-sex partners more likely than their heterosexual peers to be involved in fights that required them to get medical treatment, they are also more likely to have been threatened or injured with a weapon at school, more likely not to attend school because they felt unsafe, and more likely to carry a weapon themselves.121

Where the Harassment Occurs

Harassment and acts of violence occur most frequently out of the direct view of teachers and administrators. As a result, students frequently told us that they tried to spend as little time as possible in the hallways, on the stairs, or in any other "teacher-free" zone. In addition, youth spoke of the risks they faced on their way to and from school; in some cases, their harassers vandalized their homes or targeted their families with obscene telephone calls. But we also heard numerous reports of harassment and physical abuse taking place in the classroom, in front of teachers.

"Most things happen in the hallways," said Andre T., a Dallas sophomore.122 Sam P., a twenty-year-old Austin, Texas, graduate, made the same observation, telling us, "The name calling happens in the hallways."123 "In the hallways, it's severe," said Greg Z., a senior in Georgia, speaking of harassment from classmates. "Lots of jocks, they pick on certain people. This one guy, they messed up his locker, they pushed him up against his locker" because they believed he was gay. "A lot of times it's things like yelling `faggots.' Sometimes they just trip youwalking down the hallways. Or they slam you into the locker and shout and keep on walking."124 Erin B., an eighth grader in Georgia, explained, "In my school, there's nothing the teachers can do in the halls because there's no one monitoring. One time I was shoved in front of a locker because a boy thought I was a boy who was trying to hit on him. I said, `I'm a girl and definitely not trying to hit on you.'"125

As a result, many students treat the hallways as enemy territory. "In the halls, I go from one class to another without wasting time," Chauncey T. says.126

Locker rooms, frequently unmonitored, are another part of schools where harassment can be particularly severe. Erin told us of the steps she took in her seventh grade gym class to minimize harassment. "It was really, really horrible there. . . . In gym, especially-horrible. I wasn't out, but everyone assumed. They wouldn't say anything to my face. I would change in the bathroom stall because I didn't want to be accused of looking at anyone. I was tardy to class all the time because of how long it took me to get changed."127

Youth also repeatedly told us that they avoid other areas where students are likely to congregate in large numbers. "I don't go to lunch because of problems with some kids," Chauncey T. says. But trying to avoid problems with other students has led to run-ins with the school administration. "I used to sit outside the sixth period classroom," he explains, "but they gave me detention."128

"I don't like going to school before school starts because I don't want to have to deal with anything someone might say before the teachers get there," Erin B. explained.129

Many youth feel most vulnerable outside the school setting. "It's mostly outside school that you end up feeling scared. There's nothing you can do at all," Chance M. said.130 For instance, many students are harassed on their way to and from school. "You'll have people throwing things at you on the bus," said Ethan J., sixteen.131 We heard similar accounts from students who rely on public transitto get to and from school.132 The same was true of those who walked to and from school. Dahlia P. told us, "I was walking home from school one day, and this guy pulled up and flipped me off and said, `Die, you lesbian.' I cried the whole day."133

Others, such as Matt P., talked of being harassed at local shopping malls or while driving or walking around town.134

Finally, some youth find themselves targeted in their own homes. Harassment at home may take the form of obscene telephone calls, as in the cases of Drew L., Gina T., and Gabriel D., described above.135 It may also consist of vandalism. Dempsey H. recounted, "One day we came home, and the house was wrapped," meaning that it was covered with toilet paper and other trash. "I went to school, and I told them, `I'm sure you have an idea of who's doing this.' They told me to file a police report. I talked to the cops, and they said there was no evidence." After he returned home that evening, his brother stepped outside and saw that Dempsey's car had been vandalized. "My car had shaving cream, shoe polish, all kinds of crap all over it," said Dempsey. On another occasion, he told us, his phone line was cut.136 Lavonn R.'s house was also targeted. "There was toilet paper in the trees, all over the yard," he said.137

Harassment outside the school, particularly that which takes place at students' homes, poses a challenge for school administrators. In many school districts, however, the commute to and from school is considered part of the school day; school disciplinary policies often cover actions by students that take place outside the school, an extension of the disciplinary process that is particularly appropriate if the acts arise out of harassment that begins at school. In some cases, however,harassment outside the school should be addressed in coordination with or even exclusively by local law enforcement officials.

But our findings reveal that a surprising amount of harassment occurs in public areas such as hallways, classrooms, lunchrooms, athletic fields, and school buses.138 Accordingly, schools should begin to address harassment and violence by ensuring that these public spaces are safe for all students.

94 Human Rights Watch interview, Salem, Massachusetts, May 24, 2000.

95 Human Rights Watch interview, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, May 10, 2000.

96 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000 (we interviewed Kimberly G. and Shelby L. together at their request).

97 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 23, 2000.

98 Human Rights Watch telephone interview, February 8, 2000.

99 Human Rights Watch interview, Houston, Texas, March 17, 2000.

100 Human Rights Watch interview, Dallas, Texas, March 27, 2000.

101 Human Rights Watch interview, Salem, Massachusetts, May 23, 2000.

102 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 23, 2000.

103 Human Rights Watch interview, Dallas, Texas, March 27, 2000.

104 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.

105 Human Rights Watch interview, Lubbock, Texas, March 21, 2000.

106 Human Rights Watch interview, Dallas, Texas, March 27, 2000.

107 Human Rights Watch interview, San Francisco, California, January 28, 2000.

108 See Susan Fineran, "Sexual Minority Students and Peer Sexual Harassment in High School," Journal of School Social Work, vol. 11 (2001).

109 See, for example, S. Fineran and L. Bennett, "Gender and Power Issues of Peer Sexual Harassment Among Teenagers," Journal of Interpersonal Violence, vol. 14 (1999), p. 6; M. Trigg and K. Wittenstrom, "That's the Way the World Goes: Sexual Harassment and New Jersey Teenagers," Initiatives, vol. 57 (1996), p. 55.

110 Human Rights Watch interview, Boston, Massachusetts, May 8, 2000.

111 Human Rights Watch interview, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, May 10, 2000.

112 Human Rights Watch interview, Houston, Texas, March 17, 2000 (group discussion).

113 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 15, 1999.

114 See Nabozny v. Podlesny, 92 F.3d 446, 450-52 (7th Cir. 1996). Complaints filed in other cases around the country show a similar pattern of escalation from verbal harassment to physical violence. See, for example, Flores v. Morgan Hill Unified School District, Case No. C-98 20358 JW (N.D. Cal. filed June 4, 1998); Iversen v. Kent School District, No. C97-1194 (W.D. Wash. filed July 23, 1997); McDonald v. Jefferson Township Board of Education, No. 97-5233 (WGB) (D.N.J. filed October 23, 1997).

115 Nabozny, 92 F.3d at 451.

116 See Patricia M. Logue, "Near $1 Million Settlement Raises Standard for Protection of Gay Youth," January 1, 1997, record=56 (accessed on April 10, 2001).

117 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 15, 1999.

118 Human Rights Watch interview, San Francisco, California, November 18, 1999.

119 Human Rights Watch interview with Carol Petrucci, March 17, 2000.

120 See Stephen T. Russell and Brian Franz, "Violence in the Lives of Sexual Minority Youth: Understanding Victimization and Violence Perpetration" (paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Chicago, Illinois, August 1999), p. 7.

121 See R.H. DuRant, D.P. Krowchuk, and S.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. 133 (1998), p. 113.

122 Human Rights Watch interview, Dallas, Texas, March 27, 2000.

123 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.

124 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 18, 1999.

125 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, March 2, 2000.

126 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, March 3, 2000.

127 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, March 2, 2000.

128 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, March 3, 2000. Detention is a mild form of punishment, requiring students to stay after the school days ends and study or do chores.

129 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, March 2, 2000.

130 Human Rights Watch interview, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, May 10, 2000.

131 Human Rights Watch interview, Greenfield, Massachusetts, May 31, 2000.

132 In Boston, three high school students reportedly attacked one of their classmates on a train ride home from school because they thought she was a lesbian. After the three saw the girl holding hands with another girl, they groped her, ripped her clothes, and pointed at their genitals while shouting, "Do you like this? Do you like this? Is this what you like?," according to the Associated Press. The three were charged with indecent assault and battery and civil rights violations. Boston school officials also began disciplinary proceedings, noting that "the ride home is considered part of the school day." See "Teens Arrested for Allegedly Sexually Assaulting Classmate on Train," Associated Press, January 29, 2000.

133 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.

134 Human Rights Watch interview, Salem, Massachusetts, May 24, 2000.

135 Human Rights Watch interviews, Dallas, Texas, March 27, 2000; Houston, Texas, March 17, 2000; San Francisco, California, January 28, 2000.

136 Human Rights Watch interview, Lubbock, Texas, March 21, 2000.

137 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 23, 2000.

138 These findings are consistent with studies of sexual harassment. For example, a 1995 Connecticut study reported that sexual harassment occurred most frequently in public and that often teachers or other adults were present but did not intervene to stop the harassment. Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, In Our Own Backyard: Sexual Harassment in Connecticut's Public High Schools (Hartford, Connecticut: Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, 1995).

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page


What You Can Do

Table of Contents


Order this report

Contribute to HRW

HRW Press Release

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