VII. TEACHERS AND ADMINISTRATORS
"It's wonderful here," said Erin B., contrasting her current school with the one she had attended the previous year, when she was in the seventh grade. She explained, "My science and English teachers are so nice. If someone says `fag' or `dyke,' they stop them. My teachers are really good about stopping homophobic words from being spread. There was one girl who used to give me complete hell. She'd tell me I'm fruity, stuff like that. The teacher took her into the hall and talked to her. My teachers are really cool."211
Most students do not receive such support from teachers or administrators, however.
"The teachers are a real mix. There are some who have put themselves on the line," Katrina Avila of the Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Trangendered Youth told Human Rights Watch. "In cases of physical violence it's rare for teachers not to intervene. But teachers are not responding to comments."212
In some cases, in fact, "the teachers go along with the people that are making fun of other students," Paul M., a New Jersey senior, told us. "They should put a stop to it. Instead, it's like they're on the side of the person doing the harassment. It's not fair. I don't think that's right."213
David Buckel, a staff attorney with the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, reports that he sees two typical responses from administrators. "The first response is that boys will be boys . . . . There's a notion that a boy should be fighting back as a man," he says. "Second, you'll hear the response that if you're going to be gay, you have to expect this kind of abuse, because you'll face it for the rest of your life."214
And, as discussed earlier in this report, harassment against young lesbians and bisexual girls often goes unrecognized.
Even teachers who are themselves lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender admitted to us that they did not always stand up for students who were beingharassed. In every one of the seven states we visited, we spoke with teachers who were reluctant to be open about their sexual orientation at school because they feared losing their jobs. A teacher from a rural county near Macon, Georgia, told Human Rights Watch, "I'm out to my principal. I'm out, but he told me that if the parents found out, he didn't need that kind of shit in his life, and he'd hang me out to dry."215
We heard these fears expressed most often in states which do not provide protection from discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation. Even in states with such protection, however, many teachers told us that they did not feel that they could be open about their sexual orientation. This fear kept many of the lesbian and gay teachers we interviewed from intervening to protect students from harassment and from educating their peers about the harassment, discrimination, and violence the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students face at school. But their fear also conveys the message to the gay youth that even adults in positions of authority face discrimination if they are publicly identified as gay or lesbian.
"Some teachers are very supportive, but they won't come out. They won't risk their jobs," said Alex Night of Lambda GLBT Community Services in El Paso, Texas. "We've had teachers who everybody knows are gay, and when a gay student gets harassed or beaten up, they won't do anything. And we've had straight teachers who stand up for the students."216
These fears affect both the teachers themselves and the students in their schools. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth consistently identified adult role models as an important source of support for them. In particular, many students told us that they thought their school experiences would have been better if they had a teacher who was openly gay. "It would almost be a perfect remedy," remarked Chance M., a Massachusetts senior, "making people face what they're afraid of."217
The most common response to harassment, according to the students we interviewed, is no response. "Nothing. Nothing at all," Lavonn R. replied whenhe was asked what teachers did when he was harassed in front of them. "I can't remember even once where a teacher stood up for me and helped me."218
"I'd see teachers walking down the hallway. They'd see something and not say anything," Chance M. told a Human Rights Watch researcher.219 "I would think the teachers would be able to hear the comments," said James L., a fifteen-year-old in the Los Angeles area. "They just don't do anything."220
"What concerns me most is that teachers don't interject when they hear those comments," a counselor in West Texas remarked. "It's nothing for kids to call each other `faggot.' Nothing is done."221
Many students felt that teachers and administrators do not respond because they believe that antigay comments are not harmful. Gabriel D., a sixteen-year-old in the San Francisco Bay area, commented, "There was this underlying tone that boys will be boys or kids will be kids, but that's wrong."222
Alex M. described the lengths he went to in order to get the school administration to address his complaint. "I reported it," he said. "I took a folder, wrote down dates and times every time I was harassed. I took it down to the principal. He said, `Son, you have too much time on your hands to worry about these folks. I have more important things to do than worry about what happened two weeks ago.' I told him, `I wanted to give you an idea of what goes on, the day-to-day harassment.' He took the folder away from me and threw it in the trash. That was my freshman year, first semester. After that I realized [the school] wasn't going to do anything."223
Frustrated by the prevalence of antigay comments and the lack of attention paid to them by their coworkers, several teachers told us that they do the best they can to address such harassment. "I would hear so many slurs everywhere I go. I can't do anything in the hallways because it's just too pervasive, but in my class I don't let it go on," a Georgia teacher stated.224 A teacher in West Texas told us, "I'll tell my students, `I don't want any putdowns on anybody on anything here. Here no one's going to be calling anybody a fag, a hick, a nerd, nothing like that.' I kind of make it a safe room that way."225
Matt P. told us that the one openly lesbian teacher in his small New Hampshire school had a similar policy. "Her room was a safe zone," he reported. "But if there was something outside that she heard, she wouldn't say anything. But she wasn't in a position to say anything. She wasn't a full teacher at that point."226
Teachers may fail to respond to harassment because they lack the training to do so. Students sense the teachers' discomfort and unwillingness to intervene. "Teachers are given no direction on what to say to students," observed Sabrina L.227 When we asked teachers about the training they received in preparation for teaching, most responded that their teacher training programs did not address harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Inexperienced teachers may be particularly ill-equipped to address antigay harassment. "The younger teachers aren't quick to respond," Ron P. notes. "I think the younger teachers are scared to speak up to the students. The older teachers are open minded. The younger teachers are still trying to be friends with the students-you can't do that."228
But others felt that incoming teachers were more likely to be receptive to the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. "I don't think we have a horrible school system, but I don't think it's going to take place with the teachers already teaching in the school system," a Georgia teacher offered.229
The teachers and youth with whom we spoke emphasized that most students would appreciate efforts to rein in harassment. "If a model was in place, something designed to stop violence and take advantage of what teachers always refer to as `teachable moments,' there are lots of kids that would embrace it," says the Georgia teacher.230
In the absence of clear school district policies and lacking relevant training to fall back on, some teachers seem to be happy to let youth settle matters for themselves. Dylan N. told us that, on one occasion, the teacher walked out of the room when other students were throwing things at him.231 A counselor in Georgiadescribed another case of a student who was harassed because his classmates thought he was gay. "The whole administration knew what was going on," the counselor said, telling us that the principal referred the student to him. "He was having problems at lunch. The kids he was sitting with helped him out. I told him to tell the staff on duty when something happened, and he IDed [identified] a group of guys." The counselor told us that official intervention proved to be unnecessary. "Really the kids dealt with it-they got up in their face, told them to lay off, put some peer pressure on them. He didn't have a problem after that. He got a reputation of being a fighter. Word got out that he was not a kid to mess with."232
We heard numerous accounts of teachers and administrators who refused to act to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students out of the belief that they get what they deserve. Dempsey H. told us that when he went to the principal to complain of constant harassment, "He said, `You chose this lifestyle; you need to carry all the baggage that comes with it.'"233
In Alex M.'s case, "They knew what was going on, but they wouldn't help," the sophomore told us. "I told this teacher, `I've been experiencing harassment from some students at school.' He's like, `Well, did you tell them you're gay?' I'm like, `Yeah, the whole school knows.' So he says, `Maybe you should've kept it to yourself.' They're telling me it's my fault. I was responsible for the harassment. The vice-principal said the same thing. He told me that I should have kept my sexuality to myself, that way they wouldn't have anything to talk about."234
Carol Petrucci, director of a Houston group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, described a similar case involving a boy who openly identifies as gay at school. "The harassment began to get physical. The assistant principal told him that if he didn't walk around telling people he's gay, there wouldn't be any problems."235 Stephen Scarborough, an attorney with the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund in Atlanta, sees a similar dynamic in virtually all of the cases he receives: It is the student being harassed because of his or her actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity who is blamed for the situation. If a concerned parent repeatedly complains to the administration about theharassment, the official response is often to transfer the student rather than address the problem and punish the perpetrators.236
Sometimes the refusal to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students from abuse stems from a perceived conflict with their personal beliefs. "One teacher said to me, `I don't believe in that. I'm going to pray for you,'" Dempsey H. told us.237
Participation in Acts of Harassment and Discrimination
Even more disturbing were the accounts we heard of teachers and administrators who actually took part in harassing students because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. It is disappointing, but not surprising, to hear such reports. In a 1998 study of school counselors serving kindergarten through twelfth grade, those surveyed assessed the attitudes of faculty, students, and administrators as negative to intolerant.238
At the extreme, we heard several accounts of teachers and administrators who actively targeted youth. Thomas B., a sixteen-year-old Arkansas sophomore, wrote to Human Rights Watch to report that he had started receiving handwritten notes in his locker at the end of his freshman year. When he showed the notes to several teachers, his art teacher recognized the handwriting as that of a substitute teacher's.
The principal did not investigate the substitute's behavior. Instead, Thomas relates:
My art teacher explained what had happened, and showed the principal the notes. The principal asked the art teacher to leave, which she did. I was alone in front of the administrators. I was terrified.
After talking a little bit about what happened, the principal began to ask me questions such as, "Are you openly gay?" "How do you know you're gay?" and the like. I responded as best I could, it was hard to think straight. She then asked if I have been harassed by other students at the school because of my orientation. When I said yes, she acted as if itwere my own fault for being harassed because I am open about my sexuality. I felt horrible, and started to cry. They had me leave the room for a while for them to talk.
I was called back around ten minutes later. They said they had to call my mother because I was, "complaining about a staff member." This made me feel worse, and cry even more. I didn't know what my mother would do, she isn't very open about this type of thing. I wanted to run away and say, "forget it," but I couldn't bring myself to do it. After that, the principal suggested that I go see a therapist. With that I hit rock bottom, I've never been so sad, scared, and angry at the same time. She wanted me to see a therapist because of my sexuality!239
Alex M. also experienced negative reactions from several of his teachers. "These two, I could tell they were very homophobic," he told us. "They know that it's according to the school rules, here in the Atlanta public school system, that they can't do anything harmful to me. Me being homosexual can't affect my grade in any way. But every time they see me coming down the hall, they make these physical gestures, like they roll their eyes or sigh. . . . And I had this world history teacher, he'd be like, `oh, faggot this,' `faggot that.' One time he told me I was going to hell."240
We heard several other accounts of teachers who responded with references to their own religious beliefs when they learned that one of their students was lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. One teacher told Chauncey T. that he should expect to go to hell. "She told me devout Christian stuff, like if the Bible is the divine word of God, then gay people have to come to terms with the fact they can't go to heaven," he said. "She'd say she can't believe a sin so strong would strike someone so young."241
Leslie H., a sixteen-year-old whose mother is a lesbian, told us, "One of my teachers was like, `Yeah, you know it's right for a man and a woman to be together. It's not right what your mother and other gay or lesbian people do.'"242
Transgender students are particularly targeted. "One teacher told the class that I'd had a sex change operation, but I hadn't," said Gerald A. "He was misinformed. It was rude of him."243
"They're harassed by their peers and the staff," said Vitaly, a staff attorney with Legal Services for Children in San Francisco. "There's name calling. The `he/she' thing. Refusal by staff to use proper pronouns, even after names are legally changed. Ridicule by the substitute teacher. In one case, physical harassment-a student pushed and shoved by a teacher."244
A Georgia teacher spoke to us about another case involving a transgender youth who was harassed by staff. "Right now we have a transgender student-he believes he's a boy," the teacher told us. "The students don't give him as much problems as the adults do." Teachers and administrators persistently refer to the student as "she" and use his female name in front of students. "I didn't know about the student until a counselor just automatically outed him to me. The counselor said, `We can't refer to him as "he" because somebody might sue.' I'm like, you idiots, you can't be sued for calling somebody by the pronoun they want you to use."245
The same is true of other students who may not identify as transgender but who transgress gender stereotypes. Another Georgia teacher reported to us that a coworker would comment that one student "needs to dress more like a girl."246 A counselor in Texas told us about one junior high school student she knew several years ago. "He had longer hair, wore pinks and purples; he would powder his nose in class. He had a circle of friends. The teachers had difficulty with him. They would do things to embarrass him in class. They'd tell him to put stuff away and quit acting like a girl. They'd say other rude things to him," she told us.247
More often, youth and adults report that some teachers and administrators make comments that generally present lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals in a negative light. For example, one Georgia teacher told us, "Once I heard one of my coworkers, the science teacher, say, `Stop that! What are you, a bunch of homosexuals?'"248
Jerome B., sixteen, had a similar experience. "Yeah, it was kind of all right `til you got to the coaches and stuff," Jerome B. told us. "They be calling some of the gay guys `girls' or `sissies,' saying we scared to play football. Me and three friends of mine who are gay, we went through that." Asked how the coach singled his three friends and him out for this treatment, Jerome replied, "Coach just assumed I was gay. He picked right. I mean, I'm kind of out. All my friends know, but not the whole school. It's not any of their business."249
"Once in health class, my freshman year, the teacher made some gay joke. I caught it and I wasn't pleased. It was when we got to something on homosexuality. He skimmed over it and made a joke," said Manny V. "In a health class-how can you do that?"250
And in many instances, youth and adults reported hearing remarks by administrators and teachers that were not directed at any particular student but were hurtful nonetheless. A Kansas City teacher told us, "These two male teachers in my building come up, and they're saying these little gay comments. They had no idea. `That's so gay,' they say. They don't realize what effect it has. The teachers just don't know what's going on."251
Such comments have an effect on students'
emotional well-being even if they are not intended to be hurtful and even
if they are not directed at a particular student. As Melanie S., a Massachusetts
sophomore, told us, "When I was going through the stage of trying to identify
myself, school played a major part because I spend two-thirds of my day
there. It's one thing to see kids talking about being gay in a negative
sense. It's another thing to see an adult, a person you respect, talking
negatively. Once you see a role model degrading you, it tears you apart."252
218 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 23, 2000.
219 Human Rights Watch interview, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, May 10, 2000.
220 Human Rights Watch interview, Los Angeles, California, January 19, 2000.
221 Human Rights Watch interview, Lubbock, Texas, March 20, 2000.
222 Human Rights Watch interview, San Francisco, California, January 28, 2000.
223 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, March 1, 2000.
224 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 14, 1999.
225 Human Rights Watch interview, Lubbock, Texas, March 20, 2000.
226 Human Rights Watch interview, Salem, Massachusetts, May 23, 2000.
227 Human Rights Watch interview, Los Angeles, California, October 18, 1999.
228 Human Rights Watch interview, Lubbock, Texas, March 21, 2000.
229 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 18, 1999.
230 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 18, 1999.
231 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 15, 1999.
232 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 14, 1999.
233 Human Rights Watch interview, Lubbock, Texas, March 21, 2000.
234 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, March 1, 2000.
235 Human Rights Watch interview with Carol Petrucci, director, Houston Area Teenage Coalition of Homosexuals (HATCH), Houston, Texas, March 17, 2000.
236 Human Rights Watch interview with Steve Scarborough, staff attorney, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Atlanta, Georgia, December 14, 1999.
237 Human Rights Watch interview, Lubbock, Texas, March 21, 2000.
238 See J.H. Fontaine, "Evidencing a Need: School Counselors' Experiences with Gay and Lesbian Students," Professional School Counseling, vol. 1 (1998), p. 8.
239 E-mail message to Human Rights Watch from Thomas B., March 20, 1999.
240 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, March 1, 2000.
241 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, March 3, 2000.
242 Human Rights Watch interview, Dallas, Texas, March 27, 2000.
243 Human Rights Watch interview, San Francisco, California, October 27, 1999.
244 Human Rights Watch interview with Vitaly, staff attorney, Legal Services for Children, San Francisco, California, January 24, 2000.
245 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 14, 1999.
246 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 18, 1999.
247 Human Rights Watch interview, Lubbock, Texas, March 20, 2000.
248 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 14, 1999.
249 Human Rights Watch interview, Los Angeles, California, January 20, 2000.
250 Human Rights Watch interview, Los Angeles County, California, October 21, 1999.
251 Human Rights Watch interview, Kansas City, Missouri, March 28, 2000.
252 Human Rights Watch interview, Salem, Massachusetts, May 23, 2000.