This is a report about the abject failure of the United States government to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth who attend public schools from harassment and violence. Government at the local, state, and federal levels has refused to dismantle the laws and policies and to eliminate the practices that effectively discriminate against these youth. The entrenched societal prejudice against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth is based on rigidly enforced rules dictating how girls and boys should look, walk, talk, dress, act, think, and feel. The social regime in most schools is unforgiving: Youth who break these rules will be punished. Their peers enforce the rules through harassment, ostracism, and violence. School officials condone this cruel dynamic through inaction or in some cases because they, too, judge gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth to be undeserving of respect.
Discrimination based on sexual orientation also reinforces the discrimination based on gender that many girls face in schools and places lesbians in a particularly vulnerable position. The discriminatory view that boys are inherently superior to girls pervades many schools, sending boys a message that they should assert their masculinity and prove their heterosexuality by being abusive and disrespectful to girls as well as to gay students. Unfortunately, sexism also thrives in gay communities. Young lesbians not only face harassment and abuse from their heterosexual peers but may also face discrimination from their gay male peers. While gay boys receive some positive messages because they are boys, young lesbians receive the message that they are unworthy both because of their gender and because of their sexual orientation. Thus it is not surprising that youth service providers were concerned that lesbians were less likely to do well in school once they were identified by their peers. Transgender students are the most vulnerable beause they receive both intensely negative messages and almost no peer support or understanding.
The impact of this harassment and discrimination is devastating. In a study conducted in an Iowa school, gay students reported hearing on average antigay epithets every seven minutes. What makes the harassment even more devastating for the students is that the adults and the institutions charged with protecting and educating students turn their backs on them. In many cases, adults who do intervene fear they will themselves become the targets of harassment and will lose their jobs.
Left unchecked, peer harassment escalates into violence. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students describe their daily experiences as living insurvival mode. Not surprisingly, they lose their focus, their grades drop, some drop out, and a few commit suicide.
There is no possible justification for why school officials turn their backs on these students. The foundational principle of human rights is that all people are born free and equal in dignity and rights. But the more than two million school age youth in the United States who are different from the majority of their peers soon learn that the principle of equality does not apply to them. They are rejected by school officials who either agree with the socially sanctioned prejudice against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals in the United States or cave into pressure from those who actively promote discriminatory practices.
The role of government in defending and promoting the human rights of its citizens is to challenge ingrained prejudice, dismantle legal and de facto discrimination, and ensure that all are treated with dignity and respect. Federal, state, and local governments have failed to fulfill this role.
Despite this failing, the youth we interviewed challenge the climate of prejudice, discrimination, and fear that surrounds them each day in their schools. They demand that school officials protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth from harassment and violence from peers and teachers. It is a demand which must be met.
And it must be met not just for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, but for all youth. The government at all levels, especially school administrators, teachers, and counselors, as well as parents and youth service providers must understand that failing to protect gay youth ultimately harms all youth.
When adults fail to model and teach respect for all youth, and indeed for all human beings, they send a message that it is acceptable to demean, attack, and discriminate against others because they are or are perceived to be different. It is a message that can only hurt its recipients. Part of being a teenager is building one's identity. By tolerating discrimination, harassment, and violence-whether based on gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, immigration status, or disability-society imbues this process of learning about one's self with negative judgments. The youth who harass others not only are learning behavior that is ultimately harmful to themselves but are acting out their awareness of society's failure to respect the equality and dignity of all human beings.
In this report, Human Rights Watch calls on state authorities to end legal and de facto discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, to compel school officials to protect all students from harassment and violence, to create models for intervention to stop harassment and its devastating impact on students, and to monitor school systems throughout the country to ensure compliance with
the principle of nondiscrimination. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch calls for teaching respect for all students and ensuring that teachers and other school officials have the skills to communicate that no form of identity-based harassment or discrimination is acceptable.
P., New Hampshire|
Weaver, Teacher, Utah|
M., Midwestern United States|