Offering support, hope for gay teens who face bullying

By Lornet Turnbull
Sunday, October 17, 2010; A12

SEATTLE - "That's so gay."

It's a common refrain among teens and young people, part of the school-hall vernacular for anything not cool or hip.

But for many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students - some of them still struggling with their sexuality - comments such as these can be hurtful, no less stinging than more overt slurs.

In recent weeks, several high-profile suicides among gay teens have brought increased attention to anti-gay bullying in its many forms:

-Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University in New Jersey, jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his sexual encounter with another man was broadcast online.

-Billy Lucas, a 15-year-old from Greensburg, Ind., hanged himself after being harassed at school.

-Asher Brown, a 13-year-old from the Houston suburbs, shot himself after coming out.

-And 13-year-old Seth Walsh from Tehachapi, Calif., died a week after he hanged himself in his parents' back yard following a barrage of taunting and bullying.

Those deaths have prompted the launch of at least two online video projects - including the It Gets Better project by Seattle's Dan Savage, a sex columnist and the editorial director of the Stranger weekly newspaper - intended to give hope to gay teens who face harassment.

"The challenge for the LGBT community is that we are coming out earlier, and that brings with it a host of challenges," said Josh Friedes, executive director of Equal Rights Washington.

"These kids are coming to accept themselves at the same time they are maturing sexually. And we all remember what it was like to be in eighth grade," Friedes said.

Experts say many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens are vulnerable to the teasing, taunts and aggression of others even as gays witness unprecedented gains nationwide.

There are now six states where same-sex couples can legally marry. Anti-discrimination laws exist in some form in 33 states. In 15 states, there are laws addressing harassment or bullying of students based on sexual orientation.

Yet, in its annual survey released last month, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that the number of students being harassed at school has remained largely unchanged over a decade.

In its 2009 survey, nearly nine of 10 LGBT students said that they had experienced some form of harassment at school in the past year, and nearly two-thirds said they had felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation.

In Washington state, an anti-bullying law passed in 2002 has not brought a decline in anti-gay bullying, according to a state report.

Patchwork approach

One of the most prominent incidents in Washington state occurred this year at Mount Si High School in Snoqualmie, east of Seattle, when a student was beaten and seriously injured after standing up for a friend who was being taunted for seeming to be gay. The incident raised questions about the climate for gay students at the school.

Those who train teachers and administrators about this issue report a patchwork approach to policies in schools and districts across the state. The legislature's attempt last session to put some teeth in the law came up short because there was no money.

"Things have definitely changed - in some cases for the better, in some for the worse," said Daniel Howard, a senior at Bremerton High School and past president of his school's Gay-Straight Alliance.

Howard, 17, who is openly gay, said that while LGBT students at Bremerton tend to feel safer, on rare occasions incidents do occur. A few weeks ago, he said, a group of students began taunting him just before the start of class. "They told me I was gonna go to hell because of my choices," he recalls.

Howard reported the incident to the teacher, who in turn reported it to the office, and the students were warned.

His school's Gay-Straight Alliance adviser, Patty Krisher, said many of the incidents at Bremerton are verbal, not physical, attacks.

Like such organizations elsewhere, she said, the club works to organize schoolwide activities to help educate students, teachers and administrators.

"What we are doing is trying to change some of the subtle things kids say, like 'That's so gay,' " she said. "But I think overall, because people are more aware, they are keeping their prejudices to themselves."

Often, gay students in rural parts of the country find there's less support - in the form of organizations, youth centers, churches, even openly gay teachers and other adults - than in more liberal urban centers.

In recent years, widespread use of the Internet has given those intent on bullying a powerful tool.

And for many young people struggling with homosexuality, religion can play a significant role.

"You may go to a house of worship where you heard the minister urging congregants to vote against a domestic-partnership law or gone to a church or synagogue where he urged support," Friedes said.

"That type of experience has an unbelievably profound effect on youth."

Support through the Web

Savage's It Gets Better project allows lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people from across the country to post videos in which they talk directly to students, with the adults explaining how their own lives have improved in the years since high school.

There have been 650 video uploads and more than 1 million channel views of the project, according to its Web site.

Savage's partner, who is identified only as Terry, says in a video the two made together that he was regularly pummeled at his high school in Spokane, Wash.

He added that "things got better the day I left high school," describing it as something akin to a light suddenly coming on. No longer did Terry have to endure "the bullies . . . the people who harassed me . . . the school administrators who would do nothing about it every day. Life instantly got better."

The national Gay-Straight Alliance Network has launched its own video project, called Make It Better, which allows students and adults to upload video messages describing what they are doing now to prevent suicide and make things better for lesbian and gay youths in schools.

"There's no doubt young people are coming out at younger ages; they have more access to resources for support, there's more visibility and awareness - there's no question the big arc is bending toward more safety and acceptance," said Carolyn Laub, executive director of the network.

"But that's not to say we are there yet. The fact that so many teens think their only option is to take their own lives is a painful reminder that we still have a long way to go."

- Seattle Times

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