ORLANDO, Fla. (WOMENSENEWS)–Fifteen-year-old Ashleigh Pfriem says she’s been called a dyke and a faggot since she was in middle school. She changed her schedule to avoid gym class after a girl was physically thrown out of the locker room because her classmates thought the teen-ager was gay. And she’s overheard her gym teachers at Fort Lauderdale High School exchanging epithets for students they think are gay and lesbian.
Two-hundred miles away at Sarasota High School, freshman Joseph Russell has been surrounded by taunting students, threatened and called names at school because he is gay. When he tried to start a support club for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students on campus, he was stonewalled by the administration until a new principal took over months later.
"Things need to change," says Pfriem, a lesbian from Wilton Manors, Fla. The school system, she says, is "not working when people don’t care."
Pfriem serves on the national Day of Silence Project youth leadership team, sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. The Day of Silence is a protest designed to encourage lawmakers to pass legislation protecting gay students from harassment. Last Wednesday, students at Fort Lauderdale High and more than 1,600 other schools across the United States participated in the event by refusing to speak in class or to their peers.
Their silence echoes a growing debate about how the nation’s public schools address homosexuality. Federal civil rights laws do not offer gay students protection because of their sexual orientation, so many are now turning to individual states to create laws to enhance their safety.
Teens like Pfriem–galvanized by the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard–are asking legislators to stop harassment of gay and lesbian kids on school campuses. In March, Washington state became the eighth state to pass a law that explicitly protects gay and lesbian students from harassment. Fourteen states have legislation pending.
California, Connecticut, Vermont, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Minnesota have laws that offer certain protections to gay students. States with such laws pending are Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, West Virginia and Michigan. Both Massachusetts and New Jersey legislators have proposed additional laws that would broaden the protections already on the books. Nebraska and Oklahoma have introduced anti-bullying bills, but they do not specify which students would be protected.
Reports Indicate Widespread Violence Against Gay Students
About 6 percent of American teen-agers are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, according to most estimates, and 83 percent report experiencing name-calling and threats at school, according to a national study conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
Gay and lesbian teens are nearly four times more likely to skip school because they feel unsafe, and are nearly three times as likely as their heterosexual peers to have been assaulted, to have been in a physical fight, or to have been threatened or injured with a weapon at school, according to a 1999 study by the Massachusetts Department of Education.
A separate study in Massachusetts published last year in the Journal of Social Work and cited in a 2001 Human Rights Watch report indicated that lesbians and bisexual teens are four times more likely than heterosexual girls to be victims of attempted rape or rape.
Advocates argue that without legislation that specifically protects gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered kids, school personnel can ignore harassment with impunity. Last year’s Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network study found that the most common official school response to harassment was to do nothing: 82 percent of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students said faculty or staff never or only sometimes intervened to protect them. Nearly 25 percent reported hearing derogatory comments from school personnel.
An administrator at Fort Lauderdale High School, where Pfriem has heard such comments, said she had no knowledge of any problems. The official, who spoke only on the condition that she not be identified, said the school would investigate the alleged remarks only if Pfriem brought her complaint to administrators.
But Pfriem says she hasn’t complained to administrators because "if the teacher in my own classroom doesn’t do anything to stop it, why should the principal care?"
Some Argue Laws Offer Special Treatment
Advocates say gay and lesbian kids need the legislation to guarantee them equal access to education. Opponents argue that the laws are unnecessary or that they single out homosexual students for special treatment.
To Florida state Rep. Ken Gottlieb, who sponsored an anti-harassment bill that’s been stalled in committee for a year, the matter is simple: Most people want schools to be safe places for all kids.
"There is no unambiguous law in the state of Florida to do that," Gottlieb says.
Similar to bills waiting for votes in other states, his Dignity for All Students Act provides protection for kids from harassment based on their race, color, religion, national origin, marital status, gender, disability or sexual orientation. The bill requires school boards to create an anti-harassment policy; for teachers to received training on how to address harassment on campus; and for schools to report harassment to the Florida Department of Education.
Gottlieb is likely to encounter opposition in Florida, a socially conservative state with policies on gays and lesbians that drew national attention last month: Television talk-show host Rosie O’Donnell revealed her homosexuality as a means of supporting a federal court challenge to a Florida law that forbids gay couples to adopt. (O’Donnell, the parent of three adopted children, lives in New York with her partner but plans to move to Florida.) In response to the criticism, Florida state Rep. Randy Ball sent a letter to newspapers last month declaring that God "condemns homosexuality as an abomination."
The battles have been intense in states that have passed laws protecting gay students. It took five years to pass an anti-harassment law in Washington state. The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Ed Murray, sparked the ire of some House Republicans concerned that it would prevent students from voicing their religious objections to homosexuality. Opponents also suggested it amounted to legislating niceness in schools. The bill passed after Democrats won the majority in the House last November.
"We heard from the far right that you can’t stop bullies and I agree," says Murray, "but you can make schools safe."
Opponents agree that schools need to be safe, but draw the line at protecting specific groups.
"The issue is, are kids being treated respectfully?" says Dick Carpenter, national education policy analyst for the conservative group Focus on the Family. "Policies that divide us do not do that."
Carpenter added that the Day of Silence that encourages such laws goes beyond school safety to "activism for a cause and that cause is homosexuality."
‘I’ve Got to Make Things Better’
Sixteen-year-old Kaitlyn Hernandez of Taylor, Mich., says that while administrators and some peers supported her efforts to organize a Day of Silence protest at The Roeper School, she still received hate e-mail charging that she was secretly promoting a homosexual agenda.
"We’re not trying to scare people," says Hernandez, who identifies herself as bisexual. "We’re just trying to get the point across."
Last summer, the governing body of the National Education Association decided not to vote on a resolution calling for specific steps to ensure safety for gay and lesbian students and deferred the matter to a task force. That group released a report in February calling for more action to protect gay and lesbian students at school, but did not explain what that action might be. While the association supports protection of lesbian and gay students, the report’s authors were careful to state that initiatives undertaken by the union "should not–expressly or by implication–take a position for or against any particular sexual orientation."
Carolyn Laub, executive director of California’s Gay-Straight Alliance Network, says anti-harassment laws help students like Hernandez who want make a difference. Before the California Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act of 2000, says Laub, schools often blamed gay and lesbian students for bringing harassment on themselves. She adds that many administrators moved gay and lesbian kids into independent study or to a different school rather than stopping the harassment.
The California law grants students the right to insist that a school act to end the harassment. Laub’s organization has launched an education campaign to inform school personnel and gay and lesbian students of their responsibilities and rights under the new law. But much like the efforts to get legislation passed, enforcement relies on the courage of teens who are willing to speak up.
"I’ve got no choice," says Pfriem, who has two years until graduation. "I’ve got to make things better."
Shauna Curphey is a freelance writer in Orlando, Florida.
For more information:
Day of Silence Project:
Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network:
Focus on the Family’s Focus on Education: