Justice Dept. Says Anti-Gay Bullying Still a Growing Problem
The Justice Department administers a civil rights division that handles complaints about bias-driven violence and harassment. The fastest-growing source for such complaints comes from youths who have been assaulted and harassed for their ethnicity, religion, and sexuality, among other factors, in spite of a new national awareness around the issue of bullying and youth suicide, the Washington Blade reported on Sept. 13.
"The bullying of kids who are LGBT is probably the largest growth area in our docket," a Civil Rights Division assistant DA, Thomas Perez, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that same day, going on to say that youth-on-youth bullying is "an emerging growth area."
The article noted that Perez was responding to questions from Sen. Al Franken, the legislator who has sponsored the Student Non-Discrimination Act, an LGBT-inclusive federal anti-bullying bill.
Perez offered praise for Franken’s measure, but stopped short of indicating that the president wholeheartedly supports it in its current form, the Blade noted.
"I very much support the goals behind your efforts in introducing the Student Non-Discrimination Act," Perez told Franken. "Kids are dying, kids are being brutally assaulted, kids are scared." Perez went on to cite other steps that the President and First Lady have taken to address the problem, including a summit on the issue at the White House last spring.
"Additionally, the Education Department has interpreted federal law prohibiting gender discrimination to cover in some instances LGBT students who don’t conform to gender stereotypes," the Blade reported. "Title IV of the Civil Rights Act and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibit harassment based on gender."
The Blade article also reported that Perez spoke to the success of the only federal law that explicitly protects LGBT Americans, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.
Some states have sought to sidestep the law. But Perez described it as a success, telling the committee chair, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, "We’ve trained over 4,000 local law enforcement officers. I have participated personally in many of them. Our message is this: This is not a law simply for the feds, this is everyone’s law."
Perez also expressed optimism that the long-introduced (and long-delayed) Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would ban workplace discrimination against LGBTs, might one day pass Congress and make it to the desk of a president who would sign it. President Bush had vowed to veto ENDA if it reached his desk; a version that dropped provisions for transgender workers was touted a few years ago, with support from openly gay Congressman Barney Frank and the Human Rights Campaign, but the GLBT community as a whole blasted that move.
Perez noted that the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act "was introduced in 1996. It took 13 years. ENDA was actually introduced a few years before that, and it’s still pending."
ENDA legislation has been introduced in every Congressional session save one since 1994.
Even as the Obama Administration and federal lawmakers have taken initial -- and, some would maintain, halting -- steps toward securing the rights of LGBT youth, state legislatures have been far bolder. New Jersey saw the nation’s toughest anti-bullying measures come into law earlier this year, following the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a gay Rutgers University student whose intimate encounter with another man was observed by a straight roommate via webcam. The roommate reportedly blogged about the incident and then allegedly tried to spy on a second encounter.
But anti-gay groups have battled anti-bullying laws in state legislatures, arguing that such laws are merely cover for a "homosexual agenda" intent on "recruiting" impressionable young people and "converting" them into gays.
And in a national hotspot of youth suicide -- and, allegedly, anti-gay bullying -- a parent’s group has gone so far as to gather signatures on a petition that seeks the retention of a controversial policy that critics say hinders school staff from intervening when homophobic students target their LGBT peers with taunts, harassment, and physical violence.
Eight students in the troubled Anoka-Hennepin school district, which lies in Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s district in Minnesota, have killed themselves in the last two years, a Sept. 13 New York Times article reported. A number of others have also attempted to kill themselves. Teen suicide is so prevalent in the Anoka-Hennepin School District that health authorities in the state have labeled it a "suicide contagion area."
A July 25 Mother Jones article noted that Bachmann, a GOP presidential contender, had campaigned against proactive measures to protect GLBT youth in the district’s schools, "seeing such initiatives as a way of allowing gays to recruit impressionable youths into an unhealthy and un-Christian lifestyle."
But the health of some gay teens -- and straight teens perceived to be gay -- has suffered without support from peers and mentors, the article suggested, relating the story of Samantha Johnson, a teen in the Anoka-Hennepin District who sought to establish a GSA at her school, Anoka Middle School. The district delayed the implementation of a student-run support group, citing as its reason a lack of certainty about the legality of GSAs.
Meantime, Samantha, whose mother says was heterosexual, was being bullied about her looks and dress. Whether she wore her usual clothing or tried to appear more feminine, the article said, the other students harassed her relentlessly about being a lesbian. In the end, Samantha shot herself with a hunting rifle.
Warning signs had sent her mother to school authorities --but to no avail. The article noted said that Samantha’s friends claimed most of the bullying took place out of the sight of school staff and security cameras, but even when staff caught sight of her being harassed they did nothing to stop it. Nor did the volleyball coach contact Samantha’s mother when the teen, depressed, stopped showing up for practice.
"If I had known, I would have pulled her out of that school so quick," Samantha’s mother said of the things taking place while her daughter was supposedly safe in class. But school officials left her in the dark.
"Samantha’s death was among the first in a wave of suicides and attempted suicides that plagued this district for the next two years," the article reported. Some believe that a major contributing factor is a policy referred to locally as "no homo promo," the article said, a policy that had its beginnings in the mid-1990s.
"Back then, after several emotional school board meetings, the district essentially wiped gay people out of the school health curriculum," the article said. "There could be no discussion of homosexuality, even with regard to HIV and AIDS, and the school board adopted a formal policy that stated school employees could not teach that homosexuality was a ’normal, valid lifestyle.’ "