As we all recover from the holidays and drag ourselves kicking and screaming back into the swing of things, LGBT advocates in Harrisburg are gearing up to work on several pieces of legislation either currently before the legislature or forecasted to be introduced in the near future. Today’s Philadelphia Gay News gives a great summary of some of the high points of these Bills to Watch, which include HB 300 – the antidiscrimination bill we have been blogging about over the course of 2009 – and an anticipated anti-bullying bill.
[N]ew to this year’s legislative docket will be a bill to strengthen statewide anti-bullying protections, which is inclusive of anti-LGBT harassment.
“For the first time ever, this legislation will be introduced to beef up laws to protect against bullying because of sexual orientation or gender identity but also other characteristics, like race, ethnicity and disability,” Kaskey said. “If you look through the statistics on this — 88 percent of LGBT students were victims of verbal abuse, 19 percent were harassed because of their perceived sexual orientation and in just one month, 39 percent of LGBT students skipped class at least once because of safety issues — the need for this is obvious.”
Kaskey said he could not disclose which lawmakers would be leading this initiative, but that it would be introduced this spring.
It should come as no surprise that the use of anti-gay slurs in casual conversation, the harassment of those who are or are perceived to be gay, and the threats of being labeled gay that are used to keep especially boys from stepping outside traditional gender roles are rampant in middle and high schools. It is when we hear the real stories of the kids who have suffered the most from this homophobic culture, however, that the true cost of allowing it to continue becomes apparent. It is hard to imagine that even the staunchest opponent of LGBT rights, if he or she has a modicum of compassion, could fail to be moved by these stories.
If you are a regular reader of Speaking Freely, you will be familiar with one such story – that of C.J. Bills, one of the main characters in the documentary Out in the Silence, which the ACLU of Pennsylvania has been working to bring to communities across the state. In the film, Washington, D.C., resident Joe Wilson decides to publish the announcement of his 2004 Canadian wedding to scientist Dean Hamer in his hometown newspaper, the Oil City (PA) Derrick. The announcement causes a deluge of negative letters to the editor, but Wilson is most interested in a personal letter he receives from Kathy Springer, the mother of a gay teen (C.J.) in Oil City who has been brutally harassed to the point where she had no choice but to withdraw him from school. In response to Springer’s plea for help, Wilson and Hamer pack up and go to Oil City. Their film shows Kathy’s efforts to get the school board to take action to fix what was happening to her son and the subsequent lawsuit, filed by ACLU of Pennsylvania Legal Director Vic Walczak, when they refused to do so. It also includes emotional testimony by C.J. about what he endured at the hands of his peers and the faculty of the school. (If you are interested in bringing Out in the Silence to your community, please contact Joe Wilson or your local ACLU office.)
Parents who have seen Out in the Silence relate to Kathy and C.J.’s ordeal. Here, one mother describes how, in the absence of resources within her own community, she took her son to PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) in larger communities to show him that he was not alone.
These stories and others like them illustrate not only the hell that kids are subjected to, but also the lack of resources in small towns for helping families address such situations. (One resource that is available but often not known is the Trevor Hotline, a national suicide prevention hotline for LGBT youth founded as a result of yet another harassed gay teenager who became suicidal as a result of the rejection and harassment he experienced.) At the present time, many schools do not discuss sexual orientation in their anti-bullying policies, and organizations like the ACLU or private lawyers can only take legal action in the small percentage of cases in which the bullying violates another law, such as laws against gender discrimination (if the person is being harassed because he or she does not sufficiently conform to traditional ideas about masculinity and femininity, it falls under the definition of sex discrimination – harassment specifically on the basis of one’s sexual orientation does not). This leaves few options for gay teens and their parents when problems occur.
The proposed anti-bullying legislation would provide an important resource to Pennsylvania children and their parents – a written policy at each school that can be used as a basis on which to take action against the offending parties and an authority to complain to (the state Department of Education would be charged with monitoring schools’ new policies). Such recourse is a vital addition to the community resources like PFLAG that Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer are trying to promote via screenings of their movie in the rural areas of Pennsylvania and other states, where these organizations are often less active and may not be widely known.
No doubt there will be some who condemn LGBT young people for their “choices” and simply do not care what happens to them – there are always a few. Hopefully, however, most of us, no matter what our other differences may be, can agree that protecting our children from severe harassment and physical assault (all too often to the point where those children consider, attempt, or actually go through with suicide) is both right and urgently necessary.
Becca in Harrisburg