Sexual minorities at schools face abuse
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The harassment was so bad that the gay local high school student tried to kill himself.
For two years, the 17-year-old student, who declined to be named in print, said, "I was harassed at school. I even had an adult stalk me because she was not comfortable with me going to school with her son because I am gay."
Harassment at school is a common problem for students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in Pennsylvania and throughout the nation.
This week, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network -- known as GLSEN -- released its state-by-state school climate reports based on surveys taken in 2011.
In Pennsylvania, 331 LBGT students responded. The margin of error is plus or minus 5 percent.
Pennsylvania's results show that 96 percent hear "gay" used in a negative way, 89 percent hear other homophobic remarks and 88 percent hear negative remarks about gender expression -- such as when a person is deemed to be too feminine or masculine -- sometimes, often or frequently at school.
Ninety-one percent felt deliberately left out by their peers, and 85 percent had "mean rumors or lies" spread about them.
In addition, many face physical threats, with 34 percent saying they were physically harassed -- pushed or shoved -- and 15 percent punched, kicked or assaulted with a weapon in the past year because of their sexual orientation.
"I'm not surprised by any of these things," said Ian Syphard, board chair of GLSEN Pittsburgh. "Some schools really are hostile toward LGBT students."
He said the problem has an impact on the well-being of the whole school.
"Students will achieve their full potential if they learn in a diverse and culturally accepting environment," he said.
Many students don't know where to turn. Sixty percent said they never reported the incident to school staff, and 57 percent didn't tell a family member, either.
Of those who did tell school authorities, nearly two-thirds didn't think staff intervened effectively.
The 17-year-old wasn't out at the time the worst of the harassment happened. When he went to his parents and then to school officials, he got some relief.
School officials, he said, "didn't ask me if I was gay or not because they didn't really care. They just wanted it to stop so I could have a pleasant experience at school."
Now a junior, he said, things at school are "pretty good," and he often stands up for himself when derogatory remarks are made.
"I tell them, 'That's not cool. I'm not going to put up with that,' " he said.
But he sometimes doesn't speak up when he thinks friends are using a word out of habit, not malice. Nor does he speak up when he's afraid.
"There are kids who have major problems with it," he said.
He also has found a number of teachers supportive, such as one who won't let anyone tell a gay joke.
Mr. Syphard said when five or more staff are supportive, "the culture of that school can begin to change."
At another high school, a 16-year-old transgender student -- who prefers to be called "he" but is known by many at school as "she" -- also has experienced harassment.
"I have been kicked before in the hallways when I was in middle school primarily because I'm masculine. They didn't know I'm transgender. They just know I'm masculine, and they don't like that," he said.
He said he reported the incident, and school authorities talked to the student and the parents.
"Our principals are very good people," he said.
When the survey came out, GLSEN National was in Pittsburgh for "training of trainers" sessions for 25 people who will help facilitate GLSEN's training educators, administrators and students in the region.
They learned how to combat LGBT bias as well as how to "create safe, respectful and healthful learning environments" within schools.
GLSEN Pittsburgh also has a Peer Advocates for Safe Schools -- known as PASS -- project to develop student leaders who can make positive changes.
Some of those in PASS are planning the Pittsburgh Youth Prom June 8 at East Liberty Presbyterian Church.
"The reason we're doing the prom in the first place is because of the fact a lot of youth either don't feel safe going to their prom because of bullying or harassment or their schools don't allow same sex couples to attend together," said Anna Klahr, a social work graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh who is interning with GLSEN.
Ninety-nine students went to the youth prom last year.
Also coming up is the annual National Day of Silence on April 19. Students vow to be silent to highlight the silencing effect of bullying and harassment of LGBT students.
First Published March 23, 2013 12:00 am