Volume 73, Number 7 | June 16 - 22, 2004

Are the kids alright? Harassment is still a problem

By Tim Gay

Derek Henkle won a nearly half-a-million-dollar lawsuit against a Reno, Nevada, school district for failing to protect him from anti-gay threats and beatings.

Those of us who were children or teens in the ’60s and ’70s often regale our therapists with tales about how our parents detached from us and what was really going on.

We experimented with sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, and, if we were gay or lesbian, went into our own personal meltdowns.

Our post-war moms and dads were often oblivious, because they were pre-occupied with upward mobility, cocktail parties and Valium to cope with it all.

Back then it was called the Generation Gap. In 2004, we have some striking similarities in the L.G.B.T. communities between the adults and the kids.

No doubt about it, compared to 1984 or 1994, these are good times. Gays and lesbians have set down deep roots in dozens of big city neighborhoods, suburbs and small towns across the nation. We have good jobs and we are raising children. We are more visible than ever, thanks to “Will & Grace,” “Queer as Folk,” “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O’Donnell and “Six Feet Under.”

On televisions and in newspapers across the nation, heterosexuals are confronted with images of same-sex couples getting married — happy, loving couples, not just from San Francisco and Provincetown, but small towns like New Paltz and Asbury Park.

In James Tierney’s June 14 New York Times article “A Country Divided? Who Says?” he cited a Gallup survey in May that found more than a third of Americans supported gay marriage, and half support civil unions. Tierney noted, “Support for gay rights has become especially strong among young voters, which suggests that the trend will continue.”

Although we have a long way to go with full equality (how about an openly gay or lesbian D.A. on “Law & Order”?), one doesn’t have to look far to see that it can still be the worst of times, especially if you are L.G.B.T., young and of color.

Last week, a young man told me that he ran away from home at age 16. He’s a college student now, and evasive about his residency or whereabouts for the past four years. “I had to leave home. I couldn’t take my dad’s homophobic verbal abuse any more. I’ll tell you about it some day, but not now.”

And there is the daughter of a friend’s friend. Last year, the sophomore became despondent, dropped out of high school and attempted suicide. Although she hadn’t told anyone, she had been tormented for being a lesbian.

Three years ago, a college student I knew called to tell me that one of his friends was disowned by his parents when they found out he was gay. The student was in New York to begin an internship and had no money. In desperation, he was going to become a prostitute.

These three teens don’t come from Little Rock, Cleveland or even the Bronx. The first two come from relatively affluent families in Manhattan, and the third comes from a well-off family in Atlanta.

“Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” does not make life any easier for queer youth.

Derek Henkle knows. You might remember that in 2002, he won a nearly half-million-dollar lawsuit against his Washoe County school district in Reno, Nevada. From the time he was 14, Henkle was beaten and threatened, while school officials did little if anything to protect him.

Henkle recalled one of the worst situations, when he was walking back from lunch: “In the middle of my school parking lot, a group of six students surrounded me and pulled up a lasso and said, ‘Let’s string up the fag and drag him down the highway.’ They got the lasso around my neck three times.” Henkle broke free and a teacher called the administration for help. But it took more than an hour for the administration to respond.

Henkle is now a student of public communications and political science at American University and is in New York as an intern for “Good Morning America” ’s upcoming weekend edition.

“The marriage issue is important, but young L.G.B.T. people are dealing with real life-death situations,” Henkle said. “We need to have a conversation on both a national and state level on how to make schools and society safer for our youth.”

Henkle provided research conducted for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network and other organizations that found that gay, lesbian, bisexual and questioning youth are: four times more likely to be threatened or injured with a weapon at school; more than four times more likely to skip school because they feel unsafe; three times more likely to drop out of high school (possibly one out of three drop out); targets of verbal harassment — more than four out of five L.G.B.T. students reported being verbally assaulted because of their sexual orientation; nearly half of L.G.B.T. students of color reported being verbally assaulted for both sexual orientation and race/ethnicity — at greater risk of suicide; according to several studies, gay youth account for 30 percent of all completed adolescent suicides.

“We can’t continue to have this indifference. We are producing a generation of L.G.B.T. youth who drop out of school and are destined to be burger flippers,” Henkle said. “We are trying to get a piece of the American dream as well.”

Henkle reminded me of my own experience. I had completely blanked out on a high school experience until last year, when I went to see an ear-nose-throat doctor. In the course of her examination, she asked how I had broken my nose.

I didn’t break it. One of five older kids broke it, during a two-year terror campaign.

It happened during my freshman and sophomore years. They were juniors and seniors. Out of the blue, they would attack, beating me and calling me names. One time it happened in the middle of gym class. Today, I can’t even remember what they called me, because I dissociated from each of the four or five times I was beaten.

I do recall that the principal and my parents wanted to know what I had done to provoke the first attack. So from that point, I didn’t mention the second, third, fourth or fifth time it happened.

Some three decades later, despite our great gains, the taunting and hatred still goes on. The result? Many of our gay youth will certainly survive and thrive, continue with education and lead successful lives.

But a number will fall through the cracks, in terms of education, emotional development and self-esteem. According to some studies, nearly one out of three black and Latino gay men under age 30 is H.I.V. positive. Did they receive H.I.V. education in high school?

One of the first things Tom Duane did as a state senator in 1999 was to introduce the Dignity for All Students Act.

“In New York State, we need to educate administrators, teachers and students, and establish a policy that it is wrong to discriminate and harass students because of their actual or perceived race, national origin, ethnic group, religion, sexual orientation, gender, sex or physical or mental disability,” Duane said.

Although the legislation is supported by numerous groups and individuals, passage seems unlikely in the near future. Maybe L.G.B.T. taxpayers can change that.

A similar bill was introduced in the City Council, but is currently stalled in negotiations. Representative Jerrold Nadler also recently introduced a federal anti-student harassment bill in Congress.

“Every person, regardless of sexual orientation and where they live, should make certain that their property taxes are going to proper education policy,” Henkle said. “If they are concerned, they should lend their voice to make certain that discrimination against kids, including gay and lesbian youth, is not ignored in the schools. I think that that is all any gay and lesbian kid is asking for.”

Our commitment to equality for marriage should be second only to creating a safe, secure world for our L.G.B.T. youth.

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