End the Silence on LGBT Bullying

New evidence of the bullying crisis in our schools appears daily in news reports and blogs. For some students, verbal harassment, cyber-ostracism and physical abuse are as routine as turning in homework. That’s particularly true for students who are—or simply perceived to be—gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).

Schools, districts and even state legislatures struggle to stem the tide by devising the perfect anti-bullying policy. The best ones enumerate the categories into which victims often fall, such as race or sexual orientation, and call for training and prevention.

It’s important for schools to have clear and comprehensive anti-bullying policies, of course, but policies that target only the bad behavior will never solve the problem. Abuse ends only when every student feels safe and accepted everywhere in school—in the hallway, the gym, the bathroom and, especially, the classroom. That’s a matter of school climate.

It’s a lesson the Anoka-Hennepin, Minn., school district can’t seem to learn. After a string of student suicides, the district revised its anti-bullying policy to protect LGBT students. Yet it maintains a “sexual orientation curriculum policy”—essentially a gag policy—that prevents teachers from protecting and supporting LGBT students in class.

These approaches are at odds with each other. A school cannot simultaneously say we’re equipping teachers to deal with anti-LGBT bullying and then gag them when it comes to discussing LGBT issues in class. The conflicting policies create uncertainty and fear among educators and isolation for LGBT students.

Anoka-Hennepin’s self-contradictory stance has prompted the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), to send a demand letter calling for change. The groups are representing former students who have suffered under the hostile climate that persists in the district. Their demand letter calls for, among other reforms, a “reconsideration of the total exclusion of issues related to LGBT people from the curriculum.”

Some will say that this is giving LGBT students special rights. But, in fact, the current policy denies them the kind of positive acknowledgment that all students need, and which is denied to no other group. Under the curriculum policy, teachers cannot talk about LGBT figures in history, literature or current events. And they cannot give proper context to issues—like bullying—because they cannot discuss those issues. 

Why? Because the district has decided that it can walk some kind of fine line. On one side, it says it’s not okay to bully LGBT people. But on the other side, it panders to those who disapprove of and revile them. 

It may be politic to cater to those prejudices, but it’s not right. It’s not right and—more to the point—it’s not constitutional. As the demand letter argues, the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution applies here. The district has “singled out one group of students solely for their membership in an unpopular minority.”

How can Anoka-Hennepin right these wrongs? The first step is to drop the gag policy. Once that’s done, the district needs to provide training for students and staff. That training would focus on ways to prevent bullying based on sexual orientation or gender identity. And finally, the district needs more thoughtful enforcement of anti-bullying policies in general.

The LGBT students in the Anoka-Hennepin district have waited a long time for justice on these matters. As today’s demand letter shows, the time for waiting is over.

Costello is the director of Teaching Tolerance.


No decent person has any

Submitted by Keith Moore on 24 May 2011 - 7:21pm.

No decent person has any patience for bullies but the logic here is so tangled that I don't see how any part of it is connected. Apparently, focusing wholly on the bad behavior is the wrong approach even though the entire goal of anti-bullying policies is to combat bad behavior on the part of victims' peers... which makes a complete focus on the behavior you're trying to combat sort of inherent. Apparently, also, discussion of "LGBT issues" is integral to combating bullying although bullying is a social phenomenon exacerbated by the perception of difference, a perception that discussion of what are generally regarded as LGBT issues would only reinforce. You can hardly alter perceptions to emphasize the likeness of people, their equality, their sameness, their similarity, and subsequently why they shouldn't be targeted by bullies, if you take time to explain how one group or the other isn't like everyone else. It would seem that Anoka-Hennepin, recognizing that taking pains to emphasize how LGBT people are different is the exact opposite of the rational approach, has chosen to exclude unproductive discussion which, it would seem, upsets the Southern Poverty Law Center for reasons unknown. What sentiment is the more likely to dissuade bullying: "This group isn't like you but you should be nice anyway" or "It doesn't matter what they're like, everyone must be treated with kindness." Crudely put, people bully because they think that a person is too different to be treated decently; isn't it irrational to threaten a school district because they decline to feed this misanthropic belief? As a minor but significant addition to the above... there is no legitimate way for the equal protection clause to apply in this instance. To use it in this way is to bastardize it in the service of an ideological end and that is quite beyond the pale.

Keith, I'm surprised that

Submitted by Maureen Costello on 25 May 2011 - 10:12am.


I'm surprised that you would come out in favor of any policy that suppresses intellectual curiosity and academic engagement on any issue.

Your response is, as always, attractively reasoned but divorced from reality. Yes, it would be a wonderful world if only we didn't perceive difference. But that could only happen if we were, indeed, all clones of each other.

The world's people are different. It benefits no one to pretend otherwise; no, scratch that. It benefits the dominant group. The challenge is to not use that difference as a basis for judgment, but to get to the point where difference is accepted.

My short essay lacked space to spell out the specifics of what it is like for people on the ground in this district, and many others, who are essentially treated as pariahs. Here's one example of why it's important to be able to freely talk about LGBT issues in class without being afraid that you'll be brought up on disciplinary charges. Imagine you're an 11th grade English teacher about to assign Walt Whitman in your American Lit class. Before you are 16-year olds, some of whom might be gay, have gay family members or friends, or be perceived as gay by others and taunted (but always outside the presence of adults). Someone asks, "Wasn't he gay? -- We shouldn't have to read this stuff." What do you do? Deny Whitman's sexual orientation, even though it may provide a window into his work? Say yes, but it's not important? Or say, yes, and it's important to know because it is one of many factors that made him who he was and contributed to his work.

That last explanation is true and will do the least harm in that class. It helps the gay and perceived-as-gay kids know that they're not freaks, and it sends a message to the others that the world is full of people who are different than you, and you'd probably best get used to it.

But with the current policy in this district, an English teacher is going to think long and hard about saying that, particularly if he or she is suspected of being an ally to the gay kids on campus. In fact, she may decide to ditch Whitman altogether rather than even risk having this particular confrontation. And so, subtly but surely, these kids will be protected from ever having to intellectually confront ideas and ways of being that are different from theirs.

Under this policy, if a student in a class discussing World War II asks a question about why the Nazis included homosexuals in their genocidal plans, a teacher might hesitate in answering the question.

You may scoff at these instances, but I've spoken to teachers in the district. And I've been in high school classrooms and know that it's never a good idea to deny teachers the discretion to address what gets said in their classrooms using their best professional judgment.

Several large studies have shown that about 75% of all bullying results from discrimination and stereotyping. People aren't bullied as much for individual differences as for their perceived membership in a reviled and feared group, whether that group be people who are disabled, of a different race, seen to be immigrants, or of a different sexual orientation. Dealing directly and in a variety of settings -- classrooms included -- with the wrongness of stereotyping and the reality of difference is an effective way to prevent bullying.

You should also be aware that the people SPLC is representing faced such harassment that they have contemplated suicide, attempted suicide and dropped out of school, among other negative impacts having their pariah status confirmed by official policy. Keep in mind, too, that this particular school district has had 8 suicides in the last two years.

Clearly, focusing wholly on bad behavior doesn't work in this district, nor in many others. And partly that's because the people in charge don't always have the courage to identify bad behavior when it's right in front of them. And partially because they're indulging in bad behavior of their own.

It is not so much the

Submitted by Keith Moore on 25 May 2011 - 8:05pm.

It is not so much the suppression of academic curiosity that I am supportive of but, rather, the idea that just because it is possible to discuss an issue does not mean that it is appropriate. I recognize the very delicate balance at work here but as a general matter, I favor erring on the side of not wandering along paths of discussion that are not directly relevant.

On the issues of Walt Whitman, that is indeed a very good opportunity to divert into a discussion of how a poet's personal life can drive what they decide to write about and how they decide to write about it. But the imagined protest also provides an opportunity of a different sort that is broadly-applicable and highly valuable. Words on a page are not deep and beautiful because of who said them; a deep and beautiful piece of poetry would be just as deep and beautiful if the signature said "anonymous." It seems to me that, in addition to providing an opportunity to talk about your third answer, it provides an opportunity to undermine the thinking behind the question, the underlying belief that the merit of Whitman's poetry is altered by whether or not he was homosexual. Clearly, a student that believes that Whitman is an inappropriate subject for study because he may have been gay is proceeding from the assumption that the same words that were beautiful and deep a second ago stopped being so when you learn that Whitman may have been homosexual. This is a pernicious thing to believe, not because of the anti-gay bias inherent in the assumption, but because the thinking leads directly to "oh, that person is so I should ignore anything they say even if I agree with every word." This mode of thinking is toxic to the intellectual development of a student and I propose that in your hypothetical situation, would do much more to promote tolerance to attack that pernicious assumption than it would to discuss the possibility that Whitman's writing was influenced by his sexuality.

Getting off my soapbox, I think that it's also not entirely harmful to introduce a stumbling block policy, one that makes a teacher careful. Not fearful, mind you, but careful because the uses to which a question can be put are not always obvious and it may greatly benefit a teacher, and all of their students, if their first impulse at hearing the question is not an instant reply but to ask in their mind "does this question give me an opportunity and how can I use that opportunity to make all of my students better off?" Again, to pivot off the example, you can choose to reply that the Nazis targeted homosexuals and suspected homosexuals because of their homosexuality or you can widen your scope and hold up the goal of the Nazis to make all Germans "ubermensch" and rid themselves of the "untermensch" as an example of what has happened when people try to make everyone alike--and let your students wrestle with the implications.

I appreciate the reply, Ms. Costello, because I believe that my response was partly based on a misunderstanding of what you meant by "LGBT issues." It is clear from your examples that you meant any matter that touches on LGBT people where I understood the phrase to mean the various sociopolitical issues (gay marriage, ENDA, etc) that touch upon the lives of LGBT individuals. I still may not see how those discussions may be valuable but I see that the discussions you had in mind ARE valuable for that purpose. I apologize for opining without entirely understanding. Thank you for taking the time to reply.