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Changing Campus Climate

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Just how safe are Houston-area schools for LGBTQ students and staff?
by Eli Winter

Schools across the nation are gradually becoming more accepting of their LGBT students and teachers—but local and statewide trends may tell a different story.

The Houston Independent School District, for one, has gone to great lengths in recent years to become more inclusive of Houston’s LGBT community. In 2011, it updated its nondiscrimination policy to protect both students and teachers from discrimination based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. Before the revision, only students had been protected from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Deb Murphy, youth services specialist for HATCH, the Montrose Center’s LGBT youth empowerment group, says that the new policy has made “a huge difference” in students’ lives. “It made the youth feel validated, and it said [that] this kind of hate will no longer be tolerated,” she says.

But this feeling of validation isn’t just limited to students. James Parker, Latin and English teacher at the district’s Carnegie Vanguard High School, has noticed a change in how he and other out teachers are treated by the district.

Parker began his career in the classroom shortly after Michael Burzinski was robbed and murdered outside of a local gay bar on the assumption that, as a gay man, he had money. As a result of the city’s indifferent attitude toward LGBT people, Parker says that when he first started teaching, he was “less inclined to be open if a student [asked me about my sexual orientation], for instance.” As he continued teaching, however, Parker found himself becoming more comfortable with being out in the classroom. He now addresses his orientation “openly and head-on. The discrimination policy’s changed, and times have changed.”

Marco Zannier, library information specialist at Elsik High School in the Alief Independent School District, says that his school district, too, “is growing in its support for the LGBT community and its desire to ensure that LGBT students feel just as safe and welcome as any other student.” Several district policies have been changed to include protections for sexual orientation, Zannier says, although the district’s website and other official documentation does not yet reflect these changes, and no district policies have included protections based on gender identity or gender expression. Zannier says that “some educators are afraid to be open about their sexual orientation for fear of it affecting their jobs. I sometimes have to be a voice for the LGBT community to other staff members and to students, [but] I’m okay with that. They see a guy who is helpful and nice to them and wants what’s best for them—someone about whom they’ve said, ‘I like that guy’—and then they figure out that I’m also gay. For the most part, it’s a non-issue. I’m a teacher who happens to be gay.”

Some of Zannier’s students, however, are treated with disrespect. Rahsan, an openly gay student at Alief’s Elsik High School, says, “All my life, students have called me gay.” Fellow students have further stigmatized Rashan because he chooses to report the incidents of harassment to his school’s counselor, an act seen as “snitching,” he says. He also notes having been called anti-LGBT slurs by some of his teachers in the past.

While each student’s experience with bullying is unique, it is often more severe for LGBT students, according to Murphy. “Students are beaten up and taunted [and insulted] in little ways by the ‘That’s so gay’ thing every day. They are threatened, they are assaulted.” The way schools respond to such abuse is ultimately decided on by their principals, she says, because “bad things can happen in every school.”

Parker recalls that “as an openly gay youth, I learned to deal with that [bullying] early on, so by the time I was an adult and teaching, I had already sort of dealt with that.”

Such coping abilities are important to LGBT youth, says Murphy. “Adults have adult resources and coping skills that youth don’t have. What will drive one child to the edge of the spear, another child has the resilience to cope with. One of the things we want to do is build resilience with these young people.” HATCH helps, says Murphy. So do Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs).

Parker and Zannier sponsor their respective schools’ GSAs. “It’s great that [HISD is] responding to anti-GLBT bullying with GSA groups,” Parker says. The most recent National School Climate Survey, conducted by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, shows that LGBT students feel—and are—safer in schools with GSAs, even if those students don’t personally attend GSA meetings. Parker says he has “always had really supportive administrations and coworkers. So maybe I’ve been lucky.”

Indeed, Parker has been lucky, at least when compared to his students. In an email, one bisexual gender-nonbinary student at Carnegie Vanguard High School wrote that although the school is generally very accepting of LGBT students, some teachers “have been homophobic and biphobic on various occasions, and I feel completely uncomfortable with coming out to them.”

Ariel, an openly bisexual student at Carnegie Vanguard High School, wrote via email that she has been pressured to hide her bisexuality from both straight people and the LGBT community. “People make gross comments regarding the stigma attached to being bisexual, and berate me with assurances that I am in fact straight because of my relationship with a guy,” Ariel says. Many students and teachers, she wrote, have internalized homophobia within themselves, but the “fairly progressive area” she lives in has prevented that homophobia from escalating to discrimination. The Houston Independent School District is indeed something of an anomaly in its treatment of LGBT students and teachers, especially when compared to other Houston-area school districts.

Seventeen independent school districts operate within the city limits of Houston. Of those 17, only one—the Houston Independent School District—protects LGBT students and staff against discrimination based on both sexual orientation and gender identity in its nondiscrimination policies. And it shows. In recent years, many of these other school districts have discriminated against their LGBT students.

In 2009, Aldine ISD’s Nimitz High School prohibited transgender student O’Rhonde Chapman from entering the school after she came to school wearing a dress, high heels, and a wig. (Two years later, the district was pressured to remove filters on its school computers that blocked students from accessing LGBT-related websites after the American Civil Liberties Union threatened the district with a lawsuit.) And Pearland ISD students witnessed the effects of homophobia firsthand in 2010, after counselors were brought into the district’s Pace Academy to help students cope with the murder of Joshua Wilkerson. Hermilio Morales, one of Wilkerson’s classmates at the school, bludgeoned Wilkerson to death after claiming to have received sexual advances from Wilkerson. Morales then attempted to burn Wilkerson’s body before he was arrested by police.

The Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District is perhaps the worst offender when it comes to addressing LGBT discrimination in its schools. The district was in the news twice in one year for the harassment that some of its LGBT students suffered.

In 2009, Jayron Martin, then attending Cy-Fair’s Langham Creek High School, was beaten with a metal pipe after getting off of his school bus; the beating ended only after a neighbor who saw it ran out with a shotgun in an attempt to stop it. Even though one of Martin’s classmates told him that some students would try to beat him after school, neither Martin’s bus driver, nor two of Langham Creek’s principals, responded to Martin’s pleas for help.

A year later, Asher Brown, then attending Hamilton Middle School, committed suicide after he was bullied for being gay. Although Brown’s parents sued the district for negligence both before and after his suicide, the lawsuit was ultimately dismissed because the federal Title IX law only protects against bullying based on gender or gender stereotypes, and does not specifically include sexual orientation or gender identity.

Years later, only the Houston Independent School District—not the Aldine, Pearland, or Cypress-Fairbanks districts, all of which made national news when their students experienced homophobia and bullying—has made an effort to make its nondiscrimination policies inclusive of both sexual orientation and gender identity.

The state of Texas has been similarly reluctant to act. To its credit, the state claims it no longer considers “homosexual conduct” a crime, as its health and safety code originally sanctioned. But even as its LGBT students remain subject to mocking, bullying, and discrimination, Texas’ anti-bullying laws do not protect against bullying based on sexual orientation or gender identity, going only so far as to include protections against gender and gender stereotype-based discrimination, as required by Title IX. In addition, the state has no nondiscrimination laws in place to protect LGBT students or teachers.

These laws hurt Texas’ LGBT students on a regular basis. According to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network’s 2013 National School Climate Survey, nearly all LGBT students in Texas regularly hear anti-LGBT slurs—both the word “gay” used as a pejorative, and other homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic comments. About 70 percent of Texas’ LGBT students have been verbally harassed, 52 percent have been sexually assaulted, 30 percent have been physically harassed, and 15 percent have been physically assaulted, according to the survey. Students are also harassed in less visceral ways, whether classmates shun them for coming out (88 percent), gossip or lie about them (82 percent), cyberbully them (52 percent), or damage or steal their belongings (46 percent). More than half of these students did not report their harassment to school staff or family—and of the few who did, only 35 percent felt that school staff had responded appropriately and effectively to it.

Moreover, national surveys show that approximately half of LGBT students felt unsafe in school in the last school year because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Three in ten students said they had missed at least one day of school in the last year because they feared for their safety, one in ten students had missed at least four days, and more than half of students said that their schools had discriminated against LGBT students by their policies or practices.

“Somebody slams [a student] into their locker, they go to their room, and what kind of condition are they in for learning now?,” Murphy asks. “Not a good one, and it hurts their future.” She adds that trans youth experience higher rates of bullying and assault, and that LGBT students suffer both short- and long-term consequences from enduring bullying. Students who have been victimized or discriminated against are more likely than other students to skip school and report lower GPAs, and are less likely to graduate high school and attend college.

But perhaps the worst feeling bullied LGBT students experience is shame. Murphy says that when a child is bullied, “the child is [often] too ashamed to report it. Guilt is about what we do, but shame is about who we are. Being forced to feel shame about your truest identity is a very hurtful thing.”

At the national level, schools are becoming more accepting of LGBT students and teachers over time. Students are experiencing lower rates of abuse and anti-LGBT slurs than in previous years. Verbal and physical harassment rates, as well incidents involving homophobic and transphobic slurs, are at all-time lows. But these national results do not reflect how LGBT students and staff report being treated here in Texas. More work must be done at the local level in order to give all Houston-area students an equal opportunity to learn.

Eli Winter is a guest contributor to OutSmart magazine.

 

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