When one of my NCLR staffers forwarded me a news article today, I thought it must have been a mistake. It detailed the suicide of an eleven-year-old boy who hung himself after relentless bullying at school. I had just read an identical article last week--the heartbreaking story about Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, who, after suffering constant bullying at school, came home and committed suicide. I thought, this can't be happening again. But the article was no mistake, this is now two reported suicides in the last week alone.
Jaheem Herrera was eleven and lived in Georgia. Carl was also eleven and lived in Massachusetts. Both boys suffered the same taunts, bullying and harassment, including anti-gay epithets and attacks and both felt the same desperate need for the pain and suffering to end. Their deaths, so utterly senseless and wrong , fill me with grief, but also anger and determination. These children deserved to attend school without fear and suffering. They had a right to education, a right to safety, a right to dignity and a right to walk the hallways of their schools without dread.
These incidents are more than just poignant, they are personal. My son Julian is twelve and in the sixth grade. Carl and Jaheem could have been his classmates. I can barely bring myself to write this, but if Julian were a student in these schools, this could have been him. Our current culture of accepted homophobia and the prevalence of bullying hurts all youth--LGBT or straight. All students are affected by a climate of anti-gay rhetoric, and these anti-gay taunts were a driving force behind Jaheem and Carl's tragic deaths.
Our schools and the students who attend them must be safe. According to the 2007 National School Climate Survey, 73.6 percent of the students surveyed heard derogatory remarks like "faggot" or "dyke" frequently at school. We know that in schools, "gay" with derogatory intent is the taunt du jour--and can be applied to any student who is viewed as different, no matter what their actual sexual orientation might be.
Right-wing groups and religious institutions continually stoke anti-gay sentiment and rhetoric. Many employ scary imagery and twisted religious arguments to fuel misinformation and fear, and many outright claim that LGBT people are a threat to society, including filing lawsuits and airing ads that warn of a "gathering storm" supposedly caused by equality for LGBT people. In a lawsuit challenging California's safe schools laws, the far-right Alliance Defense Fund calls the state's Student Civil Rights Act--a bill that protects all students from harassment based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and more--a "safety hazard" that jeopardizes students.
These groups are spreading outright lies and fear in an Orwellian campaign to oppose efforts to protect children from the bullying that is the true hazard to our children. They are complicit in fostering a climate that tolerates bullying and homophobic slurs - a climate that in the past two weeks claimed the lives of two boys and, in the past decade, countless others. These anti-gay groups have blood on their hands, plain and simple.
How many more deaths like these must occur before we enact laws to protect our children?
Only eleven states and the District of Columbia have student protections based on sexual orientation, and only seven and the District of Columbia protect based on gender identity/expression. We need to work hard to expand these protections to every state, and defend the states which have already put in place these protections. We must fight back against the misuse of religion as a tool of hatred and intolerance. We must work tirelessly to create a culture which embraces differences in gender and sexual orientation, just as we work to eradicate racism and sexism.
Our partner organization GroundSpark just released Straightlaced--How Gender's Got Us All Tied Up, a powerful new documentary directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Debra Chasnoff that illuminates the ways gender stereotypes and anti-gay prejudice limit all youth from being their best, truest selves. NCLR has signed on as a national partner to help get Straightlaced seen as widely as possible because it makes crystal clear why these issues are so important to address right now. This film, along with the work of groups like GLSEN and the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, and all of us, will facilitate vital conversations about school safety for all students, bringing us closer to that day when no child will have to live in fear of anti-gay bullying, harassment, or physical assault.
We must live in a world where Carl and Jaheem grow into strong and happy adults who themselves help to change the world. This is our wish for every child. The tragic and entirely preventable deaths of Carl and Jaheem must be the last. Please help make it so.