Vernon Rosario, MD, PhD and Sarah Herbert, MD, MSW are child and adolescent psychiatrists and members of the LGBT Committee of the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry.
After enduring repeated episodes of bullying, 13-year-old Seth Walsh hanged himself from a tree in his backyard in an effort to end the torment. His mother found him barely alive, and he ultimately died after a week on life support. His death shocked his community and the nation during a wave of similar cases of suicides of gay and gender atypical youth last autumn.
The California State Assembly is currently considering Seth's Law (AB 9). The bill would require school districts to establish detailed policies to prevent and handle harassment of children based on actual or perceived minority status - including sexual orientation and gender identity expression. The law adds urgently needed teeth to existing anti-discrimination laws which failed to protect Seth Walsh, for whom the bill is named.
Seth was a gentle child growing up in Tehachapi, CA. Beginning in fourth grade, classmates called him "gay," "fag," and "queer" for his expressive mannerisms and girlish clothing. The harassment continued and became more severe. He was bullied in person, on the telephone, and over the Internet. A teacher even called him "fruity" in front of the class. His grandmother reported that he was afraid to walk home from school and spent a lot of his life in fear.
Some girls like to play with trucks and some boys like to play with dolls. Researchers call these kids "gender atypical" and they may or may not grow up to be gay. But whatever their future sexual orientation, they are frequently taunted and assaulted by peers and sometimes even by family members. Studies have shown that when these children are rejected by their families, they are a high risk for developing psychological distress and attempting suicide. As child psychiatrists, we frequently see these children and try to help them cope with constant teasing and even violence from peers and family. Sadly, sometimes even if their family is supportive this is not enough to prevent tragedy, as in Seth's case.
Despite a 2003 Bullying Prevention Act and Seth's mother's frequent complaints to school administrators about her son's mistreatment, Seth continued to be tormented so regularly that he was home-schooled on two occasions. Schools clearly need to do more to protect kids who seem different.
This kind of bullying could be curtailed or prevented. In a 2002 policy statement about bullying, the American Medical Association alerted parents, teachers, and health care professionals to the seriousness of bullying and the need to intervene. Bullying is not just about physical violence or name-calling, but can also occur through the spreading of rumors, especially now with electronic media and social networking. Children might be afraid to report bullying to their families or teachers for fear of ridicule or retribution, so adults need to be vigilant for signs of bullying, including: unexplained injuries, damaged clothes and belongings, school refusal, frequent complaints of illness, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, sadness, or social withdrawal.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services fact-sheet on bullying details preventive steps schools should take. Explicit policies that define and prohibit gender bullying reduce harassment and help children feel safer. Including sexual orientation and gender identity in school non-discrimination policies sends a clear message of tolerance to the community. Staff should be trained on bullying prevention methods and children can be educated in an age-appropriate way to respect diverse identities. Seth's Law would require every school district to follow through on these professionally approved recommendations with detailed, specific policies and programs.
It may take a long time before we see more social acceptance of gender atypical kids. In the meantime, schools can set the right tone of acceptance to help these children cope with adversity and grow up to be happier and more productive adults. We need Seth's Law to protect our children and set an example for the nation.