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Anti-LGBTQ Bullying Starts in Elementary School

Jamel & elementary schools

After several days to absorb the shock of Jamel Myles’s death, and nearly 20 years of work on LGBTQ issues in K-12 schools, there are two things I know for sure:

1. None of us outside his family and closest friends will ever really know the reasons he felt such despair that he took his own life. His family and friends may never get that closure either. Suicide is too complicated for singular answers.

2. The hate and bias fueling the harassment he faced from his peers was surely a factor. And its persistence and power implicates every adult who promotes or exploits that bias, or who ignores it, whether out of discomfort or willful ignorance of its deadly effects.

If I had a dollar for every time someone tried to attack or deny the importance of GLSEN’s work in elementary schools, we would have an endowment by now. But everyone with their head in the sand about the prevalence of anti-LGBTQ and gender-based bias in grades K-5 should now be on notice: Jamel was 9. He was out to his mother as gay, he was looking forward to sharing his full self with his classmates, and their response, reportedly, was to tell him that he "should kill himself." Who knows who Jamel would have grown up to be, or to love. We will never get to know. Jamel will never get to know.

We have known for years that more than 40 percent of all elementary school students regularly hear "fag" and "that’s so gay" at school. Within a week of my oldest daughter starting kindergarten, she learned that calling someone a "sissy" is a truly terrible insult. More than 40 percent of elementary students don’t feel safe at school because of bullying and name-calling. Nearly one in 10 of those students has been called out at school for being gender-nonconforming, for being a boy who "acts like a girl" or a girl who is too much of a "tomboy."

By the time these students hit middle school, when more begin to come out, this simmering stew of learned bias morphs into spasms of violence. More than two in every five LGBTQ youth in middle school have been physically assaulted at school.

But here’s another thing I know for sure: We know how to fix this. And the changes determined advocates have made in schools across the country to-date have put us in a position to keep making progress, even when things look bleak.

GLSEN has been at work for nearly 30 years in K-12 schools, organizing an ever-growing network of educators, students, and parents, and alongside an increasing number of education and civil rights organizations that make common cause with us in the service of a truly powerful vision: safe and affirming schools for all children – LGBTQ, immigrant, black and brown, female, femme, Muslim, Jewish, disabled, and anyone who is marginalized and targeted by bias, discrimination, and hate.

Together, we have been on track to reduce bullying overall, and, through decades of focused work with a vast array of partners, we have significantly reduced the harassment and violence that LGBTQ youth face daily at school. Between 2005 and 2015, U.S. Department of Education data tracked a decline of 7 percent in the bullying faced by students in this country. During the same period, GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey showed a decline by roughly 20 percent in LGBTQ students experiencing high levels of victimization related to sexual orientation.

Whether in Los Angeles or Irmo, S.C., we have work to do to create safe schools for LGBTQ youth. It can be done, and here’s where to start:

* If you are LGBTQ, write emails to the current principals of your elementary school and tell them how important it is to create truly inclusive school environments for all youth.

* If you are a parent, ask your school board to provide updates on how they are ensuring LGBTQ youth are safe and affirmed, and which LGBTQ organizations they’re working with as experts to lead these ongoing efforts.

* If you are a student, start a Gender & Sexuality Alliance in your school and actively work with your peers to organize for what you need from your school.

* Get involved with local and national LGBTQ organizations that have been effectively leading the way on safe and inclusive schools.

The only question remaining is whether we have the strength to keep up the fight, and whether the federal government – a positive force for change over the last decade – will persist in actively sowing the seeds of hate while dismantling the programs, policies, and approaches that had helped make progress possible.

Consider this: On the same day that we learned of Jamel’s death, the president of the United States hosted a White House Summit for evangelicals, boasting of his accomplishments on behalf of the entities often most violently hostile to LGBTQ youth. Weeks ago, the state of Florida announced a cruelly misnamed “Hope Scholarship” program, providing public money for bullied students to transfer schools. Fully 10 percent of the schools that have applied to participate in the program have explicit policies discriminating against LGBTQ students, staff, and families. And of course, one of the very first actions taken by the president’s secretary of Education was to rescind guidance to schools about how to protect transgender youth under federal law, sowing confusion and fear, and causing some schools to shun trans youth.

But we are in a very different world today than we were 20 years ago, and we have the knowledge, the tools, and the collective power to resist. I have been doing this work for long enough to be able to begin to see the evidence of systemic progress – to see that long arc start to bend toward greater justice for LGBTQ youth. Twenty years ago, LGBTQ-affirming practices were still a distant dream. Today they are becoming widespread, as elementary school parents advocate powerfully for their queer, transgender, and gender-expansive children, and K-12 school systems everywhere are beginning to adopt the LGBTQ-affirming practices that have been shown to be part of better, safer schools for everyone.

None of this, of course, will be of comfort to Jamel’s family and friends now. All of us at GLSEN and our national network of chapters, educators, and student leaders send them our deepest condolences. And we make them this promise: We will not be deterred, and we will not stop until we mobilize all adults of goodwill in the daily battle against hate. To everyone else reading this: What will you do?

Eliza Byard
ELIZA BYARD is the executive director of GLSEN, which works to to create safe and affirming schools for all, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

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