Terrance Heath

Be Who You Are

Filed By Terrance Heath | August 06, 2009 9:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics, Politics
Tags: bullying, Rochelle Hamilton, safe schools

School will soon start again, and countless LGBT youth will return to classrooms all over the country. Some will return to schools where they find support and protection from harassment -- where administrators and teachers work together to ensure a safe learning environment to all students.

Some won't.

Some students will return to schools where officials turn a blind eye to bullying and harassment. Some will face administrators who tell them "it's only words and words can't hurt you". Some will return to schools in communities where people oppose protecting LGBT students from harassment. Some will contend with people who believe some students should be harassed -- and that some harassment should be permitted -- "for their own good."

Some of those students will make it, but some won't.

Some will have no one to stand up for them, or to show them how to stand up for themselves.

I hope someone tells them about Rochelle Hamilton.

A high school student who says that she was harassed by her teachers in 2007, because she is a lesbian has won a legal settlement from the Vallejo City Unified School District, officials confirmed Monday.

Under the agreement, the district will pay $25,000 to Rochelle Hamilton, 16, who had come out as a lesbian at age 13. The district will also bolster its anti-gay-discrimination training and complaint procedures for all staff and students and be monitored by the American Civil Liberties Union for five years.

... Rochelle began attending Vallejo's Jesse Bethel High School as a sophomore in the fall of 2007, and was accosted with verbal harassment that continued for months. Most of the attacks, she said, came from her teachers and school staff.

According to Rochelle, a teacher approached while she was hugging her girlfriend and said, "This is ungodly, and you're going to hell."

Another teacher allegedly asked her, "What are you, a man or a woman?"

She was required to participate in a school-sponsored "counseling" group designed to discourage students from being lesbian or gay.

I hope they have adults like Cheri Hamiltonin their lives.

So tell me, what's this journey been like for you?

Cheri: It has been long and painful. With the support from De-Bug and the ACLU, I felt I finally had people who understood our pain. I had to write many letters and make many phone calls, not allowing the district to run from this. Every issue Rochelle faced and every tear she dropped, I brought it to their attention.

Meanwhile, I held Rochelle, reminding her that nothing was wrong with her, that she was beautiful inside and out. As Rochelle asked me why the teachers wouldn't stop, I reminded her what her father and I endured for being a black and white couple, and if we would have given in to a hateful society then she wouldn't be here. As Rochelle listened, she realized that she also had to stand up for herself and others. I was not backing down and reminded the school administrators that my daughter has a right to be herself and receive an education in their district. While Rochelle grabbed her strength from me and as I counseled her through every putdown, she gained strength, and became a shoulder or a ear for LGBTQ (lesbian gay bisexual transgender queer) friends wanting to offer any support that they needed. It reminded her how important it was for her to continue the fight for change.

What was the school's reaction to the case and to Rochelle? Were at least any of them sympathetic or apologetic to Rochelle?

Cheri: The school and the district chose to be sympathetic, but (they were) not willing to apologize. The settlement agreement speaks loudly. Rochelle and I have not focused on a pacified five-letter word "SORRY," but rather we fought for a six-letter word: "CHANGE." That was our goal, and we won what we really wanted, to make Vallejo a safer learning environment for all students.

Is there a message you have for other parents of gay teens who have to go through this and don't know what to do?

Cheri: Always have the will! You are your child's voice! They are not heard unless you speak. Always be proud of your kids and remember how special they are. Smiles last forever in a mother's heart. Listen to your kids and find out what is going on at their school, who their teachers are, and if your child is complaining, upset or withdrawn, find out why.

I hope someone shares with them her words of encouragement.

A gay friend told me recently that his teacher said to him, "You just want to be a girl." I told him to write a complaint. I was so proud that now there's something we can do. There are too many students who are harassed. Students have rights too. Young people are strong. We have a voice. There are students like me all over California who are working to make their schools and their lives better. When something is wrong, we need to stand up and make a difference. Young people like me, we're not looking for a five letter word, "sorry." We're looking for a six letter word: "change."

I go to school to learn, but the experience of standing up for myself and for my rights taught me some important lessons.

Lesson Number One: Students can take a stand against adults who discriminate. And they can win. Even when those adults are teachers.

Lesson Number Two: I have the right to be myself. You have the right to be yourself. We all have the right.

So this is my message to everybody else being discriminated against: keep fighting, be who you are 'till the day you die, always stand up for yourself. Or, as I say in a poem I wrote: "I'm happy with my sexuality and I say it with pride you see because this is my life and this is me."

I can tell you from my own experience that they really need to hear it.

It can make all the difference in the world.

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Next week, band camp starts. I know most of the kids but there are always a few new young ones. I now for sure that where I am these kids will definitely be supported by administration and lots of teachers and other students.
In the band they have lots of support, I make sure of it but so do the other instructors generally.
My only concern right ow is that we have a bunch of new instructors this year that I will be teaching with and they are unbelievable young actually younger than almost all teachers in the field(long story)I hope that they are as accepting and safe as the previous people being replaced. I fear that the lack of experience is going to lead to them saying stupid things.

A. J. Lopp | August 6, 2009 2:39 PM
Some will return to schools in communities where people oppose protecting LGBT students from harassment. Some will contend with people who believe some students should be harassed -- and that some harassment should be permitted -- "for their own good."

It is do dreadful that some parents think that their children should have a right to harass another child --- because that child is LGBT, or any other reason. Such cruelty is often defended with "My child has a right to express his/her religious viewpoints" or "We're exercising our right to free speech (or freedom of religion)."

Of course, stating a viewpoint as a matter-of-fact must be protected --- but making a campaign of cruelty out of it cannot be tolerated.

School administrators, and those of us who champion anti-bullying efforts, have to counter this nonsense by impressing the critical point: Your rights end where the other person's rights begin, and no student has the right to wreck havoc on the safe learning environment of another student. A student has the right to a safe learning environment the same as an employee has a right to a safe working environment.

Rick Sours | August 6, 2009 5:17 PM

Bullying and harassment in the school environment
is totally unacceptable. Having been subjected to
bullying while I was in high school in the 1960's,
I am very pleased to see that the issue is being
addressed. There was a time when bullying was
seen by administrators and teachers yet nothing
was done to stop it. Society has changed alot since
when I was in high school. There was a time when the person being harassed was viewed as having done something to justify the bullying occurring to them. I honestly feel we have reached a time when some teachers, administrators and other students will not remain silent to harassment.

marvellous.michael | August 7, 2009 11:34 AM

I'm lucky enough to attend a amazing art school soon. I should receive support there, unlike at my old schools.

marvellous.michael | August 7, 2009 11:58 AM

I just read the article you linked to about your own story, and noticed that you went to art school too!

My eight year old transgender daughter isn't going to school this year. Saying she isn't allowed on campus is not quite honest. She's allowed if she agrees to go stealth (sorry, she's too claustrophobic to stay in a closet), and not use a bathroom all day. I've looked outside of our school district, too.

Moving from a military base overseas back to the states so she could have the freedom to be herself hasn't quite worked out since the last teacher in a public school (stateside) used male pronouns, graphed her on the boys side in blue, called her by the boy version of her name, excluding her from all group activities... I could go on for hours.

Anyway, I'm not going to put her out there to be abused anymore when the local school won't even allow her to attend as a transgender student. Instead, I will now stay home, homeschooling her, allowing her to be herself because it's the most important thing that she be allowed to be who she really is. So glad to see others telling kids to be true to who they really are, rather than asking them to go stealth or hide in a closet just to make it more comfortable on everyone else.

i admire them all

they are brave and beautiful

best wishes to them all!

I have mixed emotions about the new Harvey Milk High School for homosexuals in New York City. I prefer to see gay students enjoy equal rights and equally safe space inside integrated public schools. But, I know my preference will not protect their spirits or skulls...In the real world, homosexuals are tortured daily in high schools all across America.

Teens typically bully and abuse varied peers. However, gaybashing is the only form of bullying that is sanctioned by law and frequently blessed by "God". Other victims are protected by faculty. Faculty members often encourage gaybashing with religious lies or even join teens as they bash gay students emotionally, verbally, and physically. Gay students are the only bullied students who are essentially told daily: "If God and Jesus were students here, they would beat/tease/reject/abuse your faggot/sissy/dyke ass too!!!...They are both gonna send you to hell after graduation too..."

I was deeply closeted as a teen to avoid such sheer torture. I lived a lie until I was 21. I attended a university at age 12. I buried my life and my gay secret inside textbooks for as long as possible...I was a coward. I admire all the out gay teens who are far braver than I was. I applaud those NYC administrators who reward their bravery with sanctuary rather than with slander and apathy.

I have heard arrogantly ignorant and uneducated gaybashers who do not even know who Harvey Milk is dare to feign a valid opinion on this topic. Typically, most are pseudo-christians who are closeted homosexuals. These hypocritical idiots dare to argue that public tax dollars should not be used to fund this high school. Simultaneously, these fools dare to demand that public funds be used to urge public politicos to fashion bigoted laws that adhere to their own twisted and hateful religious beliefs. Are gay teens not public citizens also? Do their heterosexual/homosexual parents not pay taxes? As always, special rights are equal rights for despised people...

Public schools should be safe for all students irrespective of their sexuality. What other options are any of these gaybashers offering to these gay students? None!!! They could not care less.

We homosexuals are who we are born to be. We have the right to an equal and public education in a safe place. I wish every public school had an out gay faculty member. All children begin to explore and express sexuality long before high school. All of them need and deserve positive role models, especially the homosexual ones.

For the record, the cultural war over homosexuality is over. We homosexuals won that war. We beat the biblical gaybashers by studying their own bible. We beat the biological idiots by forcing them to study the universal science of sexuality. And, in NYC, we beat the gaybashing bullies by forcing them to study alone. This is why gaybashers in 2003 sound exactly like frantic racists in 1953. Those racists became just as rabid when they knew that blacks would no longer endure rabid racism. The gaybashers know that we homosexuals are also no longer enduring their heterosexist hatred and biblical lies. Our wars have just begun....and we will win them all!!!

Success is the best revenge. Racial integration has proven that integration is often deeply flawed. We all now know that separation can indeed be equal and even superior. Like gender segregation, sexual segregation may lead to superior academic performance. Many of us homosexuals are intellectually gifted overachievers. I would love for these gay students to compare ETS scores with the gaybashers they ditched very soon...

Kudos to NYC for being humane enough to protect gay students from gaybashers in academia. NYC is living in the new millennium. Let us hope and pray that the rest of the world stops lagging behind NYC ASAP...