Guest Blogger

California Needs to Fight Gender Bullying

Filed By Guest Blogger | April 30, 2011 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: California, education policy, gender, homophobic behavior, LGBT, school bullying, Seth Walsh

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.

rosariosmall.JPGAfter 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.

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twinkie1cat | April 30, 2011 1:17 PM

The problem here is that gays are not universally recognized as a minority group. If they were they would have equal rights under the constitution. It is hard to enact policies that directly protect gays because the religious right is watching and will do its best to knock them down every time. Look what happened with Prop 8. It is still in court and costing the side with the least funding money.

Tall Stacey | May 1, 2011 1:30 PM

Well actually, we are all protected under the Constitution as amended. Amendment 14 - Citizenship Rights, ratified 7/9/1868, section 1 reads: All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
It is the Politicians who have chosen to enact discriminatory legislation that did not include gender or orientation, or that expressly denied rights such as they did with DOMA that are the issues. And then the Courts that interpret based upon minute wording (“well it doesn’t specifically say woman or homosexual or transsexual”) rather than the broader meaning of “All” that validate it. They did the same thing with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the proper and full name of which is: “An act to enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States of America to provide relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to authorize the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs, to establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, and for other purposes” perverting it to apply to ONLY the specified Race, creed, color or national origin specifically identified rather than the broader purpose of equality for all.
The bigger problem is that basic human decency has been allowed to deteriorate. When I was in school – which was a long time ago admittedly – teachers and staff functioned as disciplinarians as well, enforcing the Golden Rule from the position of “DON’T DO TO OTHERS!”, keep your hands to yourself, don’t insult or spew hateful words, treat everyone with due respect because it is the right thing to do. It didn’t have to be because they were tall or skinny or fat or handicapped or racially different or effeminate or had friends that you didn’t like or….. you respected everyone because they were due that respect and tolerance simply because they were human beings.
Somehow our society has become one of empowerment of self-interest above all else. The parents who fight each other at the little league game, the preachers who condemn all they find offensive and commend their minions to their blasphemous purposes of hate and intolerance, the businessmen/women whose only responsibility is the almighty dollar, the politicians whose only responsibility is to get re-elected and the Westboro Baptists that will deny your right to mourn peacefully while they pervert their 1st Ammendement Freedom as the right to impose upon your grief with their vitriol, these violations of human decency and responsibility are the models that children learn from. You can mandate schools to address bullying all you want, but as long as adults set the example, children will learn what they live. Bullying in the schools is just training for the rest of modern life where to get ahead you have to force somebody else down.
I wish I could believe that by teaching our children tolerance that things would change from the bottom up. I think it is changing, improving, from the bottom up, but it is in spite of our leadership not because of. It takes every one of us from our leaders to you and me to stand up against every injustice if we expect to see change in our lifetimes.