Young, gay and scared to death at school
September 23, 1999
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Nearly half of all gay and lesbian students don't feel safe at school, according to a first of its kind survey. Seventy percent of those polled said they had been taunted, sexually harassed, shoved, kicked, punched and even beaten. Most had frequent slurs hurled their way, and one third said some of the slurs came from their teachers.
For all teen-agers, there is always a certain amount of trepidation about school, the normal jitters and insecurities. But for gay teens like Michael and Ellen, their classmates -- and even teachers -- can create frightening situations.
It starts, at first, with words. Hurtful words like "faggot," "homo" and "queer," according to Michael.
Michael Bisgono was 14 when he learned just how dangerous his New Jersey school could be.
"They pinned me up against the fence, my hands were like this and they started taking their shots -- punching me, kicking me," he recalled. 'They were just chanting, 'Kill the faggot, kill the faggot.'"
"You can walk outside and hear one word and know that someone wants you dead," said Ellen.
The words can be heard on U.S. playgrounds and in school hallways. Familiar taunts about homosexuality. Words that gay U.S. teens -- who are increasingly visible and increasingly vocal -- fear will lead to violence.
After the slaying of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, his mother received hundreds of letters from gay teens. She believes the words can pave the way to violence.
"When you call someone a 'fag,' it identifies them with a group, a group that in today's climate is open to harassment," said Judy Shepard. "So by calling someone a 'fag,' you are giving yourself and the people around you the license to either damage this individual verbally or physically."
Former teacher Kevin Jennings runs the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which conducted the survey. He also lectures at schools on tolerance.
"A gay and lesbian student attempts suicide every 35 minutes," said Jennings. "Students are going to school and the best that they can hope for is that maybe I won't get beaten up today."
At the Anti-Defamation League, Caryl Stern La Rosa counsels youth about prejudice. She said teens can often make progress against anti-Semitism and racism -- but losing their homophobia -- that bigotry is often the last to go.
"If you resort to using an ethnic slur against someone who is a person of color -- they know that that is not generally acceptable in public. So they (the victims) can turn to a teacher, a principal, a parent, a church leader," said La Rosa. "There's not that same guarantee for a gay, lesbian or bisexual kid."
Her students who counsel others on hate say their peers still think it's cool to attack gay kids.
The kids say the worst thing they can call a fellow student is "faggot," "gay" or "homosexual."
"It's OK to say a gay joke," said one African-American student. "Everybody sits around and laughs about it."
As a little boy, Derek Henkle loved going to school. But by the time he was 14 years old, he feared the kids and teachers at his Nevada high school.
"School for me was horrendous," said Henkle. "I would walk through the halls, and people would spit food on me. I would be in the cafeteria and people would throw stuff at me, and I would have lunch carts pushed into my side."
So he dropped out of school and went to work, running away from memories of abuse and helplessness.
"I was bleeding profusely from my mouth, my nose bleeding profusely, I had a gouge behind my ear that I was bleeding from," Henkle recalled of one attack.
"I walked very, very close to these school police officers, hoping they would intervene, and they turned around and walked the other direction," he said.
So Henkle has walked the other direction as well, running away from the scariest place he knew -- school.
Anti-gay site goes back to rightful owners
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