(Originally published in the Liberty Press in April 2008)
When I discuss harassment in schools, my personal story often comes up. People nod and pity me, admit to how horrible harassment in school is, and end up still thinking kids will be kids. After all, I am here, alive, with success and a happy life. But one phrase makes them stop. It highlights one of the real costs of schoolyard harassment and bullying:
There is no reason in the world an eight-year-old should be planning her own suicide.
Dramatic but true. In uber-white Andover, Kansas, I did not have gay slurs thrown at me. This was just the group finding the one person to pick on. And to pick on for years to come. As we all grew up, the group harassment disappeared though the lasting effects remain. Paralyzing anxiety grips much of my life. Even at this point, people still do not understand the depth of this problem, seeing instead the success I have and assuming I have overcome. That actually makes me really fortunate.
Intuitively, we understand anti-gay harassment persists, though much of it appears innocuous to many people. We play off “fag” and “dyke” as kids just being kids. While this is true -- kids are cruel -- in no way does this mean institutions should ignore it. I can say responsibility does not rest on survivors alone to make it through.
Schools provide another place for children to learn. They get to interact with other students which provides as much to our development as books do. Schools must provide a safe environment or some students will not have the same education as others. It is quite difficult to learn when you are scared.
A safe, inclusive school environment prepares kids to live as adults, and making sure they are not only safe but learn to accept and understand differences between people. We must all learn how to work with people we do not like, disagree with, or believe will be on the receiving end of the fires of hell.
We learn to get along with people of different religious backgrounds (to some extent), though by not teaching about accepting gay and lesbian students, we instead teach this form of discrimination is acceptable not only in personal relationships but in social and professional environments. Even if Kansas modifies laws for adults, students won’t be protected without specific changes to education laws.
For the past year and a half, several local organizations brought together through Students United petitioned the Wichita school board to change their non-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation. Lawyers for the district argue making their policy different than federal law will open them up to lawsuits (though the opposite has shown to be true).
In May of last year, the district made a policy change they felt would be helpful. While strengthening their anti-bullying policy, the Wichita school board also added specific examples of classes. Among those lists was sexual orientation.
Throughout the month of February, the board debated changes made to their diversity policy. Board member Betty Arnold suggested adding sexual orientation to the policies. While these changes do not affect those policies Students United sought changed, they are, in fact, the very changes every school district should have.
“The Wichita Public Schools shall ensure that there is no discrimination based on but not limited to … sexual orientation … in the placement, instruction, and guidance of pupils; the employment, assignment, training, or promotion of personnel; … and in all matters relating to the instruction, supervision, administration, and Board policy making.”
Woohoo! I’m dancing in the streets! Watch me as I dance and jump up and down. .
Wichita remains only one of two districts in the state -- after Lawrence -- to include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies. Lawrence is the only one to include gender identity. We, as a community, must carry forth with this momentum and make sure every student in the state -- all 300 districts -- are fully protected.
But until then, let us send letters to the Wichita school board and thank them for taking the time to include sexual orientation in their list of protections. Their students and staff deserve it. Go to http://www.usd259.com/boe/boecontact/default.htm for their information.
I raise a glass to those who worked on this. With all my heart, thank-you. Join me in the celebration!