Gay teens face hard times in Tri-Cities

By Sara Schilling, Herald staff writerOctober 19, 2008 

Gay and lesbian teens in the Tri-Cities say they've been targeted in the community and at school because of their sexual orientation.

They've been whispered about, laughed at and called names such as "faggot" when they're on the street and in school hallways, they say.

"I've had people try to fight me because I'm gay. I've had people try to fight me because I hang out with people who are gay and stand up for them," said Alex, 17, who goes to high school in the Tri-Cities.

The Herald agreed not to fully identify students to protect them from harassment.

Their experiences are backed up by a national survey released this month. It found that 86 percent of students who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered -- abbreviated as LGBT -- had been verbally harassed at school in the past year.

Educators say such bullying isn't acceptable, and that's reflected in school policies that include specific protections for characteristics such as sexual orientation.

The policies may be having an impact. Not every LGBT student has felt bullied. A few who were interviewed said they've had minimal trouble because of their sexual orientation.

For the most part, the students agree progress is being made. All said they have teachers or counselors they trust, although a few also said there have been times they didn't feel supported at school. Results of the survey are timely because October marks the 10th anniversary of Matthew Shepard's murder. The Wyoming college student was brutally beaten by two men, allegedly because he was gay.

The incident sparked national debate about hate crime legislation, and there have been ceremonies to mark the anniversary.

The newly released 2007 National School Climate Survey was conducted by the New York-based Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. It found that about 74 percent of LGBT students regularly heard terms like "faggot" and "dyke" at school.

Nearly 61 percent said they felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and about 33 percent had missed a day in the last month because they didn't feel safe.

Tri-City students said it hurts to be targeted because of their sexual orientation.

Alex said he's been called names and had things thrown at him. He believes doing drugs is more accepted at his school than being gay.

Andrew, 19, said he was called names on the street and picked on by high school classmates.

"After a while it can (hurt) less and less because it happens so often," he said. "I know that I'm gay. You can call me gay. That's OK. Tell me something I don't know. But the fact they are trying to get into my mind and break me down is what hurts me."

Harassment and bullying aren't limited to gay or lesbian teens. Students report being picked on for everything from the way they talk to how they look, according to national data.

All Tri-City school districts have policies to combat bullying and harassment.

Kennewick School District, for example, prohibits "harassment, intimidation and bullying" based on characteristics including race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. The policy is based on state law.

Tri-City educators say they step in when they hear or see inappropriate comments or actions.

A Richland High counselor said staffers make a point to be in hallways before and after school and between classes. That contributes to a feeling of safety, Denise Reddinger said.

The national survey of more than 6,000 LGBT students ages 13-21 found adults' attitudes and practices make a difference. Students in schools with specific protections for sexual orientation were harassed less and were more likely to report incidents, the survey said.

The presence of clubs such as Gay-Straight Alliances, or GSAs, had a similar effect, the report said. Two Mid-Columbia high schools have those clubs.

Students at Pasco High School started a GSA about a year ago. It meets about once a week, and about seven students regularly attend, said adviser Melanie Bachart.

The group focuses on tolerance and acceptance in general, not just gay and lesbian issues, Bachart said. It's a mix of gay and straight students.

Reaction to the club at school has been positive, Bachart said.

"In a school of 3,500 students, our goal is that everyone is connected. This is another way to be connected," said Charlotte Troxel, assistant principal.

More than 80 Pasco High students participated last year in the National Day of Silence, which is aimed at spotlighting harassment related to sexual orientation.

Students refrained from talking in the hallways and at lunch as a way to show solidarity, Bachart said. They did participate in class.

Students from Sunnyside High School's alliance group also took part, said adviser Dan Thomas.

School officials and administrators have been supportive, and the club now is in its second full year, he said. But there have been concerns from some teachers, students and community members, he said, and there's been talk of protesting club events, although that's not happened.

The group now is working on a "safe spaces" campaign in which teachers would place stickers on their doors showing that any student could come to them for help or advice.

Thomas believes the club is doing some good at Sunnyside High. It's serving kids who "have wonderful potential but are living bottled up. They're living afraid," he said. "Just to be supportive of some of these kids is helpful."

Beth, 16, said she tries to let derogatory comments roll off her back. Her advice to other teens is, "Don't let it get you down. Don't be mad at them because they don't understand."

Doug, 17, said he's been called names but feels safe. He attended prom with another boy without incident.

The teens said one term they're tired of hearing is, "That's so gay." It's commonly used by young people to describe something negative.

Erika, 17, said a classmate used it the other day to talk about a math problem. "I was like, it's not homosexual at all. It's a math equation,'" she said.

That term and others can reinforce feelings of shame and hurt in LGBT teens, said Mark Lee, executive director of Vista Youth Center in Kennewick. The center opened nearly two years ago for LGBT youths and their allies.

More than 650 youths have come to the center since it opened, including 210 different people since July, Lee said. About 22 percent of them don't have a permanent place to live and 8 percent have been in foster care, he said.

"Have we made progress? Sure," Lee said. "We went from a place of (people saying), 'We can't talk about it,' or 'Why are you trying to rock the boat?' to a place where we can talk about it."

But more needs to be done, he said.

Several students said they aren't looking to change the minds of people who disagree with homosexuality, but they would like to see more dialogue and more tolerance.

Alex said he's learned from what he's been through. "I take every experience and make it a growing experience," he said. "Everything that's happened is making me a stronger person."

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