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Gay Bullying Goes From Rite of Passage to Public Enemy

Bottle-blond bangs swept over one eye — this, the other boys whispered, was not a man's haircut. One of them — a popular, handsome specimen — grew particularly incensed at his classmate's new look. He formed a posse and found a pair of scissors. After locating the blond boy, the gang tackled him. The boy screamed for help, but none came. Lock by lock, his hair was lopped off.

Soon after, the boy disappeared from school. Eventually he returned, his hair clipped short and back to its natural brown color.

There was no disciplinary action, but the incident would forever haunt everyone involved, save for the lead attacker, Mitt Romney. He forgot about it, married a pretty girl, produced five handsome sons, and made hundreds of millions of dollars. Now he wants to be president.

Gay kids have long been a target of bullying. Until recently, incidents could be laughed off as "pranks" and no one suffered any consequences, except the gay kid. But in the past few years, that has begun to change. Some say it started the night Tyler Clementi leapt from the George Washington Bridge. He'd just discovered that his roommate at Rutgers University had used a webcam to spy on a kiss he shared with another man. Police found Clementi's body seven days later.

Around that same time, Seth Walsh, 13, hanged himself in his rural California backyard just a half-hour after his mother had rescued him from a gang of bullies.

Now bullies everywhere are being held to account. Dharun Ravi, the roommate who spied on Clementi, was charged and found guilty of a hate crime and sentenced to 30 days in jail. The Department of Justice brought harsh sanctions down on Walsh's school district, and the local Legislature passed "Seth's Law," making it mandatory for schools to formally investigate bullying claims.

News of 15-year-old Billy Lucas' suicide inspired sex columnist Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" campaign, a viral video series designed to show gay kids there's a better life after graduation. "That September woke a lot of older, grown-up LGBT members to the fact that while it had gotten so much better for us out in the world, there had been the inverse effect of upping the temperature for kids in school," says Savage. "I really do think it shifted the culture."

The world swooned earlier this month when President Obama gave gay marriage his personal blessing, but his administration's efforts to combat bullying may actually be his more valuable contribution. Under his direction, the Department of Justice has vigorously pursued schools all over the country for failing to protect gay kids.

Until recently, the only classroom conversation about homosexuality and kids was how to keep them separate. The gay-rights movement began to push back in the '90s. An openly gay teacher in Boston named Kevin Jennings founded the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) to help educators who wanted to offer counsel to gay kids. In 1999, a judge affirmed that Gay-Straight Alliance clubs had a right to gather on school grounds.

Allies of gay youth compiled research showing that gay teens are overwhelmingly more likely than heterosexuals to face harassment at school. The most recent figures from GLSEN reported that 84.6 percent of LGBT students are verbally harassed. A third of gay kids had skipped school within the past month because they were afraid of their classmates. A Northwestern University researcher just published the first longitudinal study on LGBT youth and suicide and found that victims of bullying were two and a half times more likely to attempt suicide or hurt themselves.

It's not just a matter of semantics. A growing body of research shows that students who attend schools with "enumerated" gay bullying policies heard fewer slurs and were one-third less likely to skip class. A California Safe Schools Coalition report found that kids felt safer in school when they knew they had access to information about LGBT issues.

In the internet age, bullying doesn't stop when kids leave school — it continues online.Take Zach King, for example. A 15-year-old boy from rural Ohio, King was beaten so badly in a high school classroom that two of his teeth were chipped. But it wasn't until King got home and logged in that he realized the beating had been recorded with a cell phone camera. "It was posted to his Facebook wall," says Becky Collins, Zach's mom. "The wording was worse than the actual fight: 'Ha-ha, my cousin beat the fuck out of Zach King.' "

There's surprisingly little research on LGBT youth and cyberbullying. One small study out of Iowa State University found that of 444 mostly LGBT students, 54 percent had been cyberbullied in the past month — and 26 percent of those who had been bullied experienced suicidal thoughts as a result. The study found that gay bullying victims were less likely to go to an adult for help, especially if their parents were inclined to restrict internet access or take away their cell phones.

In an attempt to stop antigay harassment, Facebook has stepped up its reporting options and formed a coalition with groups like the Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Advocates have fought in and out of court with districts that claim to be absolved of responsibility for student behavior off school grounds. Tyler Clementi's parents say that if their son's complaint had been taken seriously by his dorm's resident assistant, their son might still be alive today. "Maybe if his RA had reported it as a crime right away, if some adults had gotten involved, the police could have assisted Tyler," says Jane Clementi. "We didn't know about it until it was too late."

They hope Tyler's story will open parents' eyes in time. "We realized that losing a child is probably the worst experience a parent can have," says Tyler's father, Joseph. "We started the foundation to remember Tyler and try to keep other parents from going through this kind of suffering that we went through."

When it comes to gay bullying, society seems to be experiencing something of a paradigm shift. "I compare it to what happened in the South in the civil rights movement," says Jamie Nabozny, the plaintiff in the country's first gay bullying case. "The fall of 2010 will be comparable to what happened in Selma."

Growing up in small-town Wisconsin, Nabozny was shoved into lockers, urinated on, and beaten so badly in a hallway that he had to have stomach surgery. In 1996, Nabozny sued the school's administrators. His bully took the stand and testified that their principal knew about the violent abuse. The jury found that Nabozny deserved equal protection based on sexual orientation under the U.S. Constitution and awarded him almost $1 million.

"That hadn't been done before," says Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director at Lambda Legal, the firm that represented Nabozny. "And still we're lacking a federal law that is specific on protection for students on the basis of sexual orientation."

Nabozny realized how little had changed since his experience and started speaking at schools two years ago. He's since received apologies from former classmates and even the children of his bullies. "A lot of people in the country don't care if gay people have the right to marry — they didn't think too much about LGBT rights," Nabozny says. "Then people saw kids were killing themselves and said, 'Wait a minute, this isn't OK.' "

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Jessica Lussenhop

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