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School of Hard Knocks

Hostile Hallways
By
WebMD Feature

July 30, 2001 -- "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down," says a proverb from Japan, a nation where conformity to the social norm is prized.

In the U.S., we like to think we celebrate the individual and are tolerant of different ideas, cultures, and ways of living. But the mirror we hold up to ourselves was shattered in 1998 by the news that Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old freshman at the University of Wyoming, had been savagely beaten, lashed to a fence, and left to die on a desolate prairie outside of Laramie -- ostensibly for the purpose of robbery, but in reality for the crime of being gay.

Matthew Shepard is just one prominent example of many thousands of school-aged lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans who say their daily lives are carried out under a cloud of fear and violence. And although few suffer such extreme fates as Shepard, a majority, say human rights experts, suffer from verbal, emotional, and physical abuses each day.

'Tie the faggot to the back of the truck'

"One day in the parking lot outside his school, six students surrounded him and threw a lasso around his neck, saying, 'Let's tie the faggot to the back of the truck.' "

Dylan N. from Nevada related this experience to members of the nonprofit organization Human Rights Watch (HRW), who included it in a recent report titled Hatred in the Hallways: Violence and Discrimination Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Students in U.S. Schools.

As troubling as the incident was to Dylan, he was equally disturbed by the response from school officials:

"He escaped from his tormentors and ran inside the school. Finding one of the vice-principals, he tried to tell her what had just happened to him. "I was still hysterical," he said. "I was trying to explain, but I was stumbling over my words. She laughed."

In 1990, researchers from Columbia University reported that in a study of minority, working-class, and homosexual youths who had experienced physical assault, nearly half said the assault was gay-related, and that 41% of the girls and 34% of the boys had attempted suicide because of it.

According to a 1993 report from the Massachusetts Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, 97% of students in public high schools report regularly hearing homophobic remarks from their peers, and 53% of students report hearing such comments made by school staff.

Familiar Refrain

"I was harassed in junior high and high school -- even before junior high, but junior high was when it became most intense," says Grace Sterling Stowell, executive director of the Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth (BAGLY), who served on the Massachusetts governor's commission. Her experience as a teen in the mid 1970s, she tells WebMD, included "verbal harassment, threats, being pushed around the hallway, tripped, having books kicked out of my hands, threats written on my locker."

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