*This story won 3rd place for “Feature Story of a Serious Nature” in the San Francisco Peninsula Press Club awards of 2011.
When Mountain View High Schoolsophomore Anna Livia Chen asked teachers to talk to students about the recent suicides of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people in September, she got no response.
“I love my school and think they do a pretty good job with bullying,” she said. “But they could do better.”
However, after last week’s letter of guidance by the U.S. Department of Education reminded schools that they needed to address the bullying of gay students, schools got the hint. After all, by not enforcing gender-discrimination laws, schools could lose their government funding.
Mountain View is already a step ahead, with its Outlet Program—the only LGBT program for youth in the Peninsula part of the Community Health Awareness Council (CHAC). The program has received an increased number of calls lately from local schools that want to enlist help to train teachers and staff on how to prevent anti-gay bullying.
“The problem of bullying is that a lot of the underlying stuff is silent,” said Eileen Ross, director of the Outlet Program. “Adults are not speaking up and telling kids to not use the word ‘faggot’ or say ‘that’s so gay.’ Our Bay Area is a little conflicted in thinking that we’re progressive, when there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.”
Some religious groups have spoken out against the education department’s announcement that claims the guidance does not protect “kids bullied for religious reasons.” Others churches and religious groups have spoken against, even condemned, gay bullying.
Chen said that she experienced a bigger problem with bullying in middle school.
“I was the only ‘out’ gay student in eighth grade and tried to start a gay-straight alliance,” said the 15-year-old. “My principal was resistant to the idea. She agreed to let me start a CHAC group, but we weren’t allowed to publicize it.”
Christian Muñoz, who is now 21, remembers how in fourth grade, he introduced himself to his new class by making a poster with his name on it and rainbows drawn for decoration. His classmates responded by taunting him for being gay. The bullying was never physical, but he said it affected him psychologically.
“I didn’t really speak English at the time, so I didn’t understand what gay meant,” said Munoz. “They identified me as ‘the rainbow boy.'”
By high school, Muñoz knew he was gay and came out to his family and friends. The older he got, the more he found acceptance, and last year, Muñoz became the president of Foothill’s Gay-Straight Alliance, a group that helps to combat anti-gay bullying.
Jun-Fung Cheuh, a program coordinator at Outlet, said that bullying targeted at sexual orientation—especially cyber bullying—can be worse in middle schools than in high schools.
“The reason why it feels worse in elementary and middle schools is there aren’t as many gay alliance clubs,” said Cheuh. “Some people don’t realize that the law in California requires public schools to create a space for this.”
Muñoz said LGBT education needs to start before high school; otherwise, it might come “too late.”
“People have already gone through the depression and isolation and all that,” he said. “I feel we should discuss in middle school what we discuss in high school about sexuality.”
In 2009-2010, the Outlet Program had six LGBT education workshops in the Mountain View-Los Altos high school district, reaching more than 400 students. Attempts to get comments from MVHS for this article were not successful by time of publication.
Cheuh said the program encouraged youth and parents to call or e-mail for help with LGBT issues. “There’s lots of support and resources and a whole community out there that cares.”
Muñoz said the silence surrounding homosexuality has caused ignorance and, in turn, bullying against LGBT youth.
“Imagine your parents changing the channel whenever a black person comes on TV, avoiding talking about black people, and when they do, they talk bad about them,” he said. “That is the problem gays face—homosexuality is taboo. Don’t speak it, don’t look at it, don’t listen to it.”
The Outlet Program uses several resources for parents and LGBT youth. The Trevor Project is a 24-hour hotline and online chat for queer and LGBT youth. Even President Obama, along with youths across the nation, have created YouTube videos for the It Gets Better campaign, to encourage victims of bullying to stay strong. An Outlet Program student created this video.
*Claudia Cruz contributed to this report.