Story and photo by CONNOR WALLACE
The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) released on Sept. 5, 2012, the 2011 National School Climate Survey, which outlined the experiences of more than 8,500 LGBT students in all 50 states. The survey found “6 in 10 LGBT students reported feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation.” This marks the first significant drop in bullying based on sexual orientation. GLSEN credits schools and districts with helping to prevent bullying and harassment.
Locally, Equality Utah and the LGBT Resource Center at the University of Utah can be credited with helping school districts to implement bills and provide services regarding LGBT issues.
Equality Utah is a nonprofit organization that focuses on providing equal rights for all LGBT people and their families through helping politicians get elected as well as affecting policy through advocacy. In 2008, Equality Utah helped pass a bill, H.B. 325, which created a definition of hazing and bullying as well as set “the minimum standards for bullying and hazing policies in local districts and charter schools.” Two years later, cyberbullying and verbal harassment were included in the criteria of forbidden activities.
“Bullying has changed,” said Equality Utah Director Brandie Balken regarding cyberbullying.
The Human Rights Education Center of Utah define cyberbullying as “willful and repeated harm inflicted upon others through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.”
Balken said Equality Utah is working to prevent bullying for any reason and pointed out that it has helped two school districts, Park City and Salt Lake City, to adopt policies preventing bullying and discrimination. Despite those policies, students still suffer persecution because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
Allison Shepard is a student at the University of Utah. She said she was bullied in high school when people discovered that she was bisexual.
“There were rumors spread that I fooled around with my best friend,” Shepard said. “The rumors were completely untrue.”
She said people need to stand up for themselves when being bullied.
“If a bully says that you’re a loser, prove them wrong,” Shepard said.
Shepard is originally from Chicago and came to the U to study nursing. She said that while progress is being made due to efforts by organizations like Equality Utah, the process is a slow one.
“I do believe that Utah is slowly becoming more intolerant of bullying,” said Shepard, who plans to graduate in May 2013 with a bachelor’s in health promotion and education.
However, she added, “the LGBT community is affected more than others because bullies will use [being LGBT] to target people.”
There is truth to Shepard’s statement. In a 2009 study conducted by the Child Trends Data Bank and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five high school students reported being harassed at school. But the GLSEN study found that more than 80 percent of LGBT students were verbally harassed in 2011.
Kai Medina-Martínez is the director of the U’s LGBT Resource Center, which provides information on LGBT issues as well as sensitivity training for allies.
Medina-Martínez, who prefers the gender-neutral pronoun “they,” equated the higher occurrence of bullying in the LGBT community to a societal stigma.
“Gay in our country is a bad thing,” they said. “Bullying is very much a concern in the LGBT community.”
Medina-Martínez said bullying is a problem for every group. However, they pointed out that in order to prove that bullying is a hate crime, a victim must demonstrate that sexual orientation was a factor. Medina-Martínez said in order to help stop bullying, society needs to be more aware and look for signs that include: loss of interest in school and school events, trouble sleeping and nightmares, declining grades and increased fighting in school.
“The secrecy around bullying keeps the cycle going,” Medina-Martinez said.