Sometimes I need laws to remind me to do the right thing.
I admit I was a texting driver for far too long. Despite full awareness of the risks, I composed epic texts on Interstate 5 at 70 miles an hour.
I chatted on the phone about every subject under the sun while maneuvering my car onto a ferry or across the Narrows Bridge in 50-mile-per-hour crosswinds. I knew it was profoundly negligent, but still I did it. And so, because of me and millions like me, laws have been passed to protect the public at large from our recklessness.
And because of my fear of a big fat ticket, I obey the laws. Usually.
Protecting us from ourselves is one reason we have laws. And protecting those who don’t yet know how to protect themselves is one of the greatest reasons to have a law. This is why newly introduced and re-introduced congressional bills aimed at anti-gay bullying are so important to the well-being of our youth.
In a pioneering study released last week, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention asserted that sexual minority adolescents and teens are significantly more likely to engage in unhealthy or risky behaviors. The study was comprehensive, presenting nearly a decade’s worth of observation from seven states and six urban school districts. The report determined that gay, lesbian, and bisexual students had higher incidences of behaviors related to violence, suicide attempts, tobacco, alcohol and other drug use, promiscuous sexual behaviors, and weight problems than their heterosexual peers.
The CDC’s Dr. Laura Kann attributes these disproportionate risks to social pressures, not internal conflict about sexual orientation. She emphasizes that these behaviors are in response to a lack of “physically, emotionally acceptable environments – home, school, community.”
The May 2011 issue of the Journal of School Health states that bullying at school is “strongly linked” to mental health problems for sexual minority youth.
Sexual minority students face not just mental duress, but a compromised educational experience. Nearly nine out of 10 LGBT youth report being harassed at school due to their sexual orientation or perceived orientation. Almost two-thirds of LGBT youth fear for their safety at school. More than one third of them attempt suicide.
This is shameful.
In the face of a spate of teen suicides related to anti-gay bullying in 2010, several bills were introduced in Congress. They include the Safe Schools Improvement Act, the Student Non-Discrimination Act, and the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act.
These bills are not without their vocal detractors. They claim the bills infringe upon First Amendment rights, are redundant to protections already in effect and are unneeded.
But these laws would not be simply superfluous additions to already existing laws which are being properly enforced. These proposed laws would ensure that the physical and mental safety of sexual minority youth isn’t overlooked. They assure that school faculty and administrators understand their legal responsibility to protect LGBT students with the same vigor as they do ethnic or religious minorities.
Looking the other way, dismissing bullying behavior as “kids will be kids,” and reprimanding the bully with a wink and a nod would no longer be acceptable. These youth who are still learning how to defend themselves would have the legally mandated support of their educators.
Our school systems are stretched thin. They are overcrowded and underfunded. It’s easy to see how a quiet minority could go unnoticed as they are tormented by bullies. We need to have laws in place that insist on zero tolerance of such bullying. We need to be reminded to do the right thing.
Kris Coyner is an activist for immigration justice and civil rights. She and her partner are raising 1-year-old triplet daughters near Shelton. A member of The Olympian’s Diversity Panel, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.