Rochelle Hamilton is a lesbian high school student who was repeatedly harassed by teachers and staff at her Vallejo, California school. In May, the ACLU successfully negotiated a settlement with the school includes district-wide anti-harassment training for students and staff and $25,000 for Rochelle. Learn more about her case here, or check out the video of this report about her from a local television station. In June, Rochelle spoke at the main stage at San Francisco Pride. Here’s a transcript of her speech.
I’m so excited to be here celebrating with you guys and I’m honored to speak on this stage.
My name is Rochelle Hamilton. I’m 16 years old and I go to Hogan High School in Vallejo. The last couple years have been a challenge, and I’ve been through a lot. Last year was the first time I went to Pride. It was awesome to march through the streets in San Francisco holding a rainbow flag. This year, I’m here with my family and a bunch of friends from Vallejo who wanted to experience Pride.
I came out to my family when I was 13. They’ve been so supportive, and they helped me be proud to say I’m an out lesbian.
But two years ago, I started attending Jesse Bethel High School, and things were different. Almost from the minute I got there, I started being harassed because I’m gay.
It didn’t come from other students though. I was harassed by teachers and school staff. They asked me what was wrong with me. They told me I didn’t even know if I was a man or a woman. I was hugging a female friend one day and a teacher came up to us and said that it was a sin, it was ungodly, and I was going to hell. One teacher refused to let me in the girls’ locker room to use the bathroom. Two of my straight friends walked in right by me with no problem.
I was encouraged to join a counseling group at the school. I thought it was a GSA group to support us and tell us it’s good to be ourselves. But when I got there, the counselor asked if I could ever imagine being with a man. She even told us that it’s hard to get a job if you’re gay. She also told me that I would get this kind of treatment my whole life. She asked if I was going to stand up for myself every time.
I just wanted to be able to go to school and be myself. But I couldn’t do that when adults were judging me and telling me something was wrong with me. How was I supposed to stay in school and learn like that?
So I stood up to the counselor and to all the other teachers. For three months my mom did everything she could to get the teachers to stop. Nothing worked. I started thinking it was all pointless and I became withdrawn. Why should I go to school when they don’t want me there? Finally my mom contacted the ACLU and they told the school district that the law says schools have to protect students from discrimination and harassment. They worked out a settlement where every teacher and every student has to be trained about homophobia and respect. And the school district has to make it easier for people to report harassment. The best part of the whole thing for me is that now everyone will know what the rules are. It won’t be hidden anymore.
The day the settlement got worked out, I wrote on my bedroom wall: no more pain, no more drama, no more tears. I’m at a different school now. And I’m happy. People accept me for who I am. I believe in myself.
A gay friend told me recently that his teacher said to him, “You just want to be a girl.” I told him to write a complaint. I was so proud that now there’s something we can do. There are too many students who are harassed. Students have rights too. Young people are strong. We have a voice. There are students like me all over California who are working to make their schools and their lives better. When something is wrong, we need to stand up and make a difference. Young people like me, we’re not looking for a five letter word, “sorry.” We’re looking for a six letter word: “change.”
I go to school to learn, but the experience of standing up for myself and for my rights taught me some important lessons.
Lesson Number One: Students can take a stand against adults who discriminate. And they can win. Even when those adults are teachers.
Lesson Number Two: I have the right to be myself. You have the right to be yourself. We all have the right.
So this is my message to everybody else being discriminated against: keep fighting, be who you are ‘till the day you die, always stand up for yourself. Or, as I say in a poem I wrote: “I’m happy with my sexuality and I say it with pride you see because this is my life and this is me.”
Thank you to my mom. Thank you to the ACLU. And thank you to all of you. Stand up for yourself. Be who you are.
The ACLU has tools and resources to help you stand up for yourself at your school. Visit the Schools & Youth section of Get Busy, Get Equal and the LGBT Youth Resources Library on ACLU.org to find out more.