As young people across the country begin to prepare to head back to school with trips to the store for new supplies and clothes, it is a good time to pause and reflect on the discrimination and harassment that continues to be endured by those students who are, or are thought to be, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). For far too many, the dawning of a new school year brings with it the return of discrimination, harassment and physical abuse from fellow students and even school officials. Others are left to wonder what will happen when someone finds out who they are.
Every student deserves the opportunity to attend school and learn free of fear; however, this is not the reality for many LGBT young people in schools across the country. The ACLU's own work advocating for equal protection for LGBT students is replete with examples of those who have suffered discriminatory treatment at the very hands of those tasked with providing them with an education and ensuring their safety within schools.
However, LGBT students have many advocates who are working to make our schools open and welcoming environments for all students — including their fellow students who have successfully formed thousands of gay-straight alliances at schools across the country. In the case of Jamie Nabozny, they have a courageous champion who is able to speak to these issues in a way that few others can.
Jamie experienced the kind of antigay verbal and physical abuse in his school in rural Ashland, Wisconsin, in the late 1980s and early 1990s that can only be described as the stuff of nightmares. Over the course of several years, beginning in middle school and continuing through his junior year of high school, Jamie was called "faggot," "queer," and "fudge packer" on a near-daily basis, and being tripped, pushed, punched and kicked became a reality of life at school. The abuse only grew worse over time as students urinated on him, pretended to rape him and eventually kicked him so hard and so many times in the stomach that he suffered serious internal injuries and required surgery. The most shocking aspect to these horrors in school was that school officials treated the abuse with utter indifference, or even worse, statements that this what he should expect for being gay.
Eventually, Jamie left the school once and for all and moved to Minneapolis. Even after he was able to escape this daily torment, Jamie understood that there were other young people just like him who were experiencing discrimination and harassment in their schools because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. He wanted to do something to ensure that other LGBT students in the future would not have to go through what he did, so, with legal representation from Lambda Legal, Jamie sued the Ashland School District and those school officials who, year after year, did nothing to prevent this terrible abuse.
The case, Nabozny v. Podlesny, led to a landmark decision in 1996 that said schools are required by the Constitution to protect students from the types of antigay abuse Jamie endured. The decision in this case has been used in years since to help other LGBT students experiencing harassment and abuse at their schools.
Today, Jamie is taking this struggle for protections for LGBT students to the US Congress. In a letter to Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) sent on Tuesday, August 17, Jamie writes to thank them for their sponsorship of legislation known as the Student Non-Discrimination Act, and urges its swift passage. This legislation would protect students from discrimination and harassment in public schools based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, and would provide victims with effective legal remedies.
Similar federal protections already exist for public school students on the basis of their race, color, sex, religion, disability or national origin. Despite the fact that LGBT students are particularly vulnerable at school, as Jamie's case clearly demonstrated, they remain glaringly absent from such federal civil rights statutes. There is simply no excuse for this in the year 2010.
For anyone who questions whether such legislation is still needed, I need only remind you of the case of Mississippi teen Constance McMillen and her thwarted efforts to attend her high school prom with her girlfriend this year.
Some may also point out that both Jamie and Constance successfully challenged their discriminatory treatment in the courts. Why does Congress need to act in this area? Jamie provides a compelling reason in his letter to Rep. Polis and Sen. Franken:
I was ultimately successful in my lawsuit, but court cases are very costly and time-consuming. A law like the Student Non-Discrimination Act could actually help to prevent the need for LGBT students and their families to go through the ordeal of a long, expensive court battle by making it clear that discrimination and harassment of students based on their sexual orientation or gender identity have no place in our nation's schools.
Indeed, knowing that the Constitution and the government are on your side is a very powerful thing.
As schools start opening their doors for a new year full of promise, Congress should heed Jamie's call to finally fill this glaring hole in our civil rights laws by passing the Student Non-Discrimination Act and sending it to President Obama for his signature. Passage of this legislation should rank right up there with repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), as well as passage of the long-delayed Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) as priorities for the LGBT community. After all, we are dealing with some of the most vulnerable members of our community and the future leaders of our movement. Plus, many of us remember what it was like packing our book bags and heading to the bus on that first day of school in August.