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Let Students Be Themselves

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May 20, 2010

Today, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) introduced the Student Nondiscrimination Act. A similar bill has been introduced in the House by Jared Polis (D-Colo.) In this post, California high school student Rochelle Hamilton, who came out as a lesbian when she was 13, writes about harassment and discrimination she faces at school.

Every day, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people face discrimination, harassment and even violence because of who they are. In my case, I was called “ungodly,” and told I was “going to hell” for my “sin.” I was asked, “What are you, a man or a woman?” And I regularly had to hear that it’s “not right to be this way.”

What may surprise you is who my harassers were. All those comments came from teachers and staff at my old high school in Vallejo.

All I wanted was to be able to go to school and be myself. I couldn’t do that when adults were judging me and telling me that something was wrong with me. I was even required to join a counseling group that discouraged students from being LGBT – like that’s even possible. How was I supposed to learn like that?

I came out when I was 13, and I’m proud of who I am. The fact that more and more LGBT teenagers have enough pride in themselves to come out shows that we are making progress. But even if you’re strong, hearing the kinds of anti-gay comments for months, like I did, can be hard to handle. I became depressed and my grades suffered.

Fortunately, I have a very supportive mom. After spending months writing letters, making phone calls and meeting with school officials, she contacted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for help. They told the school that the law in California says schools have to protect students from discrimination and harassment. They worked out a settlement agreement where teachers and students have to be trained about homophobia and respect. The school district also has to make it easier for people to report harassment. The day the agreement got worked out, I wrote on my bedroom wall: no more pain, no more drama, no more tears.

Some people might want to sit back and enjoy a personal victory over discrimination. Not me. I don’t want other young people to have to go through what I did. Every student deserves the opportunity to go to school and learn without being harassed or discriminated against because of who they are.

Now, some in the U.S. Congress are trying to make that a reality for LGBT students all across the country. Colorado Rep. Jared Polis and Minnesota Sen. Al Franken have introduced a bill called the Student Non-Discrimination Act, and, if passed, it would be the first federal law to specifically ban discrimination in public schools based on a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity. I hope it won’t be too long before President Obama is signing it into law. I would never wish what happened to me on anyone. But because it did, I’m doing what I can to stand up for all the other LGBT students who deserve to be able to be themselves at school without being afraid of discrimination and harassment.

After my mom went to school officials to complain about the anti-gay counseling group on campus, I was confronted by the counselor who said, “You’re going to get this treatment your whole life. What are you going to do, stand up every time?” Yes. Yes, I absolutely will.

(Cross-posted to Daily Kos and Huffington Post.)

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