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Social, Legal Changes Needed to Protect LGBT Students, Author Says

Published: Friday, January 6, 2012

Updated: Saturday, January 7, 2012 10:01


Kevin R. Wexler, The Record

A candlelight vigil was held for Tyler Clementi, a freshman who killed himself after harassment over his sexuality, on the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers University on October 3, 2010.


Discriminatory public policy may lead to the bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, according to one author of a new book.

"SAFE SPACES: Making Schools and Communities Welcoming to LGBT Youth," written by Annemarie Vaccaro, Gerri August and Megan S. Kennedy, is a book about the challenges and triumphs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth through research studies, public policy trends and over 100 personal narratives.

Each of the authors identify as a member of the LGBT community. Gerri August is a member of the Foundations faculty in the Department of Educational Studies at Rhode Island College. Megan S. Kennedy, a faculty member at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, was a former student of Annemarie Vaccaro at the University of Denver and wrote her dissertation on LGBT issues.

Vaccaro, currently a faculty member in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Rhode Island, has worked with high school and college students and said LGBT youth issues are close to her heart.

Through their individual research, they put together a comprehensive guide for students, parents, coaches and anyone involved in the lives of LGBT youth.

"We still live in a society where being heterosexual is "normal" and being anything other than that, such as being transgendered, is considered abnormal," she said.

Vaccaro cites legislation that denies same-sex couples from getting married and state policies which allow people to be fired because of their sexual orientation as reasons why young people think it's okay to bully others.

A 2009 nationwide survey showed that 85 percent of our nation's LGBT youth experience bullying at school.

 "When we have a society that says that, people who are either narrow-minded or who want to discriminate feel like they have the right to do so," she said. "We live in a world where it's okay to say you shouldn't have any rights – you shouldn't be treated like a person."

According to a 2008 Centers for Disease Control study, suicide is the second leading cause of death on college campuses.

A Massachusetts Youth Risk Survey 2007 found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.

In 2010, at least five students committed suicide reportedly because of sexual orientation bullying, including Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi who made national headlines after he jumped off a bridge after allegedly being harassed and filmed with another man.

Vaccaro said that only a small percent of such cases are brought to national attention.

"It happens far more than the media ever reports," she said.

It hits home for Vaccaro, who said she had three of her college students attempt suicide in the span of one year.

"I knew them really well," she said. "Some of them had been to my home. I saw them on a weekly basis, but they were seemingly okay and well adjusted."

"Safe Spaces" points out that policy change should not be reactionary. "Maybe if we support them all the time, they won't be suicidal," said Vaccaro.

A dialogue about the need for safe spaces has immerged because of these highly-publicized cases. While Vaccaro is glad that awareness is rising, she said some still believe these suicides to be rare occurrences.

When Vaccaro interviewed LBGT individuals for the book, Vaccaro said they almost always went back to their childhood and talked about being bullied when they were young.

"[A safe space] is a combination of policies and people, but even more so it's the people who care about [LGBT youth] and care about standing up for their rights," she said.

There are simple actions people can do on a daily basis to help, but on the flip-side, Vaccaro also said people put LBGT youth in danger when they are inactive or unsupportive.

"Remaining silent is just as bad as bullying and homophobia," she said.

"Safe Spaces" has a portion of the book dedicated to diverse resources for LGBT individuals and their loved ones. Vacarro said education is essential to change, inside and outside the classroom.

Vaccaro said we forget to listen to the stories of hope among the sad stories so often reported on.

"We were pleasantly reminded of the resiliency and strength of young LGBT people," she said.

Some individuals found a neighbor or a teacher who was supportive and helped them get through the tougher times, even when their families disapproved of them.

Vaccaro stresses the power and importance of straight allies who stand up for the rights of LGBT people.

She also believes that the It Gets Better campaign is great, but said it is not enough.

"We can't just [say], ‘It'll get better someday, just hang in there.' What can we do to make your life safer today? Tomorrow?" she said.

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