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New Media, Old Problem

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This entry was co-authored by Lambda Legal Deputy Legal Director Hayley Gorenberg.

Stories of teens driven to suicide by antigay taunting are all over the news. But is any of this news actually new? Certainly, the questions I'm fielding at Lambda Legal are presented as "new": Should the new federal hate crimes law be used to prosecute the college students who webcast Tyler Clementi's intimate encounter with another young man? Should we clamp down on the Internet and social media because they can be used to harass?

Unfortunately, the truth is that this problem is old; it's the splash of attention that's new. The media--Internet and otherwise--are mere instruments, usable for good or for evil.

If some of the web posts I'm seeing pan out, it looks like Tyler Clementi used gay-friendly websites to seek support. It also looks like he had dim hopes that school officials would help him. And there lies part of the actual problem: We need to make protections against discrimination and harassment real. Where we have laws, we need them enforced. Where we have policies, officials need to step up to the plate. But the responsibility does not end with authority figures; peers can be an important part of the mix, encouraged to stand against harassers--either face-to-face, if they feel safe doing so, or to come forward to officials whom they can rely upon to respond with effective action.

The Internet is not to blame; it's unchecked antigay abuse of youth that's blameworthy. Preparing to discuss the recent suicides on morning television, I reviewed articles in the "Journal of the American Medical Association" from the late 1990s that were themselves reviewing older studies, all confirming that when young people are unsupported, and marginalized based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, they are far more likely to be driven to suicide.

Lambda Legal knows this story well. Back in 1996, we won the first case showing the federal constitution requires school officials to safeguard students targeted for their actual or perceived sexual orientation, giving them protection equal to that afforded students harassed based on other personal characteristics. Our client, Jamie Nabozny, was mock-raped in his high school class, other students urinated on him, and school officials told him he should expect it for being gay. And yes, he attempted suicide. Fourteen years later, as another school year got underway this fall, Jamie wrote to Congressional leaders asking them to pass a federal law that would finally specify protections for students targeted based upon their sexual orientation or gender identity.

No, the Internet is not the problem. Important websites that combat bullying and teen suicide show us that, in living color. Just look at the Trevor Project, Dan Savage's new and rawly inspiring It Gets Better YouTube channel, or even the federal government's own Stop Bullying Now. Here at Lambda Legal we've made our resources and work as web-available as possible. Take, for instance, our web-based Legal Help Desk form, and our online safe-schools toolkits, Out, Safe & Respected and Bending the Mold. Lambda Legal has also worked with public school systems to get them to stop filtering out access to gay-supportive content (like our website and GLSEN's, for instance), while they freely allow access to antigay propaganda.

The most obvious, greatest tragedies in these cases befall the targeted youth, some of whom take their own lives, like Seth Walsh, Billy Lucas, Asher Brown and Tyler Clementi have in recent days; and some of whom are killed by others, like Matthew Shepard and Brandon Teena. But then there's the collateral damage. Many school bullies are in the pipeline to prison: their problems with drugs and alcohol and violence are frighteningly easy to forecast, and studies have documented that the connection between school bullying and future criminality is real -- so real in fact that New York's district attorney's office has deployed staff from the prosecutor's office to visit schools and address bullying.

I attended the governor's signing of New York's Dignity for All Students Act a few days ago. As one of the chief supporters said, enduring bullying and discrimination does nothing to "build character." That's a myth. Nothing good ever comes of it.

But too often the bullies' or bigots' conduct is ignored or even condoned. Consider the case of Cheryl Bachmann, a young, straight high school teacher whom Lambda Legal represented to win back her tenure. School officials had fired her after she disciplined students for using antigay slurs in her classroom. Ms. Bachmann came forward to make New Jersey's laws and policies against discrimination mean something, and she was officially punished.

Today is the day we stop ignoring the problem. Today we stop believing that words can't hurt and torment builds character. If today's new headlines about an old problem can do any good, they will do so because they finally propel everyone -- officials, parents and students alike -- to act. Confronting harassment isn't easy. But it should be easier for us to act than to see yet another youth suicide account splashed across the page.