'Smear the Queer': Gay Students Tell Their Stories

Whitt said he could remember reading the behavioral policy signs about respect on the walls of his elementary school.

"Once I realized what gay actually meant, if I had seen on there 'gay students' I would have reported it much more," he said. "If it's ,'Oh, guess what? You get to be the queer and everyone gets to throw the ball at you,' that student is much less likely to report it ever again."

Researchers say it's essential to start addressing anti-gay actions early. Caitlyn Ryan, a clinical researcher at San Francisco State University has done extensive research about family attitudes in childhood and the mental, emotional and physical health of young adults who identify as homosexuals.

Ryan said parents like Rivero may be picking up on real signals, and that the first awareness of sexual preferences -- either heterosexual or homosexual -- often develops before puberty.

"The research shows all young people at an average age of 10 begin to have their first crush," said Ryan. "It might be a celebrity they put up on the wall, or they give someone a valentine."

In generations past, Ryan said people came out of the closet at much older ages. However, with increasing awareness of homosexuality on TV, in high schools, on the Internet and in the news, Ryan said children today are more likely to put two and two together much earlier.

"Many people knew that they were gay at early ages, typically boys -- they knew when they were 5, or 8 or 10," she said.

This early awareness, in combination with immature children, can lead to serious problems in schools without proper intervention.

Last February, an openly gay middle school student named Lawrence King, 15, of Oxnard, Calif., was allegedly shot and killed in a classroom by a fellow student, Brandon McInerney.

King's family is suing the school and a gay rights organization for failing to protect its son from McInerney, who was charged as an adult and has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and a hate crime, according to The Associated Press.

School and family psychologists have been studying this issue more in recent years, and are just now developing tested recommendations that might help at-risk children while streering clear of debates about religious or moral beliefs.

When the Word 'Gay' Comes up in Third Grade

"Teachers, even with the best of intentions, don't know what to do. They don't want to talk about religious beliefs or sex," said Suzanne Greenfield, the senior "Safe Schools" coordinator for Parents Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Greenfield explained.

Rivero said she went through a trying time with well-meaning teachers to deal with children who taunted her son.

Rivero remembers her son first asking what 'gay' mean in the third grade after a bullying incident. To the best of her ability, she sat down Josh and his younger sister and tried to explain what it meant in children's terms.

"I spoke with principals over the years and got the typical responses: 'Oh well, he needs to toughen up' or 'Oh, it's usually his fault,'" Rivero said.

By high school the family was dealing with threats of physical violence on MySpace. Rivero said the school administration told her the only way she could ensure her son didn't have a class with the boy who was threatening him was to get a restraining order.

"It wasn't until that kid got off the bus and was handed a restraining order that his parents were ever notified that this was going on," said Rivero.

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