Young Teens Openly Express Sexuality; LGBT Pre-Teens Proud, Not Safe

"The conversation [about his sexuality] started in eighth grade, but since elementary school he'd been called a fag," said his mother, Lisa Rivero.

Cyber-Bullies Threaten

By middle school, Josh's grades began to drop and his stress level soared. One classmate bullied Josh in cyberspace, sending homophobic messages and calling him names on the school's MySpace page.

"The school did nothing," said Lisa Rivero, who sought help and later began a local chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG, where she now serves as president.

The threats soon became physical and Josh's mother, at the suggestion of the school's principal, reluctantly filed a temporary restraining order against her son's tormentor.

"He had a right to go to school and get an education without being bullied," she said. "We had no issues with him being gay. What we had the most difficulty with was accepting our fear that we knew our son would be a target."

Rivero said students need support, but teachers also need training. "It starts with teachers in the classroom," she said. "A lot of them stepped up and intervened, but there were other teachers who looked up at him and said, 'What do you want me to do?'"

The Riveros lobbied unsuccessfully for a Florida law to outlaw sexual orientation bullying. As his mother sought support, so did Josh, now 16 and in high school, forming a GSA at his school.

Students 'Take Control'

Josh "took control" of the situation, his mom says.

Indeed, it is the students themselves who are emboldened to make their schools more comfortable for all those with differences.

Leah Matz of St. Peter, Minn., first came out as a lesbian at the age of 12 in the seventh grade where she says gay issues were talked about in "hushed tones." The taunts began after she pioneered the first GSA.

"The harassment started right away," said Leah, now 15. "They were hollering derogatory terms, then it escalated to physical harassment. I was tripped, pushed and spit on by both boys and girls."

The GSA grew in numbers, but so did the taunts. Her breaking point came when she found the words "Dykes Suck" painted on her locker.

Club members organized a rally against bullying and homophobia, selling T-shirts that read "Stop hate, just love." Leah called the press and got television and newspaper coverage of the event.

Not all reaction was positive: Leah was criticized in a letter to the editor in the local newspaper for "recruiting" students into the "gay lifestyle."

But she says this is a school safety issue, and most of the members of her GSA are not gay, but "straight allies." "Students feel more comfortable now in schools because of GSA," said Matz. "Because of our efforts we are stronger people and face our adversaries."

Leah's mother, Kathy Chalhoub, had no problem with her daughter's sexuality. "I feel really fortunate to have a child who felt free to come to me," she said. "My fear was for her."

"There's always a blessing in every curse and what Leah has gone through has had such good come from it."

But experts say many middle school administrators have no policies in place when it comes to sexual orientation bullying.

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