It’s Friday night in Bay Shore, and groups of noisy teens are filing into Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth (LIGALY) headquarters. Each week, the nonprofit hosts OUTlet, a weekly social gathering for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) teens ages 13 to 21. Tonight’s theme is high school stereotypes: Goth. Geek. Cheerleader.
Sort of like a John Hughes movie.
Inside, a disco ball hangs from the ceiling and a lone dancer moves along the stage, as Lady Gaga and Train songs burst from the speakers. He’s soon joined by a group of friends. The room is immediately filled with playful conversations. Two girls sit together on a leather couch, kissing and giggling. In the corner, another couple lean against the pool table and lock lips. Across the room, partygoers line up at a snack table draped in a rainbow flag.
Down the hall in the lounge, teens anxiously await the results of “LIGALY Idol,” the group’s version of the popular reality show. They’ve been auditioning for weeks and huddle together when the finalists are announced. Then they go back to dancing and joking.
[popup url=”http://assets.longislandpress.com/photos/gallery.php?gazpart=view&gazimage=2006″]Click here to view more photos from LIGALY’s OUTlet night[/popup]
The program has been a hit, with about 30 to 40 regular visitors each week, according to Wes Nemenz, LIGALY’s youth services coordinator. For some attendees, he explains, OUTlet is the only place where they feel they can be themselves.
“It’s a substance-free place for youth to socialize, meet new friends and dance,” he tells the Press. “Youth at OUTlet don’t have to worry about heterosexism, homophobia, transphobia, or the other pressures and harassment that they may receive in other spaces. Everyone is accepted, no questions asked.”
The atmosphere at the get-together contrasts sharply from the scene that unfolded March 2 at William Floyd High School in Mastic Beach, when two young men allegedly entered the school and chased a 19-year-old student, yelling anti-gay slurs as they assaulted him. Nashon Minter, 19, and Justin Lee Higgins, 21, were charged with second-degree assault as a hate crime and second-degree gang assault, both felonies. The pair pleaded not guilty and are currently awaiting trial.
The incident is a brutal reminder of the discrimination and abuse toward LGBT youth that still exists on Long Island today. Sexual orientation bias continues to permeate schools, playgrounds and homes, and affects thousands of teens in the area.
According to a 2008 report released in November 2009 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) titled “Hate Crime Statistics, 2008,” Nassau County had the most hate crime incidents per bias motivation from 15 counties surveyed in New York State, as reported by law enforcement agencies. Among those jurisdictions, Suffolk led in hate crimes specifically motivated by sexual orientation bias (though that statistic only includes figures provided by the Suffolk County Police Department and not those of the five East End towns). More than 13,690 law enforcement agencies throughout the country submitted hate crime data in 2008 for the report. Of the 7,783 hate crime incidents reported overall, roughly 17 percent stemmed from sexual orientation bias.
While these facts are alarming, they’re only one piece of the puzzle. The FBI warns against using the statistics in its report as a definitive ranking of individual municipalities, stating the figures are “merely cursory classifications” and lack insight into the variables molding the crimes in individual jurisdictions. The analysis offers only a snapshot of the offenses that are documented. It is impossible to determine how many such crimes go unreported.
The most recent study on the experiences of LGBT students by the national nonprofit GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), its “2007 National School Climate Survey,” also paints a disturbing picture regarding sexual orientation bias harassment in schools across the nation. Among other findings, the survey of 6,209 middle and high school students discovered that nearly nine out of 10 LGBT students, or 86.2 percent, experienced harassment at school in the past year; three-fifths (60.8 percent) felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation; and about one-third (32.7 percent) skipped a day of school in the past month because of feeling unsafe. A new National School Climate Survey will be released this fall.
Presently, there is no federal system for reporting harassment or bullying within schools—though lawmakers are taking notice.
In October, President Barack Obama amended federal hate crime laws to include assaults based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In January, legislation was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives called “The Student Non-Discrimination Act.” The bill would require federally funded schools to adopt a zero-tolerance policy concerning bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It would also require schools to report cases of bullying. It currently has more than 60 bipartisan supporters.
Many teachers and students have become desensitized, as anti-gay slurs like “faggot” and “dyke” have become commonplace language for teens, viewed more as teasing than bullying or harassment, according to Dr. David Kilmnick, chief executive of LIGALY.
“Some don’t see it as bullying, which is kind of sad because they have kind of accepted that this is the way it is, and it cannot be that way,” he explains. “They shouldn’t have to accept being called a certain name. They shouldn’t have to accept feeling afraid in their school. That’s where we have to draw the line.”
For Jillian (not her real name), a junior at St. Anthony’s High School in Huntington, anti-gay slurs are as common as hearing the bell ring in between periods.
“In my English class every day, I hear the two girls behind me calling each other lesbians, and saying how we should kill all the gay people in the world,” she says. “I just sit there and listen. That’s all I hear every day. Sometimes it makes me cry, but there’s nothing I can do.”
The 16-year-old used to embody the archetype of high school personae: She was a popular cheerleader at Islip High School, dating the school’s quarterback. “I was always boy crazy,” she says. “I used to change boys like I changed my underwear.” They dated for about a year and grew very close. Then, Jillian started having feelings for a girl. “I would hook up with my best friend when I was with my boyfriend and it was just like, oh.”
Jillian’s life has never been the same since. She came out as a bisexual in her freshman year and received criticism from her parents and friends. As a result of the backlash, Jillian transferred to another high school. And while her boyfriend supported her, he, too, was harassed at school.
“The poor kid was a wreck because we broke up,” she says. “I started dating a girl from our school—everybody knew. I felt horrible because it’s not easy to do that to someone you care about.”