Birmingham-- It's a phrase many kids use almost daily: 'That's so gay'. Experts say that the use of homophobic slurs in schools is on the rise. Two 11-year-olds recently committed suicide after being bullied with anti-gay taunts. And though a new law requires the Alabama Department of Education to come up with a policy prohibiting harassment, that new policy isn't likely to mention sexual orientation. Gigi Douban reports.
Anna Turkett has always kept her hair short. Only now it's short and the color of a cherry slushie. Ever since she was a little girl, she's identified more with boys.
"I wanted to shop in the boys section. I connected more with that style of clothing. I liked it looser instead of the tight, cute pink things."
She's 17 now, but back then, some in her family said "it's just a tomboy phase. She'll outgrow it in time." But she didn't.
"As I got older into the 3rd and 4th grade, I realized that there was something different, and it began with my discovery of a band called t.A.T.u., which is a techno-Russian lesbian pop duo." It was the first time Anna ever heard the term "lesbian", but something immediately clicked.
"It was just a sudden realization of, "Oh, I'm gay..." It was odd to come at such a young age, but it made a lot of sense."
Anna came out in the seventh grade, at Simmons Middle School in Hoover. Her family and close friends were supportive, but...
"Outside of my closest circle of friends, it was kind of a terrifying place."
She remembers in English class, everyone had to write letters to Santa asking for something like an end to war or world peace, she says."
"And I talked about the end to discrimination of gay and lesbian people."
Uh, wrong answer. Her teacher told her that it was inappropriate. After all, the student letters were going to be on display.
She said that mine couldn't be out in the hallway, that she didn't want to expose the other students to language like bisexual and transgendered." Other students teased her for being masculine, which is something a lot of gay youth endure. According to a national survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, 86% of gay students reported being harassed. More than a fifth said they were physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation.
Last month, Governor Bob Riley signed into law the Student Harassment Prevention Act. The law requires the state Department of Education to develop a model policy. Groups like the Alabama Safe Schools Coalition, an equal rights advocacy group, hope that the state policy will specifically prohibit harassment based on sexual orientation. But state officials say that's unlikely.
"I am certain there are persons that would like to see more specificity in the terms, but it is my belief there are too many groups that would need to be listed."
Sue Adams is director of prevention and support services for the Alabama Department of Education. She says lots of kids are bullied and harassed-obese children, kids who dress differently, computer geeks.
"There are just so many categories, and I think we cannot delineate these categories and make sure we are keeping every student safe."
But critics say that merely implying that gay students are protected is not enough. The result, they say, is that no one is safe, even those who are just perceived gay.
Experts say that these days children are hearing more anti-gay language in school. Carly Friedman is a Samford University psychology professor and research consultant for the Alabama Safe Schools Coalition. Friedman is surveying Alabama students to gauge how often they hear gay slurs in school.
"We are seeing an increase in things like, Oh that's so gay, You're such a fag. These words that we are hearing more often I think that really can have an effect on young people."
She's found that they don't concentrate as well, they skip class, and they have higher rates of depression and suicidal thoughts. Friedman adds that gay slurs affect all youth.
"There isn't a difference between the heterosexual and sexual minority youth in how often they're hearing this discrimination, how often they're the target of their property being damaged, or being called names. "
Gay rights advocates say the key is awareness. To that end, the Alabama Safe Schools Coalition plans several statewide workshops this summer for school personnel. But people like Eunie Smith, president of Eagle Forum of Alabama, a conservative activist group, say homosexuality shouldn't be talked about in schools, much less tolerated.
"Well, young people are highly impressionable. And for the schools to provide some special status for those who would perceive themselves to be homosexual...would be to legitimize and therefore to encourage these unhealthy lifestyles."
To a degree, Alabama law is on Smith's side. The law mandates that sex education teach that homosexuality is illegal. Still, school districts can make their policies as specific as they'd like. For example, the Jefferson County and Vestavia Hills school districts both protect students from harassment based on sexual orientation. So does the Alabama School of Fine Arts, where Anna Turkett is a rising senior in the creative writing program. Anna says she feels safe at ASFA, unlike at the mall or the movies, where people are less accepting.
"Whether I'm being affectionate with a girlfriend, or if I have a shirt on that says I Heart Girls... I can just feel those stares, those kind of dagger eyes sometimes... I've seen people kind of move away from me before. I've seen one or two people pull their kids away from me."
At ASFA, she says, her sexual orientation is a non-issue. And she hopes that someday, her school will be less of a cocoon and more like the outside world.
~ Gigi Douban, June 25, 2009.