As you may already have heard, Tyler Clementi, a first-year Rutgers University student, recently committed suicide after enduring anti-gay cyber-bullying. Tyler joins a rather long list of recent suicides of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth—Asher Brown, age 13; Seth Walsh, age 13; Justin Aaberg, age 15; Billy Lucas, age 15; and Raymond Chase, age 19. There are countless others who have suffered in silence.
As a veteran teacher at PS 199Q in Sunnyside, I witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of anti-LGBT harassment and bullying. Years ago, one incident particularly touched me, and, in fact, changed my life. A girl in my class came to me in tears. She explained that other students were harassing her because she had lesbian mothers. This episode was very much in my mind when I came out as an openly gay teacher during the struggle to implement the Children of the Rainbow curriculum in the early 1990’s.
Last month, Governor Paterson signed the long overdue Dignity for All Students Act, which addresses the endemic bullying and harassment that torment many of our youth. Now, students across the state will enjoy the protections that students in New York City are supposed to have. Unfortunately, only recently has the mayor decided to implement the city’s version of the law, which was passed over his veto in 2004.
I feel so strongly about teaching students, even from a young age, that respecting difference is crucial and that diversity is not to be feared but celebrated. When I was teaching on the primary level, I remember hearing even the youngest students call each other “gay” as a put-down.
Here, in Jackson Heights, and throughout my council district, children from every imaginable background come together to learn. Many of those students come from LGBT families and are taught by LGBT teachers. This neighborhood of Jackson Heights is home to the largest LGBT population outside of Manhattan. Eighteen years ago, I founded the annual LGBT Pride Parade, which occurs on 37th Avenue and brings out families from all backgrounds. Despite this seemingly welcoming environment, anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in our schools persist.
I encourage you in the strongest possible terms to address this issue proactively. Thankfully, resources are readily available. Please contact me to help implement measures that will prevent similar tragedies.