Being a gay adult is easier in Massachusetts than it is in other places. But if you’re a kid, being gay in this state is still pretty tough.
“I know we have gay marriage and gay people everywhere, but in the schools, people get away with so much,” said Steven Casiano, a junior at West Roxbury High. “Look what happened to me.”
Casiano, 19, was already an outsider when he came out to a few friends at the end of his freshman year. When word spread, his troubles really began.
“People would take stuff from my locker and throw it on the floor, they’d call my phone and call me ‘faggot,’ ” said the soft-spoken student, sitting in his counselor’s office at a downtown gay and lesbian youth center on Thursday afternoon. “On Facebook, strangers wrote they wanted to fight me because I’m gay,” he said. “One day a note came out of my locker: ‘I am going to kill you.’ ” He said he was jumped several times after school.
Casiano believed telling his parents or school officials about the bullying would just make it worse, and that they wouldn’t be able to do anything anyway. And so he did what so many bullied teens do: He skipped school.
He has plenty of company. According to student surveys by the Massachusetts Department of Education, gay students are seven times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. They are over twice as likely to skip school because they feel unsafe, over twice as likely to be injured or threatened with a weapon at school.
In 2011, about 10 percent of the 2,729 students surveyed identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual, or reported same-sex experiences. A whopping 34 percent of those students said they had attempted suicide in the preceding year. Ten percent had skipped school because they felt unsafe. Fifteen percent were threatened or injured at school. A third of them had been bullied in the past year, compared with 17 percent of the other students. And this in a period when all eyes were on the problem.
These are the kids former Governor Mitt Romney threw under the bus in his pursuit of the presidency. As the Globe reported last week, in 2006 his administration blocked publication of an antibullying guide because it contained the terms “bisexual” and “transgender” in a short section on how to protect specific groups of students from harassment.
Antibullying and suicide prevention programs designed to protect gay teens amounted to promoting homosexuality, went the conservatives’ loopy logic. Romney, who had previously promised to be a champion of gay rights, now clearly agreed. Around the same time, he tried to eliminate the Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, a panel that funded school programs for gay teens.
He came out as a hypocrite, you might say.
The commission had been established by Governor Bill Weld, a Republican. Twenty years ago this week, he convened ground-breaking hearings in which gay and lesbian youth spoke about their experiences and suicidal thoughts. That led to awareness programs and gay-straight alliances that have transformed the lives of many gays and lesbians in schools.
On Wednesday, the commission will mark the 20th anniversary of Weld’s visionary move with a State House hearing on gay and lesbian kids today. In addition to celebrating great progress, speakers will call for better education on gay issues in classrooms, and continued vigilance against bullying, including changes to the state’s 2010 antibullying lawthat would require schools to identify vulnerable groups, like gay students, and come up with plans to protect them.
For too many kids, there’s still a mess out there that needs fixing.
Casiano eventually found support at school, from some officials and from close friends, who began stepping up to defend him.
“Now I’ve got that tougher skin,” he says. “I don’t care what people say. Let me be happy and you can be happy.”Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org