One of the main worries many parents have after their child comes out is the reaction of their peers (and even the adults) at school. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens- or those perceived as such- are bullied more than heterosexual teens. The idea of a teen coming out and exposing themselves to verbal, emotional, and even physical harassment is very frightening for those love them and want to protect them.
Schools vary greatly in their attitudes towards gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens. Some school atmospheres are very accepting, and teens with any sexual orientation find it easy to find friends and thrive. Others are more intolerant and homophobic. Your teen will likely know what the environment of their school is. Whether or not they want to come out at school depends on many factors: the school atmosphere, their own drive to come out, initial responses from close friends, etc. They may feel strongly that they want to come out, even if they are expecting harassment from peers, and that is their decision… but it still bears talking about, and planning reactions to any negative attention beforehand.
Your teen’s school is responsible for providing your teen a safe place in which to learn. There are laws, particularly in Washington State, protecting students and requiring that schools ensure a non-hostile environment.
If your teen is being bullied because of their sexual orientation, there are many steps you can take to make sure it stops– from speaking with the school to getting legal help from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Many of us grew up in a society that tacitly turned a blind eye to the harassment of people with different sexual orientations, or even encouraged it. When I was growing up in Connecticut, the sole “out” student in my high school class was ostracized, taunted, threatened, and even physically attacked.
Today, gay marriage is legal in Connecticut. Times have changed, and there is no reason for you or anyone else to encourage your teen to “deal with” bullying or harassment. Bullying can have mental and physical health effects on teens; it needs to stop as soon as possible.
Sometimes the offenders are not peers, but adults in the school. Any teacher or school staff who harasses or discriminates against a teen based on sexual orientation (or anything else, really) needs to be reported to the principal or another supervisory member in the school immediately. If you feel comfortable with it, you can try talking with the staff member before this step to see if perhaps that will remedy the situation, but if the behavior does not stop- or you meet resistance- go up the chain of command. If they are not responsive, this is illegal. Get legal help immediately- the Safe Schools Coalition lists resources that can help, or contact the ACLU.
School is an important place for teens, not just academically but socially and emotionally. Ideally, the school would immediately recognize problems and take steps to ensure a safe and nurturing environment, but often teens need their parents to advocate for them. Remember that your teen’s school has a legal responsibility to make sure any student is not harassed, discriminated against, or otherwise treated differently because of their sexual orientation. You have a vital role in ensuring that your teen is able to flourish in their school environment.
Make sure your teen knows their rights, and talks to you if they are being infringed or ignored.
Any other tips for dealing with harassment, stories of school responses, or advice for parents whose teens are being bullied are welcome! What have you run into?