April 29, 2009

Harassment, Sexual Orientation And Public Policy

There have been a number of very sad stories appearing in the news recently about bullying and harassment of youth based on their sexual orientation.

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There have been a number of very sad stories appearing in the news about bullying and harassment of youth based on their sexual orientation. The first widely publicized case from 2008 about a teen killed because of sexual orientation-related bullying was Lawrence King.

Lawrence was shot by a classmate after being bullied the day before because of this gender expression and stated sexual orientation – gay. Another boy, 11 year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, hanged himself after enduring bullying at school, including daily taunts of being gay. In fact, the National Day of Silence this year was in his honor.

And, on April 24th, another young man committed suicide after repeated bullying despite the efforts of his family to get the school to address the problem. His name was Jaheem Herrera, from DeKalb County, Georgia. All three of these young men were harassed, taunted and had what seemed to be pretty miserable school environments and had unsuccessfully tried to address the issue with school authorities.

A Larger Issue

Not only is this type of bullying horrifying but I think it points to a larger issue of sexual orientation and gender identity as key pieces being left out of current harassment, hate crime, and discrimination policies. In fact, the house is set to vote this week on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) which addresses sexual orientation and gender identity in a couple of ways – according to the Talking Points Media (TPM) blog the bill:

  1. Expands the existing definition of a “hate crime” to include gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability . (Under existing law, if someone commits a violent crime against someone which is motivated by the victim’s race or religion, then that crime receives a harsher sentence than it would otherwise. HR 1913 simply expands the classes protected by this rule.)
  2. Gives federal law enforcement greater leeway and resources to investigate and prosecute hate crimes, in case local law enforcement lacks the resources to, or chooses not to, investigate.

While this blog addresses issues around sexuality and gender, I recognize that it isn’t focused on advocacy efforts around specific causes like gay marriage or abortion rights. However, I do think that people involved in sexuality research and sexual health outreach have a responsibility to bring up issues around discrimination and harassment based on any characteristic (be it race, religion or sexual orientation) that impacts a person’s access to basic human rights like safety, healthcare, and freedom of choice.

Ultimately, it is access to these basic rights that determine your sexual health and ability to express your sexuality without fear of harassment, violence and, in the case of these two young men, death.