June 29, 2012 at 11:52 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Members of Congress launch anti-bullying caucus

Rep. Mike Honda launches Congressional Anti-Bullying Caucus (Blade photo by Michael Key)

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers led by Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) launched on Thursday an anti-bullying caucus that aims to draw attention to LGBT youth and others who experience harassment.

During a news conference on Capitol Hill, Honda said lawmakers formed the Congressional Anti-Bullying Caucus, which he chairs, to carry the message against “the bullying epidemic” in schools, the workplace and assisted living facilities. Honda said stories about bullying are common among constituents of all lawmakers.

“This is going to be — from a national point of view right down to the local — a clarion call to make sure that all of us understand what this thing called bullying is,” Honda said.

Members of the caucus who spoke during the conference didn’t focus per se on the bullying of LGBT students in school — an issue that has received significant attention in recent years because of gay youths who have committed suicide after being harassed — although a few members of the caucus talked about incidents of anti-LGBT bullying in their districts.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said transgender people in her district have experienced violence as a result of what she described as being bullied.

“Finally, let me just say in my own district in the last few months there have been three cases of transgendered individuals who were killed, who were killed, who were killed because of their identity, because they were bullied, and this is bad,” Lee said. “I want to make sure we all recognize that it is deadly.”

Legislation pending before Congress that aims to stop bullying against LGBT students is the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which would make LGBT status a protected class among students, and the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which would require schools to set up anti-bullying policies. In April, President Obama endorsed both pieces of legislation.

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), a former school nurse, talked about the story of Lawrence King, a gay student from California in her district, who died after being shot in 2008 by a classmate whom he asked to be his Valentine.

“His death and other similar tragedies remind us that bullying — particularly bullying directed at LGBT youth — must be stopped,” Capps said.

Capps said starting the anti-bullying caucus is “an important step,” but passage of the Safe Schools Improvement Act would be “the first thing we can do” to stop bullying.

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) said she has personal interest in stopping bullying because she has a nephew, Harry Lew, who killed himself about a year ago while serving in Afghanistan as a result of hazing.

“Two of his peers punched and kicked him, forced him to do push ups and crunches wearing his heavy full-body armor and poured the entire contents of a sandbag into his face and mouth,” Chu said. “This went on for three-and-a-half hours. Harry was serving his country and was the victim of harassment, and 20 minutes after the torment stopped, he climbed into a foxhole and killed himself. He was only 21 years old.”

As of Friday, 46 U.S. House members were among its members, including Reps. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). Four Republicans are members: Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Charles Bass (R-N.H.), Robert Dold (R-Ill.) and Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.). Following the news conference, Honda told the Washington Blade he expects more members to sign on, but didn’t disclose any names.

Ros-Lehtinen, who has a transgender son and is a co-sponsor of many pro-LGBT bills, was among the speakers at the news conference.

“We may be from different sides of the aisle, but we all believe that it is time to stand up and stop bullying — both offline and online,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Every American deserves to live a life that is free from persecution and harassment. No one has the right to victimize others because of their gender, or their age, or their race, or creed, ethnicity or sexual orientation.”

Also present at the news conference was Lee Hirsh, director of the 2011 documentary film “Bully,” and David and Tina Long, the parents of a child, Tyler Long, who hung himself after being bullied and whose story was told during the movie.

Tina Long, mother of Tyler Long, who committed suicide after being bullied (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Long’s eyes filled with tears as she told her story.

“There is a problem and we’re going to take care of it,” Long said. “And if it takes federal legislation to make this happen, then that’s what we have to do. … We have this opportunity, and if we don’t take it, how many more parents are going to lose their children? You never want to have to bury your child for something that is preventable.”

Only one openly gay member of Congress is a member of the caucus: Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.). Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) are set to leave the U.S. House at the end of this year. Scott Fay, chief of staff for Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), said his boss will join the caucus at a later time.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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