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Spotlight on bullying after rash of teen suicides

Experts say anti-gay harassment widespread in D.C. schools

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Trevor Project fundraiser

Friday at 7 p.m.

Duplex Diner

2004 18th St., N.W.

$10 donation

The death by suicide of four gay male teenagers within a four-week period last month has triggered international media coverage of the topic of anti-gay bullying and harassment and prompted renewed calls for Congress to pass anti-bullying legislation.

Much of the media attention focused on the Sept. 22 death of 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, who leaped off the George Washington Bridge connecting New York and New Jersey.

University officials said Clementi took his own life days after discovering his roommate planted a video camera in his dorm room that captured Clementi and a male visitor “making out” during an apparent sexual encounter and then broadcast the video online.

New Jersey authorities have charged the roommate, Dharun Ravi, and one of his friends, Molly Wei, with criminal invasion of privacy, an offense that carries a possible five-year prison sentence.

A New Jersey prosecutor said Ravi, who shared the dorm room with Clementi, left his webcam-equipped laptop computer in the room with the intention of spying on Clementi, who informed him he planned to bring a visitor into the room. Ravi agreed to allow Clementi to use the room in private to host his guest.

Prosecutors said Ravi went to Wei’s nearby dorm room and used another laptop he owns to remotely turn on the webcam while Clementi and his male guest were in the room.

He then broadcast the video of Clementi and his guest live on iChat, according to technology blogger Kashmir Hill, who discovered separate online chat room conversations by both Ravi and Clementi talking about the incident.

Although the suicides of Clementi and the other three gay teens took place outside the D.C. metropolitan area, the head of D.C.’s Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, known as SMYAL, said a 2007 study showed that local LGBT youth are at great risk for suicide.

Andrew Barnett, SMYAL’s executive director, noted that the D.C. Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which is conducted under the supervision of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that 37 percent of D.C. high school students who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual reported being bullied over their sexual orientation during the previous year. Only 15 percent of heterosexual-identified students reported being bullied, the survey found.

The same survey found that 32 percent of students identifying as gay, lesbian or bisexual reported attempting suicide in the previous 12 months compared to just 8 percent of heterosexual students who reported a suicide attempt.

“That’s almost one in three,” said Barnett, in referring to the suicide attempts reported by the gay, lesbian or bi sample.  “It’s shocking. It’s devastating,” he said. “That’s not thinking about suicide, that’s actually attempting suicide.”

The 2007 survey, the most recent one conducted, did not cover transgender students. D.C. school officials have said they plan to add a transgender component to future Youth Risk Behavior Surveys.

According to Barnett and Laura McGinnis, communications director for the Trevor Project, a national LGBT youth suicide prevention group, the D.C. public school system has one of the nation’s most far-reaching anti-bullying policies.

However, Barnett said many LGBT high school students in D.C. who frequent SMYAL’s drop-in center on Capitol Hill report that teachers and school administrators often don’t enforce the policy. He said LGBT students from D.C. area suburban schools also report widespread incidents of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment.

“Unfortunately, bullying and specifically bullying targeting LGBT students very much happens in D.C. area schools,” he said.

McGinnis said the recent rash of gay teen suicides has prompted media outlets to report on the Trevor Project’s 24-hour telephone “Lifeline,” where trained counselors help LGBT youth grapple with bullying and other problems linked to their sexual orientation.

But she said media reports and public policy makers sometimes have misinterpreted studies similar to the D.C. Youth Risk Behavior Survey, nearly all of which show LGBT youth having a higher suicide rate than non-LGBT youth.

“A person’s sexual orientation or gender identity is not, in and of itself, something that makes you more likely to take your own life,” McGinnis said. “Just being gay doesn’t mean you’ve also got the suicide gene.

“But what it does mean is that you are more likely to be bullied or harassed,” she said. “You’re more likely to be rejected by your family or your church. You’re more likely to not feel welcome in your community. You’re more likely to have a number of ills associated with you, whether it’s being told you’re going to go to hell or being told that homosexuality makes you less of a person,” she said.

It’s these external factors, McGinnis said, that lead some LGBT youth to depression or suicide, not their sexual orientation.

The three other gay youth-related suicide cases occurring in September involved high school and middle school students.

Seth Walsh, a 13-year-old middle school student from Tehachapi, Calif., died Sept. 29, 10 days after he hanged himself in the backyard of his home. His mother reported that she offered him love and support when, as a sixth grader, he told her he was gay.

But she and others who knew Walsh said he had been subjected to relentless taunting, bullying and harassment by fellow students over his being gay, a burden with which he apparently could no longer cope.

On Sept. 9, Billy Lucas, 15, hanged himself at his home in Greensburg, Ind., after years of being harassed by fellow students who perceived him to be gay.

Less than two weeks later, on Sept. 23, Asher Brown, a 13-year-old in Harris, Texas, a Houston suburb, shot himself in the head after being subjected to taunting and bullying by fellow students who believed he was gay.

His parents told the media, including the Houston Chronicle and CNN, that school officials ignored their pleas that they intervene on their son’s behalf to stop the harassment. School officials dispute those allegations, saying the parents never reported their son was the target of anti-gay harassment.

A fifth incident of anti-gay school bullying in September received national attention when “Good Morning America” interviewed 11-year-old Tyler Wilson of Ohio, who suffered a broken arm at the hands of two fellow students who believed him to be gay and subjected him to anti-gay taunts.

Wilson, who has not disclosed his sexual orientation, said he was attacked after he joined his school’s cheerleading team, becoming the first boy to become a part of what had always been an all-girls group. Since returning to school after being treated for his injury, he’s been threatened with having his other arm broken, he told “Good Morning America.”

Local colleges sensitive to anti-LGBT bullying

Officials with Georgetown University and the University of Maryland said their schools were among several in the D.C. area that have campus LGBT resource centers and policies in place that prohibit bullying, harassment and other aggressive acts targeting students because of personal characteristics such as race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.

“I know that American University and George Mason University have similar LGBT resource centers or offices that also address these issues,” said Sivagami “Shiva” Subbaraman, director of Georgetown’s LGBTQ Resource Center.

Subbaraman said Georgetown and several other D.C. area universities held vigils or special gatherings during the past week in honor of the gay teens who committed suicide last month. She said the Clementi case was especially troubling to her and LGBT students and their supporters at Georgetown because it showed that campus support systems at Rutgers University did not reach Clementi.

Both Subbaraman’s office and the University of Maryland’s Office of LGBT Equity issued e-mail statements to all students, faculty and staff discussing the September gay teen suicides and reminding students of the availability of mental health counseling services and LGBT student support groups on their respective campuses.

Amari Ice, president of CASCADE, a Howard University group that represents LGBT students, said Howard doesn’t have an LGBT resource center but has counselors and other support personnel who are trained to assist LGBT students in need.

Rutgers University President Richard McCormick issued a statement last week addressing the death of Rutgers freshman Clementi.

“We grieve for him and for his family, friends, and classmates as they deal with the tragic loss of a gifted young man who was a strong student and a highly accomplished musician,” McCormick said.

“This tragedy and the events surrounding it have raised critical questions about the climate of our campuses,” he said. “Students, parents, and alumni have expressed deep concern that our university, which prides itself on its rich diversity, is not fully welcoming and accepting of all students.”

McCormick noted that a gay student group formed on the Rutgers campus in 1969, becoming only the second gay group in existence at the time on any college campus in the country. He said the college has long been fully supportive of its LGBT students, but will arrange to meet with LGBT students and faculty in the coming weeks to discuss how the school can improve its status as place where all people “feel accepted and respected.”

In D.C., meanwhile, gay activist Trevor Thomas organized a fundraiser for the Trevor Project on Friday, Oct. 8, at 7 p.m. at the Duplex Diner at 2004 18th St., N.W., in Adams Morgan. A donation of $10 is requested.

The Trevor Project’s 24-hour, seven-day help line can be reached at 1-866-488-7386. More information about the group, including access to its online chat site for LGBT youth, can be accessed here.

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U.S. Federal Courts

N.Y. AG joins multi-state brief in Colo. anti-trans discrimination case

Letitia James and 18 other attorneys general support plaintiff

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trans health care, gay news, Washington Blade
New York Attorney General Letitia James (Photo public domain)

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Wednesday joined a brief by 18 other Democratic state attorneys general urging the Colorado Supreme Court to uphold a lower court ruling against Masterpiece Cakeshop for anti-trans discrimination.

A customer, Autumn Scardina, sued the business over claims that it refused to provide her a cake upon learning that it was for a celebration of her transition. The case is not the first in which owner Jack Smith has faced claims of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

In 2012, Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to fulfill an order for a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, which led to the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission — and a narrow ruling that did not address core legal questions weighing the constitutionality of First Amendment claims vis-a-vis the government’s enforcement of LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination laws.

“Denying service to someone simply because of who they are is illegal discrimination, plain and simple,” James said in a press release. “Allowing this kind of behavior would undermine our nation’s fundamental values of freedom and equality and set a dangerous precedent.”

She added, “I am proud to stand with my fellow attorneys general against this blatant transphobic discrimination.”

The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Scardina, noting that Smith objected to fulfilling her cake order only after learning about her intended use for it “and that Phillips did not believe the cake itself expressed any inherent message.”

The fact pattern in both cases against Masterpiece Cakeshop resembles that of another case that originated in Colorado and was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court last year, 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis.

This time, the justices did not sidestep the question of whether the state’s anti-discrimination law can be enforced against a business owner, Lorie Smith, a website designer who claimed religious protections for her refusal to provide services to a same-sex couple for their nuptials.

The court’s conservative supermajority ruled in favor of Smith, which was widely seen as a blow to LGBTQ rights.

Joining James in her brief are the attorneys general of Connecticut, Delaware, Hawai’i, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and D.C.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Fla. man found guilty of threatening George Santos

Gay former NY congressman expelled in December

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Former U.S. Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) (Washington Blade photo by Christopher Kane)

On Feb. 22, following a two-day trial, a federal jury in Ft. Lauderdale convicted a man for calling the office of former U.S. Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) in D.C. and threatening to kill the member of Congress and another person. 

On Jan. 29, 2023, Frank Stanzione, 53, of Boynton Beach, Fla., made a telephone call from his residence in Boynton Beach to the office of a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Stanzione left a voice message for the member that stated the following:

“[Victim 1 former Rep. Santos] you fat fucking piece of shit fucker. You better watch your mother fucking back because I’m gonna bash your mother fucking fucker head in with a bat until your brains are splattered across the fucking wall. You lying, disgusting, disgraceful, mother fucking fucker. You mother fucking piece of shit. You’re gonna get fucking murdered you goddamn lying piece of garbage. Watch your back you fat, ugly, piece of shit. You and [Victim 2 Redacted] are dead.”

The congressman’s chief of staff reported the message to the U.S. Capitol Police the next morning. The USCP began investigating the voice message as a threat and determined that it was made from a telephone number assigned to Stanzione. 

On Jan. 31, 2023, USCP special agents went to the address associated with the telephone number and interviewed Stanzione. USCP confirmed that Stanzione had left the voice message for the congressman. Stanzione found the telephone number on an online search engine. 

In a motion to dismiss, lawyers for Stanzione noted in the interview he told federal agents that “he feels offended by Santos and does not want him in his (gay) community.” He said he left the message to make Santos “feel like a piece of shit.”

The court filing described Stanzione as “a long-standing, active advocate for gay rights.”

In the motion to dismiss, Stanzione claimed his prosecution was “retaliatory and vindictive” and “based upon his exercise of political speech related to gay rights.”

“Others who have allegedly committed similar acts,” his attorneys stated in the motion, “have not been prosecuted.” 

U.S. Attorney Markenzy Lapointe for the Southern District of Florida and USCP Chief J. Thomas Manger announced the guilty verdict. The USCP – Threat Assessment Section investigated the case. 

Stanzione will be sentenced in May and faces penalties including up to five years in federal prison, a fine of up to $250,000, or both.

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State Department

State Department criticizes passage of anti-LGBTQ bill in Ghanaian Parliament

‘Limiting the rights of one group in a society undermines the rights of all’

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(Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The State Department on Wednesday criticized the passage of a bill in Ghana that would further criminalize LGBTQ people and make advocacy on their behalf illegal.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller in a statement said the U.S. “is deeply troubled by the Ghanaian Parliament’s passage of legislation, officially called the Human Sexual Rights and Family Values Bill, which would threaten all Ghanaians’ constitutionally protected freedoms of speech, press and assembly.” 

“The bill seeks to criminalize any person who simply identifies as LGBTQI+, as well as any friend, family, or member of the community who does not report them,” said Miller. “Limiting the rights of one group in a society undermines the rights of all. The United States echoes the call by those Ghanaians who have urged a review of the constitutionality of the bill to protect the rights of all individuals in Ghana.”

Miller noted the bill “would also undermine Ghana’s valuable public health, media and civic spaces and economy” and stressed “international business coalitions have already stated that such discrimination in Ghana would harm business and economic growth in the country.”

“Ghana’s tradition of tolerance, peace and respect for human rights is a source of stability and prosperity that has long served as a model for countries around the globe,” he added. “This legislation is inconsistent with these values and will, if it becomes law, undermine this laudable tradition.” 

Ghanaian MPs approved the bill on Wednesday, and it awaits President Nana Akufo-Addo’s signature.

“I am saddened because of some of the smartest, most creative, most decent people I know are LGBT,” said U.S. Ambassador to Ghana Virginia Palmer in a post on the embassy’s X account. “The bill Parliament passed takes away not only their basic human rights but those of all Ghanaians because it undermines their constitutional rights to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press.” 

“It will be bad for public order and public health,” she added. “If enacted, it will also hurt Ghana’s international reputation and Ghana’s economy.”

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