That Funny Feeling
by Kevin Jennings
On the evening of every Labor Day for 25 years I'd get a little nauseous. My Mom nicknamed this my "funny feeling" and I always got it on Labor Day because the next morning school would start. I got the funny feeling for the first time when I entered first grade in 1969, and was still getting it a little a quarter-century later in 1994, as I had gone "back to school" each of those years either as a student or as a high school history teacher.
My funny feeling was brought on by the anxiety I felt about going back to school ‹ an anxiety which was not unique to me but is one to which I believe all people can relate. But my funny feeling was heightened as a teenager when I realized I was gay and when other kids started calling me faggot. Whereas the end of summer meant simply a return to the grind of homework during elementary school, it came to mean the return to a place of terror in high school, a place where I could count on harassment and isolation as being part of my normal school day.
Across America this week millions of young people had that funny feeling in their stomachs as schools reopened. For lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) students, that special anxiety raised by going back to school remains as intense as it did when I was in high school almost twenty years ago. I wish I could to report to you that schools were taking steps to make that funny feeling go away, to reassure LGBT students that they are accepted and valued members of the school community with the same rights to a quality education in a safe environment as anyone else has.
If I did that, I'd be lying.
The results of the 1998 GLSEN Back To School Report Card are not pretty. In our survey of the nation's 42 largest districts, attended by approximately five and a half million students (or nearly 10% of all students in school in America), we have precious little evidence that school districts care at all about what happens to LGBT students. Nearly half of all districts rated received a failing grade ‹ which meant that they do not have a single policy or program in place to protect the rights of LGBT students. Is this because there are no problems of anti-gay bigotry in our schools? Hardly: a variety of studies confirm the depth of the problem. Consider these examples:
the Minnesota Attorney General's 1998 "Safe Schools" report cited LGBT students as the most frequent victims of harassment in the state's schools the Massachusetts Department of Education reported that one in five LGBT students skips school at least once a month because they feel unsafe there (which is five times the rate of non-LGBT students) the Seattle public school districts found that one in six LGBT students would be attacked and physically injured so badly at some point in their high school career that they'd have to see a doctor.
When students are confronted with such harassment and bigotry, and authority figures remain silent, they learn all too well the lesson that they are literally worth less than their peers ‹ as Robbie did ‹ and often with equally tragic consequences.
As depressing as the massive failure to act on the part of our schools is, the news is frankly even worse than it appears. In an effort to be objective, our Report Card measures only objective facts, such as the existence of policies and programs, and does not evaluate more subjective data, such as student reports on the climate in schools. This is in itself problematic, because we are told by students, teachers, and parents every day that policies are often not enforced. In fact school personnel and students often don't even know that there ARE policies that protect them, even in the relatively few districts in the report that have enacted such measures.
We're pleased that eight districts have gotten A's, but want to caution everyone not to confuse policy and practice. Schools can have wonderful policies, but if teachers and administrators do not implement them, they remain meaningless scraps of paper. The steps we measured in the Report Card were those that are the first steps towards creating a climate where LGBT students can learn. Getting an A doesn't mean a school system has nothing left to do. Given this, it is all the more depressing that so few school districts received a satisfactory grade. We set the bar pretty low, and most districts still couldn't pass.
The United States was the first nation in history to create a public school system ‹ because we believe that every child should have an equal opportunity to learn. The results of our Back To School Report Card demonstrate how far we have to go before that promise is fulfilled. Unless every district makes an explicit commitment to combat bigotry against LGBT students, we'll remain a nation where equal opportunity is something we preach but don't actually practice. Hopefully, that kind of hypocrisy gives everyone a funny feeling in the pit of their stomach this week.