We Are Not Helpless

Time to Stop Hatred and Violence
By Nadine Smith

We can be horrified, but we cannot be surprised.

Witness the death of yet another child who said he was gay — the murder of another teenager who defied gender stereotypes.

On Friday, Feb. 22, 17-year-old Simmie Williams Jr. was gunned down on a street corner in Broward County. Just 10 days earlier, Lawrence King, a 15-year-old Oxnard, Calif., junior high student, was shot to death in his own classroom because he wore makeup — because he was different. And less than one year ago, Ryan Keith Skipper, 24, was stabbed to death in Polk County.

In Broward, police are investigating Simmie Williams' murder as a possible hate crime based on the words they say were exchanged before the shooting. In California, Lawrence King, a constant target of harassment and ridicule, was shot in the back and in the head by a 14-year-old who told friends in advance that Lawrence was "having his last day." Ryan's teenaged killers drove around town in his stolen, blood-soaked car bragging that they had "killed a fag."

Now comes word that a noose has been left in a Pembroke Pines cafeteria in an apparent act of racial intimidation. We must condemn that act as well. We must stand up to hate no matter what form it takes and demand that others stand with the LGBT community just as visibly.

We can be overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness in the face of such horrifying tragedy. But we can no longer indulge in the fantasy that there is nothing we could have done to stop it.

There is a clear path to reducing the harassment and murder of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Across the country, study after study has shown that hate violence starts with bullying in schools. We know the perpetrators are overwhelmingly teenagers and young adults.

And yet for seven years, the Florida Legislature has failed to pass a ban on school bullying for one shameful reason — lawmakers have not wanted to include protections for lesbian, gay and transgender students. They have chosen to sacrifice the safety of students to avoid acknowledging that some of our most vulnerable young people are gay and transgender.

Instead, they have proposed a ban that leaves out the types of bullying that account for the highest incidences and the most violence: bullying based on appearance, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. Racist, sexist and religious-based bullying are referenced, and rightly so, but this weak measure is written to fail kids who are in urgent need of the law's protection, kids like Simmie and Lawrence.

Specificity in this kind of law is essential to enforcement. A vague anti-bullying law is like having signs that say "Don't Speed" instead of signs that say "55 mph." Too many good teachers and administrators have either not been trained to intervene effectively when bullying occurs, or they hesitate because they fear they will not receive the support of school administrations.

Research shows that anti-gay attacks are socially acceptable and rampant in schools today — ignored or even encouraged by teachers and administrators working without guidelines or training. We have let harassment, physical abuse and psychological violence against transgender, gay, lesbian and bisexual students become commonplace, even as we shake our heads over the latest deaths.

Lawrence's, Ryan's and Simmie's deaths are not aberrations, and it is disingenuous for us to act surprised. They are brutally predictable in a culture that teaches children that it's OK to insult, harass, beat up and dehumanize a person who is gay or transgender. The murderers in these crimes are often children themselves.

As the Florida Legislature begins session and moves toward the expected passage of a safe schools bill, they owe it to the families of Simmie Williams Jr., Ryan Skipper and Lawrence King to make sure that sexual orientation and gender identity and expression are included alongside race, sex and religion. We cannot have integrity in grieving with these families when our remedy pointedly leaves them out, glosses over their deaths, or lets the law generalize to the point of uselessness.

Our horror, our outrage, our prayers are empty until we take action to protect the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students and families from this epidemic of violence. When we let anti-gay hatred and violence flourish, we share responsibility for the blood that eventually spills.

We can be horrified, but we cannot be surprised.


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