"I try to stand and walk.
I fall to the hard cold ground.
It feels as if to life I am no longer bound.
The others look and laugh at my plight.
Blood pours from my nose. I am not a pretty sight.
I try to stand again but I fall,
To the others I call
But they don't care.
The pain is unbearable.
The world is not fair.
I'm lost and cold.
I wish someone would lend a hand to hold.
My tears mix with my blood.
The end of my life
I'm dying and no one cares."
These words were written by my gay son, Robbie Kirkland. This poem only provides a glimpse of the pain and hopelessness that Robbie experienced due to the rejection and homophobic harassment he experienced at school. His realistic perception of how society and religion view homosexuality only deepened Robbie's pain. On Jan. 2, 1997, one month before his 15th birthday, he succumbed to the depression and despair that had begun to control his life, tragically ending his five-year struggle to accept and find peace with his sexuality. Our family loved, accepted, and supported Robbie, but we could not protect him from the homophobia and hatred of his classmates and society. Robbie internalized the homophobia he encountered. He hated himself because he was gay and did not want to be gay.
The years of continuous homophobic teasing and harassment are a reality of daily life for any youth who is perceived as gay or different. The extent of the harassment Robbie endured was only revealed after his death through his writings. At age 10, Robbie knew he was gay and felt he must remain closeted to survive. Like most closeted gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender (GLBT) youth, Robbie made efforts to hide his sexuality by pretending to like girls and participating in sports. Despite these efforts, his classmates still perceived him as gay and he continued to be a target of their hatred and harassment. This left Robbie feeling worthless, isolated, and alienated. He often feigned illness to avoid another day of harassment by his classmates, for him school was not a safe place to be. Most children are like Robbie, they don't tell their parents about the harassment because of fear of retaliation and reluctance to reveal their sexual orientation.
I am haunted by my loving son's struggle and his death, but I am even more haunted by the thought of so many other children like Robbie, who are suffering in silence. I tell his story hoping and praying that it will help them and help others to be tolerant and respectful of GLBT individuals. I believe that earlier intervention, tolerance by his classmates, and a society that protects the diversity of all people could have saved Robbie.
Since his death, I have spoken out in an effort to bring sensitivity, awareness, and tolerance for GLBT youth and all youth who experience teasing and harassment. My mission is to make schools safer for all youth, especially GLBT youth. Everyday in schools across our country GLBT youth, as well as youth perceived to be gay, are assaulted with words such as "faggot," "queer," and "dyke." They are often pushed, tripped, punched and made to feel ashamed of who they are. Most teasing and harassment occurs out of the teacher's view, in such places as in hallways, playgrounds, bathrooms, locker rooms, buses, and unsupervised classrooms. Many of these acts of aggression are subtle, but persistent. Over time, name calling, pushing, and general exclusion leave children feeling ashamed, insecure, and alone. Consequently, GLBT youth are at an increased risk for substance abuse, running away from home, and depression. They are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than other youth. Sadly, statistics show that Robbie's story is all too common. Forty-five percent of gay males and twenty percent of lesbian females experience verbal and physical assault in high school. Twenty-eight percent of these youth drop out, no longer able to endure the harassment and discrimination.
Every child has the right to a safe and equitable learning environment. In order to protect this right, I ask you to sponsor a bill creating safe-schools where GLBT youth and all other students can learn in an environment free from harassment, violence, and discrimination. A safe-school bill requires schools to adopt policies that prevent the harassment, intimidation, and bullying of students based on sexual orientation. A safe-schools bill would protect all students' right to learn in a supportive environment. Eight states (CA, CT, NJ, MA, MN, VT, WA, WI) currently prohibit discrimination in educational institutions based on sexual orientation.
Even with legislation, there will always be unreported harassment that occurs out of the teacher's view. I truly believe Character Education and Citizenship Programs could empower youth to speak up and help others who are targeted. Such prevention-based programs can create an environment of acceptance of diversity and compassion for others. In addition, support for GLBT youth and other at-risk youth should be increased in our schools and communities in the form of more accessible counselors and support groups for GLBT youth and other at-risk youth.
I implore you to take action on this issue. With your help and the support of legislation, we can create schools that are safe for all students. Schools will be safe only when no student walks the halls in fear of harassment or violence, and when every student has the opportunity to learn in a safe and supportive environment. It is too late for my beloved son, but not too late for other youth. Thank you for any effort you can make on behalf of GLBT youth and marginalized students. You never know the eventual impact of your actions. You may save a life.
Leslie Powell Sadasivan