Outing Gay Utah Teen Did Not Solve Gay Bullying, School Finds

In an infuriating instance of life imitating art, an unnamed high school student in the Alpine School District of Utah was outed to his family this week — not by peers or bullies, however, but by his school. After the the student referenced his sexual orientation in a school project and teachers overheard cruel comments from his peers, the school district decided to contact the boy’s parents and let them know about his sexual orientation as a precaution for potential bullying. The student is 14 years old, and is described as being “nervous” when school officials told him about their plan. He eventually agreed to let them proceed, although he insisted on being out of the room when his parents were told.

The school’s decision was immediately controversial; while the boy’s parents are described as “supportive,” they’re also keeping him home from school “until the controversy subsides.”

In the aftermath of 15-year-old Larry King’s murder by a fellow classmate, King’s mother claimed that if the school had somehow “contained” her gay son’s “behavior,” he might still be alive today. The school officials in the Alpine School District don’t appear to have tried to discipline or “contain” their student, although a teacher did take him aside when his assignment clearly referenced his sexual orientation and confirmed that it was intentional and okay. But their actions do seem to reflect the panicked atmosphere around gay bullying — district spokeswoman Rhonda Bromley described the school’s actions as being “proactive” against bullying. How will his parents’ knowledge (and the ensuing controversy) prevent the kind of bullying that has driven too many kids to suicide and self-harm? How is their school now safer for this student and others who may identify as queer because of this decision? The answers to those questions aren’t immediately evident, definitely not to us and probably not to district officials, either. The implication seems to be that they had to do something – that if they had overheard other kids making fun of this student’s assignment and done nothing, they would be just as culpable as the dozens of other school officials who saw bullying problems and did nothing, and then ended up weeks later at funerals for the children they didn’t protect. What else were they supposed to do? Aside from notifying his parents with their concerns about potential bullying without mentioning their child’s sexual orientation, which seems extremely possible to have done.

As well-intentioned as the school may have been, however, the truth is that outing this student (even with his cajoled “permission”) isn’t in any way an appropriate or an effective response to bullying. As GLSEN explained in their reaction to the incident:

“Outing a student not only violates their right to privacy, but also could compromise their safety. Parents can be notified of their child being bullied at school, but without disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity… Taking away the choice for an LGBT student to come out on their own terms opens the door to significant risks including harassment at school and family rejection. Schools should be able to provide LGBT students with support and resources in order to make an informed decision if and when they decide to come out to their school community and family.”

The Alpine School District may be one of the first examples of a new facet of the teen gay bullying problem: that schools may fully understand the problem of gay bullying and be genuinely motivated to combat it, but simply not understand enough about their queer students’ lives to do a good job — and may in fact make things much worse. As GLSEN points out, for many young people, home is the least safe place in the world to be out. From the outside, it seems like almost pure luck that this student happened to have supportive parents; the school’s decision could easily have ended in an intractable home life or worse, a lack of home life at all if the student was disowned, kicked out, or sent to an ex-gay program. But, as the school noted, the student was out in the classroom — without specific education on queer issues, or “cultural competency,” it may not occur to a school official (or any straight person) that queer people of all ages make very careful and deliberate choices about exactly how out we are in each part of our lives. Being out in one sphere, like work or with our friends, in no way implies that we should also be out in any other place. It in no way implies that being out in any other sphere is safe.

So far, there have been plenty of stories about school districts that apparently don’t care about the torment their students are living with, like Michele Bachmann’s own district, Anoka-Hennepin. But what about school districts who care, and truly don’t know where to start? Looking at this story — and looking at the fact that the student is now missing weeks of school because of the controversy — a few things seem evident. First, that the student’s wishes should be respected: the student themselves knows better than anyone what s/he is experiencing and how they would like it to be dealt with, and making that decision for them is at best disrespectful and at worst irresponsible and dangerous. As GLSEN’s statement says, support, resources, and the ability to make an informed decision are some of the best things you can do for any young person anywhere. If the school district knows that they aren’t sure what to do with GLBT issues, and it seems clear that Alpine doesn’t, why not ask the kids who would know?

But second — and this is important — what happened to the bullies? The Salt Lake Tribune reports that “…an adult aide overheard other students making negative comments to the boy about being gay. An assistant principal admonished the students for their comments.” That’s the last we hear about the bullying students for the rest of the article. If bullying and harassment of gay students is a problem, and it is, how hard is it to admit that the problem lies not with the gay students, but with their bullies? Why were these kids “admonished” once, and the boy they teased waited alone and terrified while he was outed to his parents in a separate room? What would have done more to prevent bullying from happening again — a gay student being outed as gay to his parents, or bullies being outed as bullies to their own?

When Larry King’s mother lamented that her son wasn’t “contained” by school officials for his own safety, she is obviously speaking from a place of grief, but also implying something heartbreaking: that he really was somehow ‘asking for it,’ that if he had acted “normal,” he would not have deserved the completely, totally, utterly undeserved thing that was done to him. And when school districts, or any adult, make a student’s sexual orientation the center of the discussion when it comes to gay bullying, they’re buying into that ideology. That the root of the gay bullying epidemic is “gay,” not “bullying.” And no matter how sincere their good intentions, young people deserve better than that. A 14-year-old in Utah is at home right now, kept there by his supportive parents who for now at least feel that it’s the best way to keep him safe and protected — and the students that he was originally thought to need protection from are still in the classroom. From here, that seems like a different kind of bullying, not its solution.

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over books and news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

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29 Comments

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    We (glaad? the trevor project?) really need to make a good set of protocols that we can promote to school administrators for guidance in these situations. I imagine the protocol right now is for schools to involve parents as much as possible in bullying interventions, which generally makes sense, so it’s up to us advocate for a shift in practices to take into account privacy concerns that are specific to LGBT kids.

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    That was amazing, thank you. You very eloquently put into words what just sat in the back of my mind as an unarticulated discomfort. The onus of responsibility is on the gay guy, and not the bullies. I wonder if that occurred to the school district at all. I hope not, and that they’ll hear about it from someone who can put it as well as you did and change their strategy.

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    I read an article on yahoo news last night and I don’t know if it was just a horribly written article or what but it just did not make sense to me. From the article: “He wasn’t suspended,” the father said. “We kept him home for the week because we wanted him to sit back and think about the incident.”

    From the article again: “When the boy was seen hugging another boy in the hallway, an adult aid thought it was “more than a normal hug,” and notified school administrators with the intent of preventing any bullying, according to the teen’s father.”

    So to prevent the boy from being bullied, the school and the parents decided to punish him? Idk, the whole thing seems sketchy.

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    Out the bullies, not the gays. Bullies CHOOSE to be hateful and its learned behavior (from parents.) Let’s shine a light on that and let kids come out to their families on their own. We all know its an intensely personal choice to speak up when we are comfortable enough to do so. I was very lucky to be met with “Yeah, we know…” and it was a non event. Some are not so lucky.

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    “It may not occur to a school official (or any straight person) that queer people of all ages make very careful and deliberate choices about exactly how out we are in each part of our lives.”
    This. Thiiissss. I think a lot of straight people don’t understand exactly how calculated and careful most queer people are about which personal details go where and when and to whom.

    Although this school seems (?) to have good intentions, the idea of my school outing me to my parents gives me shivers to the bone even though I’m two years out of high school. That would have been my worst nightmare. Poor kid.
    I agree that gay groups like GLSEN should help create some protocol to provide guidance for schools in these situations.

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    “But second — and this is important — what happened to the bullies? The Salt Lake Tribune reports that “…an adult aide overheard other students making negative comments to the boy about being gay. An assistant principal admonished the students for their comments.” That’s the last we hear about the bullying students for the rest of the article. If bullying and harassment of gay students is a problem, and it is, how hard is it to admit that the problem lies not with the gay students, but with their bullies? Why were these kids “admonished” once, and the boy they teased waited alone and terrified while he was outed to his parents in a separate room? What would have done more to prevent bullying from happening again — a gay student being outed as gay to his parents, or bullies being outed as bullies to their own?”

    Oh god, this so much. Why the hell weren’t the bullies addressed?

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    Rachel, I just need to put it out there that I love pretty much everything you write so much. I almost never comment only because you say everything so well that I just feel like there’s nothing left to say. Also you frequently write about things that make me want to punch lots of hard things, so the only words that come to mind are expletives. But I wanted to sing your praises real quick like because you’re awesome.

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    As I see it, if you aren’t ready to tell your parents, face-to-face, you aren’t ready to be out to them. Other people shouldn’t do it for you. It may seem like an easy solution, but it’s really unhelpful in the long run. I mean, imagine how uncomfortable that kid was when he got home?

    If you’re going to start contacting parents, contact those of the bullies.

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      Here’s what’s tricky: if saying hateful things about gays or even about a specific kid’s sexual orientation isn’t itself a violation of school policy, you can’t just call the bullies’ parents about it. Parents of high schoolers get defensive when they’re told their child is doing something wrong, and you need to be able to point out the rule that was broken if you’re even going to take that step. That’s why we need anti-bullying legislation.

      Parents of a victim, however, basically want to know if there’s anything at all going on with their child that might affect their well-being, and guidance counselors take issues to parents as sources of support who need information about their child’s life in order to best help them.
      Obviously those protocols need to be updated to reflect the fact that it’s inappropriate to assume that parents will be supportive of a child’s sexuality.

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        I definitely don’t think it was inappropriate of the school to contact the student’s parents. But obviously, it should have been handled differently. Everyone should have been present, and it should have been a GENERAL conversation.

        Who knows? Maybe something like that would have started an important discussion, and made him more comfortable to come out to his parents.

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          When teaching, I called parents all the time about their kids’ behavior, even if it wasn’t about actual violations of actual rules.

          Here’s how that works [an idealized script, let’s call it]: “Oh hi Ms. so and so… Yes, _________ did very well on that quiz last week. I have a few concerns though. So today I overheard ___________ making comments about _____. Well, actually s/he said, “_________________” (actual, direct quotes are useful, particularly when the language is harsh). S/he’s not big trouble, yet, but I did want you to know that s/he said those things, because you and I both know that s/he can do better than that. And we do not tolerate [whatever words were used] at [your school]. Yes well, s/he should be focusing on [whatever class you teach] and harassing other students is obviously not what you’ve taught him/her at home. I can tell because in [x situation where the kid is angelic, and there always is one] s/he always shows good [whatever]. mmhmm. So how do you think we can make sure that this stops so ________ can focus?”

          However, calling someone’s mom and saying, “by the way, your kid is gay and people are teasing him” would never, EVER, have occurred to me. WTF.

          Here’s a script for that one. “Hi Ms/Mr___________. [kid] is not in any trouble, I’m just concerned because some of the other students have been teasing him and he might be upset about it. He’s handling it maturely but I thought you’d like to know. No, of course he’s not in trouble. I’d just really like to make sure that he feels safe here, so if you ever feel like you need to speak with someone at school, or [kid] tells you about anything another student does, please let me or [useful administrator] know as soon as possible, because we will not be tolerating any bullying at _________school. Also, please tell [kid] that he should [plan for what to do when another kid bothers him that does not involve calling mom and staying home OR punching anyone in the face–generally it involves “find x helpful adult”] if it happens again.” That is also not rocket science.

          And done. Teachers should be calling parents all the time, and not just for the nasty shit teenagers do to each other. Calling and saying things like, “Oh hi Mr. _________, nothing is wrong, I just want to tell you that ___________ did [x awesome thing] and I wanted to make sure you knew….” was my favorite part of teaching middle school.

          I am not understanding how this was hard for the school here to figure out.

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    I had a teacher who suspected I was gay (pretty sure he saw me crying when I was pretending to be sleeping during a fellow student’s rant on how all homosexuals are pedophiles, whoops). He never put me on the spot about it, but I just had a feeling based upon the way that he would sometimes try to steer the discussions involving homosexuality (I had him for Current Events). Unlike other teachers, he would call people out for hateful speech and I appreciated him for that almost as much as the fact that he never put me on the spot about coming out or whatever. I think there needs to be a certain amount of tact involved in the handling of gay students. Coming out of the closet was a great cathartic revelation for me, but that’s because it happened when I was ready.

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    And when school districts, or any adult, make a student’s sexual orientation the center of the discussion when it comes to gay bullying, they’re buying into that ideology. That the root of the gay bullying epidemic is “gay,” not “bullying.” And no matter how sincere their good intentions, young people deserve better than that.

    This needs to be on a poster or something.

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    I don’t understand why people are suprisede at this type of incident in the State of Utah. There is a new play on Broadway called the Book of Mormon, A play no one should miss.

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    First, I want to say Dana’s comments are totally right on. Consider writing and introducing the policy, Dana. Send it to all the relevant orgs, you would be (are?) a great advocate.

    There’s a lot we don’t know about this story. If a 14 year old makes a decision to come out in a class project, was appropriately checked in with and still insisted, he might very well have been able to agree for the school to tell his parents, even if he initially resisted — which I could understand. It’s possible that the school said, “Look, if you come out in school like that, chances are someone is going to tell your parents anyway” — which is true. If the school knew the parents and deduced that they would be supportive, it may have been a well-informed decision to try to convince the student to let his parents know. (I’m not sure he’s missing more than a week or two of school, but point taken.) Do we know for sure that the bullies were only spoken to once, and their parents not notified?

    The request not to be in the room is an interesting one. It might’ve been a fearful, “I don’t want to be in the room when they find out”, or “I think you could do a better job telling them and explaining it.” We’re not sure.

    But you bring up the most important issues, regardless of what we know or don’t know. It’s not an easy problem for schools to understand without help.

    1) It’s a two-pronged problem: a) protect and *respect* the gay student, but those two things mean being smart about the particulars of the situation; b) address the bullies.

    2) Ultimately, the tension between respecting the student’s right and thinking you’re protecting them/protecting the school must be resolved with the student’s decision–that should be final, and the student needs an advocate (an LGBT youth expert, specifically) if the school disagrees. The advocate would also be the expert regarding if the student has the maturity to make those decisions if it means not involving the parents.

    3) Protocols regarding gay bullying need to be established, and I somewhat disagree with the tendency not to say anything unless a specific rule is broken. Depending on the school district, teachers and admins do that frequently–but establish the rule: no hate speech, and that includes racial, homophobic and disability slurs. I personally would like there to be discussions about how bullying is so often gay panic where the bully often does have suppressed homoerotic desires, without pointing the finger directly at the bully (tricky, I know, but you don’t want to out Karofsky-the-gay-bully, either, Finn-the-Blind-Administration.)

    4) Protocols dealing with the various situations gay or seemingly gay students might be in. Immediately talking to the harassed student might not be the best thing, while *always* immediately talking to the bullies is. Steer the conversation away from the victim and towards the bully’s problem (because they always have one, and the school should be concerned about that).

    The difficult part, I think, is respecting the student’s wishes and protecting them at the same time. It involves training, and so many school districts can barely afford teaching materials, that the threat of lawsuits might be the only thing convincing them it needs to be done.

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    “What would have done more to prevent bullying from happening again — a gay student being outed as gay to his parents, or bullies being outed as bullies to their own?”

    It’s just so true and so clear, it bears repeating.

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    Bullying isn’t a gay or straight thing, it’s a power thing. You want to stop bullying, stop punishing the kids for fighting back. All these kids to defend themselves with a 2×4 to the knees of these bullies and you will see how quickly the problem goes away.

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    Oh god. This happened at the junior high I went to. My best friend had his locker vandalized and the shit kicked out of him, in junior high because he is gay.

    There’s been a change in administration since then. Jesus, utah. It’s like the school doesn’t give a fuck, or hurts more than helps.

    Headdesk.

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    Oh god. This happened at the junior high I went to. School administrations in Utah either don’t give a fuck about their queer students, or “help” and make the problem worse.

    At this same junior high, one of my best friends got the shit beat out of him for being gay. His locker was vandalized, PE was a nightmare, etc.

    The state of Utah needs a massive diversity training course, frankly.

    Headdesk.

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    I don’t understand why this is so goddamn confusing.

    When people are being bullied, PUNISH THE BULLIES. Tell their parents. Give them detention. Suspend them.

    Tell the kid’s parents the kid is being bullied – but why say what for? These school admins KNEW the kid wasn’t out b/c they had to cajole them. They KNOW being gay isn’t ok with a lot of people because gay marriage is not legal in most states and there’s politicians and famous people spewing shit about gay people every day.

    I don’t feel that the school had good intentions, honestly. If they did, they were driven pretty strongly by some homophobic subconscious that essentially drove them to victim blaming.

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