On December 9th, 1993, Bay Windows covered the Gay and Lesbian Student Rights Bill, legislation I was working on to protect LGBT students in Massachusetts public schools.
Student rights bill gets legislative approval now awaits Weld’s anticipated signature
by Christopher Muther
A bill that will make discrimination against Massachusetts lesbian and gay public high school students illegal is now sitting on Gov. William F. Weld’s desk, after the state’s House of Representatives and Senate gave final approval to the bill Dec. 6.
Weld now has 10 days to sign the bill into law. He has been a supporter of the bill for the past two years and is expected to sign the measure early next week.
Advocates of the bill are calling it one of the most important pieces of legislation to come out of Beacon Hill since 1989’s gay rights law.
“We’re hoping once the bill is signed into law here, other states will look at adopting it,” said David LaFontaine, lobbying director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights. “This is just as important as having gay rights laws in place. It’s something we’ve waited too long to address.”
The bill will offer legal redress to students who feel they have been discriminated against in “admission to a public school of any town, or in obtaining the advantages, privileges, and courses of study” in any school in the state, according to the bill.
If signed into law, students will be able to sue their school for tuition reimbursement at another state school if they feel they are being discriminated against and the school is not addressing the problem.
“The bill is actually a lot more powerful than it appears on the surface,” LaFontaine said.
Many on Beacon Hill credit the bill’s success to the continued persistence of gay and lesbian teens and their supporters who have held rallies, vigil and actively lobbied the legislature. Gay students have told horror stories, like 17-year old Belmont High School student, [Marsian] De Lellis, who said at an Oct. 13th rally that he was tormented by his peers even before he revealed his sexual orientation.
De Lellis said in middle school he was spat upon until his shirt was soaked and dog feces [were] thrown at him, while 16-year-old Chris Hannon was harassed so badly at Boston Catholic High School he was forced to drop out.
“I’ve donated a lot of time,” said Sarah Longberg-Lew, an openly lesbian senior at Brookline High School who has also spoken at rallies and attends the weekly Monday afternoon vigil at the State House to see that the bill is passed. “Right now we’re on the edge of our seats. I’ve really put a lot into passing this bill. I don’t think I could do it again.”
With the Senate’s affirmative vote on Dec. 1, and the procedural final vote on Dec. 6, even those who were skeptical of the bill’s ability to pass now say they are excited of the prospect of a gay student rights bill in place.
The student bill has moved slowly since it was passed through the House in a voice vote on Oct. 4. The bill was then sent to the Senate for a preliminary vote and was approved by a 31-to-3 vote. After initial Senate approval, the bill was placed in the Third Reading Committee at the end of October.
“I was very worried the bill would die in committee,” said LaFontaine. “That’s always a real threat with a bill like this. The homophobes are ashamed to openly oppose it, so they look fro other ways to oppose it, like not releasing it from committee.”
The bill say in the Third Reading committee for close to a month, while teens and activists rallied and pushed for its release. After a rally held Nov. 30 that featured several Senate supporters, the bill was released from the Third Reading Committee.
On Dec. 1, the state Senate passed the bill, in a 28-to-2 vote. Voting against the bill were Robert Buell and Marian Walsh.
“It was very successful,” LaFontaine said. “The handwriting was on the wall that there was enough support for this. The Third Reading Committee was serving as a graveyard for this bill. We learned during the fight for the  gay rights bill that we have to fight every step of the way.”
In addition to allowing students to file suit against schools they feel are discriminating against them, the bill will also pressure schools into adopting their own policies protecting lesbian and gay students from harassment, he said. Currently, there are less than a dozen schools in the commonwealth that have policies in place protecting gay and lesbian students.
“I think we’ll be able to make a strong argument that these schools will be in conflict with state law if they don’t have a policy,” he said. “This is a legal tool for speeding things along.”
The school policy also creates a foundation for students to create gay/ straight student alliances, he said, because there would be a law in place to protect the group against harassment.
If passed, the student law will be enforced by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.
In addition to giving his support to the gay student bill, in the past two years Weld has formed a committee to look at ways to help reduce the numbers of lesbian and gay teens who commit suicide and has given the group $450,000 to hold training sessions across the state.
The money is also being disbursed in the form of grants that can be used for library books, guest speakers and establishing gay student groups. The money comes from a cigarette tax passed by Bay State voters last year.