On June 3rd, 1994, I spoke at Simmons College in Boston about bullying in schools and my work advocating for the Gay and Lesbian Student Rights Law, which banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in Massachusetts public schools.
My name is Marsian De Lellis. I’m 18 and I’m just finishing up at Belmont High Schoo. Today, I am going to be talking about the Gay and Lesbian Student Rights Law.
I started working on the bill last August, because I was tired of the harassment and discrimination that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people face on a daily basis at school. This includes: acts of violence, homophobic name calling, harassment by faculty, misrepresentation in the curriculum and a general unsafe feeling. It is unacceptable that 28 percent of gay and lesbian youth drop out of school and make up nearly one-third of completed teen suicides, largely because of the harassment we face in school.
The law extends to the current anti-discrimination protections to students on the basis of sexual orientation. The law says:
“No person shall be excluded from or discriminated against an admission to a public school of any town or in obtaining the advantages, privileges and courses of study of such public school on account of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, or sexual orientation.”
Adding sexual orientation does not add any rights to the law. Instead, it guarantees that these rights can not be taken away, as they so often have been.
I started working on the bill in August as the Youth Outreach Coordinator for the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights. This is the political organization that backed the bill.
We held a series of rallies, a letter writing campaign, a lobby date, and a media campaign to get this bill passed. Getting the October Rally at the State House together was a pretty difficult undertaking. We had to reserve the space. find people to testify, and make thousands of phone calls and mailings to get people to come. In the end, it did work out… We had an attendance of over 300 people and sever radio, TV, and newspaper reporters. There were also several youth, senators, representatives and even the lieutenant governor who talked about the importance of the bill.
Another important component of getting any piece of legislation passed is to work with the media. This is helpful to raise public awareness about the issues you are fighting for. It also motivates people to call their senators and representatives in support of the legislation.
The final part of getting this bill passed was to hold a lobby date and a letter writing campaign to the elected officials.
Finally, the bill passed the Senate and was signed into law by Governor Weld in December of last year. The new law took effect in March. Again, It prevents discrimination in public schools on the basis of sexual orientation among existing protected classes of people.
Now every public school in the Commonwealth has the moral and legal obligation to make schools safe and harassment-free for all students, regardless of whether they are lesbian, straight, transgender, gay, bisexual, sexually undefined, or questioning their sexuality.
This law is very important for all students. It can be used in two way. The most obvious way that the law can be used is if students are harassed because of their sexual identity. They can now take legal action against a school system that refuses to protect them.
The other farther reaching way that this law can be used is as a preventative measure. Now students, parents, teachers, administrators, counselors, and community leaders have legal leverage to do the following:
- Start school based Gay-Straight Alliances. Now it is no longer necessary for students or teachers to go through a principal or school board to start a group. People don’t have to worry as much about a backlash against these groups, because there is a law that backs them.
- Administrators now have the legal obligation to amend current school discrimination and harassment policies to include issues dealing with sexual orientation harassment and discrimination.
- Organizers have more backing to hold mandatory trainings like these for teachers, administrators, counselors, and school staff to be better equipped to deal with homophobia.
- Same sex couples now have the legal right to attend the prom and other school functions.
- There is legal backing towards amending school diversity and human awareness programs to include sexual minorities.
- There is now a legal framework to get groups like the Boy Scouts and the Military Recruiters who openly discriminate against gays and lesbians off of school grounds and out of student records.
- This law can also be use to take accreditation points away from schools that refuse to protect lesbian, gay, bi, and transgender students and reward schools that do make the learning environment a safe place for all.
Hopefully, the greatest effect of this law will be to empower students to be creative about using this law. In addition to the preventative and punitive uses, this law acknowledges the presence of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students and sends out a very direct message that we are valued as individuals and welcomed in school.