Respect My Pronouns

By Patrick Naylis

Toby loves waffles. His nickname is Waffle. “I ate 336 waffles over three days while my dad was in the hospital,” said Toby, explaining how he acquired the nickname. “Chocolate chip are my favorite,” he said with a bright smile. He loves waffles so much, his mom is bringing back a waffle iron from a trip to California.

Toby attends Aurora Central as a freshman. He and his family recently located from Manitou Springs. “I actually like getting up and going to school. I look forward to it. And on occasion I’m early so I can hang out with my friends,” said Toby of his new school.

Toby didn’t always enjoy school. In fact, he found school in Manitou Springs to be a de-valuing experience. “We had to transfer out of the old school because of LGBT bullying,” said Toby.

LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender, and for this group of people, bullying in and out of schools is a big problem. “It’s a problem for all students,” said Erin Yourtz, Colorado One safe schools coordinator. However, according to a study by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) bullying is the norm for LGBT students in their day-to-day experiences at school.

According to a 2009 GLSEN National School Climate Survey, 84.6 percent of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed and 61.1 percent of LGBT students felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation. “We’re in particular very concerned with what happens to LGBT students because bullying disproportionately impacts LGBT students,” said Yourtz.

When Toby went to Manitou Springs schools, bullying was part of his everyday experience beginning in the third grade. Since his school was so small and everyone grew up together, the other students saw Toby’s changes. “When I was transitioning they knew I wasn’t originally a boy. And so they didn’t like that,” said Toby. The other students made fun of him and asked him mean questions.

The bullying worsened as the grades progressed. Both Toby’s mental health and grades suffered. “We find that a lot of LGBT students check out of school,” said Corey Barrett, director of Rainbow Alley, a drop-in space for LGBT youth. “[Checking out] can either be just sort of mentally going through the motions,” but they don’t have the commitment to school or they stop attending altogether, he said.

According to the 2009 Climate Survey, LGBT students are four times more likely to have missed at least one day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable.

Toby skipped as much as half a month of school at a time. “I didn’t want to go to school and I didn’t want to really get out of bed because I was feeling always down,” he said. His parents sympathized with his difficulties and let him stay at home. Toby’s friends or sister helped pick up or deliver homework to and from school. Sometimes Toby went in after school to talk to teachers if he had any questions. If he didn’t understand an assignment he persisted and had one of his friends turn it in for him. Toby came close to failing. “I almost didn’t pass 6th grade. But I passed it barely by making up some work at the end of the year,” he said.

Most of us take going to the bathroom for granted. For Toby, bathrooms presented another obstacle. “I couldn’t use the boys bathroom and I wouldn’t use the girls bathroom and they would not offer me an alternative,” he said. Toby’s solution was to not use the school bathroom, simply using the bathroom at home before and after school.

Gym class meant not having access to the locker-room. He wore street clothes to gym class. Teachers and administrators never offered him an alternative.

Fifty-nine percent of LGBT students were physically harassed or assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation, according to the Climate Survey. The percentage of violence fell for students who expressed a different gender.           

Harassment ranged from name calling to acts of violence. “There was this one girl, maybe two at the time, who would hit me and call me names,” said Toby. Bystanders either watched the violence, ignored it, or sometimes even joined in

Toby found it difficult to get help from some teachers. “Some of the teachers were very understanding and the other teachers ignored it and acted like it wasn’t happening,” he said.

School administration seemed to be even less sympathetic. A meeting with the principal saw Toby getting a suspension, rather than his tormentor. “The principal believed her side of the story instead of mine,” said Toby.

The bullying became so bad, Toby’s parents pulled him from the school. “We figured it would be best to stop going to that school,” said Toby. Toby’s mom home schooled him until the family moved to Denver where he went to another school.

Toby thrives at his new school. As part of the school theater program, he’s working on a Stephen Sondheim musical called “Into the Woods.” He wants to start a Gay-Straight Alliance. Student reactions to Toby’s orientation offers a stark contrast to his peers in Manitou Springs. “A lot of them think it’s really cool,” said Toby, “they ask me really intelligent questions about it and ask me why. It makes sense.”

Toby’s grades have improved. Cs and Ds in Manitou Springs became As and Bs at Aurora Central. The school lets him use the teacher’s bathroom. “They’re at least giving me an alternative unlike at my other school,” said Toby.

He expresses appreciation for the teachers and administration. “They’re doing really well. They’re against the [LGBT] bullying,” he said. •