December 16, 2011

GLSEN Participates in First-Ever United Nations Convening on Anti-LGBT Bullying in Schools

A message from GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard.

Last week I had the remarkable privilege of attending the first-ever United Nations (UN) consultation on anti-LGBT bias and violence in schools worldwide. Organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the convening was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from December 5-9, 2011.

The historic gathering brought together LGBT advocates, education ministry officials and UN agency representatives from all seven continents.

It was astounding to see the incredible work being done, sometimes in extremely difficult and hostile climates. You can find a complete list of participants here.

I was proud to note the number of advocates overseas who were using and adapting GLSEN resources, or who had come to GLSEN for advice while designing their own strategies and programs. I was moved to have the opportunity to support the efforts of brave individuals in countries like Cameroon, China, Peru, Namibia, Jamaica, Samoa and Vietnam.

I was also struck by how work on LGBT issues in education abroad employs such a fundamentally different authorizing framework than the legal, constitutional and philosophical underpinnings of safe schools work here in the United States. In the US, we recognize that anti-LGBT behavior and bias directed at youth can sometimes rise to the level of a civil rights violation, and can lead to criminal acts of violence.  In other parts of the world, however, this behavior is framed as a violation of internationally accepted human rights standards.

Photo credit: UNESCO

I was honored join my colleagues at the UN convening in issuing the “Rio Statement on Homophobic Bullying and Education for All,” which articulates this international framework. In the spirit of this statement, and on behalf of GLSEN and our colleagues in the Safe Schools Movement in the United States and around the world, I call upon the President and Congress to act now and address current violations in the United States in this context.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged the need for action in her historic speech on human rights in Geneva last week, making specific reference to anti-LGBT bullying and violence in the United States:

I speak …knowing that my own country's record on human rights for gay people is far from perfect. Many LGBT Americans have endured violence and harassment in their own lives, and for some, including many young people, bullying and exclusion are daily experiences.

Secretary Clinton’s speech (you can read the full transcript here) had a galvanizing effect on the UN convening and on me personally.

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The bullying and exclusion Clinton cites are violations of international human rights standards not only because of the violence and pain they inflict, but also because they undercut fundamental rights of access to the benefits of an education. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified by the United States, states that:

Everyone has the right to education …. and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

Further, the declaration sets a standard for the quality and nature of the education received:

Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups…

Schools where students go in fear of violence and ostracism cannot fulfill this mandate. Communities where students cannot walk to school without fear of being shot cannot fulfill this mandate. Schools where the only response to bullying and harassment is to segregate the target or jail the perpetrator cannot fulfill this mandate. And schools where the very existence of LGBT people is strenuously ignored or actively denigrated cannot fulfill this mandate.

We know that LGBT students attending school in the United States are at risk of bullying, harassment and discrimination. GLSEN has been documenting these experiences for years.

As a critical initial step towards fulfilling the governmental responsibility to provide universal access to high-quality education, Congress must pass and the President must sign into law the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) and the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) to establish baseline standards for school safety and non-discrimination in schools throughout the United States.

We know the work here to create safe learning environments that promote respect is a long-term process that sometimes carries obstacles along the way. But as shown at this historic meeting in Rio, GLSEN is not alone in this work. We're a part of a global movement to ensure the wellbeing of every student in school regardless of their actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. And with our partners here and abroad, we will affect change throughout the world.

Eliza Byard

About Eliza Byard

Dr. Eliza Byard is the Executive Director of GLSEN - the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.

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