Justice Department Intervenes In Gay Rights Suit

Saturday, January 16, 2010

For the first time in a decade, Justice Department lawyers have moved to intervene in a lawsuit on behalf of a gay high school student who was beaten up for being effeminate.

The case marks a novel interpretation of the Title IX statute, which prohibits discrimination against students on the basis of gender.

Gay and lesbian groups see it as a bold statement about the Obama administration’s priorities.

Brutal Harassment

The case centers around a 15-year-old named Jacob who lives in the town of Mohawk in upstate New York. His family requested that Jacob be identified only by his first name.

“He is one of the greatest, loving, timid kids you could meet,” says Jacob’s father, Robbie Sullivan, who does not share his son’s last name. “I love him to death, and he doesn’t give me a bit of problem at all.”

Long before Jacob came out of the closet at age 14, he was harassed for being effeminate. According to court papers, kids threw food at him and told him to get a sex change. One student pulled out a knife and threatened to string Jacob up the flagpole. A teacher allegedly told Jacob to “hate himself every day until he changed.”

One day, Jacob came home from school limping. That evening, he called his father from a party and said he had sprained his ankle at the party.

Sullivan described taking his son to the hospital: “It was a really bad sprain. They put a cast on it, gave him crutches. And shortly after that, I found out that it didn’t happen at the party. It happened at the school, because somebody had pushed him down the stairs.”

Over two years, Sullivan went to his son’s school three or four times a week to talk with the principal. According to court papers, officials did nothing. The harassment became so bad that Jacob changed school districts. With the help of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Sullivan eventually sued.

“A parent can only do so much against an entire school,” he said. “I can’t go to the school and grab the students and investigate it myself. I have to rely on the school to hopefully do what they’re supposed to do.”

School superintendent Joyce Caputo was at a conference Friday and was unavailable for comment. In August, she told the local newspaper, “Our district has not and will not knowingly tolerate discrimination or harassment of its students by anybody.”

Is He Protected Under Title IX?

Now the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has asked a judge for permission to intervene on Jacob’s behalf.

“We haven’t seen this kind of involvement in quite some time,” says Hayley Gorenberg of Lambda Legal, a national gay rights legal organization. “It’s a long time coming, and we really need it.”

Republicans who worked in the Civil Rights Division under previous administrations agree that this is a case conservatives generally would not make.

The Justice Department’s argument hinges on a broad reading of the law known as Title IX. Title IX is typically used to protect students from gender discrimination, but in this case, Obama administration lawyers argue that the law also covers discrimination based on gender stereotypes — that is to say, boys who are beaten up for being effeminate.

“They are making up a legal violation where there hasn’t been one,” says Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity, who worked in the Civil Rights Division under President Reagan and the first President Bush. While he condemns bullying and harassment, Clegg disagrees with the Obama administration’s interpretation of federal law in this case.

“If the Civil Rights Division and the Obama administration want to propose that Title IX be amended to include sexual orientation, that’s something they can do and that can be debated in Congress,” Clegg says. “But Congress has not passed a law that deals with discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”

Not so, says Gorenberg of Lambda Legal.

“We have clear interpretations out of many federal courts that clearly set forth that Title IX protects against sex stereotyping,” she says.

While some courts have ruled that Title IX covers gender expression and sexual orientation, the law remains murky in this area. Gay and lesbian advocates hope this will be the case that establishes the principle more firmly.

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7 Responses to Justice Department Intervenes In Gay Rights Suit

  1. customartist says:

    These are exactly the type of incidents that happened to me all throughout my school years.

    One of the first times that I was beaten up was in Stonewall Jackson School (ironically) where my 2nd grade teacher Mrs. Hatley watched knowingly as a group of boys were beating me up. I knew that she was aware, and why, but I only realized her real homo-hatred years later.

    Schools need to be held accountable. I only wish that the webmaster would forward my email to the family of this child so that I could send them a contribution to fight this case.

    Good luck!

  2. Smooth Criminal says:

    No one should be tortured in school because they’re perceived to be different. This is all-too common for children in the USA.

    I hope Title IX can be used to put an end to this type of discrimination.

  3. libhomo says:

    I’m happy that the Obama administration is doing the right thing in court, instead of the heterosexist thing, which they have done at times.

    I Googled the “Center for Equal Opportunity,” and it turns out to be an organization that promotes white supremacy. Why am I not surprised?

  4. Shane says:

    I completely understand the hardships this kid has had to endure. I went through something similar in school, myself. Too many times the school staff just turns the other cheek, whether it be for personal reasons/beliefs or something else…bullying of any kind should never be allowed.

    My bad experiences mostly happened during my junior high school years but they did carry over, somewhat, into my high school years as well. I became very tired of dreading school on a daily basis b/c of the torture you have to go through when you are growing up gay or even just effeminate. So, I simply started standing up for myself.

    I knew what could happen, that I could be beaten to a pulp for standing my ground but I also knew that I could not go down without a fight. Was it risky and scary? Yes. Is it the right approach for everyone? NO! It is a decision that is made from the soul and heart of the victim.

    After I began standing up for myself, I slowly gained respect from most of the ppl who would once want to hang me from the flagpole to rot as well. It was worth it for me but, as I already stated, it’s not the best approach for everyone. You really do have to be VERY strong to take that stand and there are some days when it doesn’t even seem worth it to try.

    I really hope this victim of bigotry gets what he deserves and, what he deserves, is respect. Nothing huge, really…just respect…that’s all.

  5. an important step in the right direct – sadly with so many bush appointees still sitting in key court seats..


  6. feminazi says:

    It makes me angry and sad at once when I read the comments from folks here who say they suffered like this in school. School, ideally, is a time to learn and a time to make friends and explore your talents and discover your strengths. I wonder how many gay kids are robbed of this special time of youth. I’m so sorry to any of you who were treated poorly.

  7. Brigadoon says:

    I’m surprised, frankly. The Obama administration has maintained such a hand’s off policy vis a vis gay rights for fear of angering the Republicans who hate him already that I just didn’t expect this from the Obama justice department.

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