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‘Unprecedented’ number of reports of harassment, bullying of LGBTQ students, advocates say

The pandemic gave LGBTQ students time to “look inward” and be more bold about coming out — but that has also led to a backlash, advocates say.

Mony Ruiz-Velasco, Deputy Director of Equality Illinois, speaks at a protest in October. Equality Illinois and LGBTQ advocacy groups across the state are coming together to address an “unprecedented” increase in reports of harassment and bullying of LGBTQ students.
Mony Ruiz-Velasco, Deputy Director of Equality Illinois, speaks at a protest in October. Equality Illinois and LGBTQ advocacy groups across the state are coming together to address an “unprecedented” increase in reports of harassment and bullying of LGBTQ students.
Mark Capapas, AP Photos

Advocacy organizations across the state have received an “unprecedented” number of reports of bullying, harassment and discrimination against LGBTQ students, a coalition of groups said at a virtual news conference Tuesday.

“LGBTQ students must be treated with dignity and respect and must be supported and loved so that they can show up authentically as they are at schools, where they can be safe and learn and thrive,” said Mony Ruiz-Velasco, deputy director of Equality Illinois, which hosted the meeting. “This is not acceptable.”

Groups across the state are working together to hold schools accountable, offer training resources and make sure no LGBTQ students “fall through any cracks,” Ruiz-Velasco said.

Name calling, destruction of property and assault are just some of the incidents reported recently to LGBTQ support organizations. Though anti-harassment provisions have existed in schools for decades, advocates attribute the increase at least partly due to the pandemic, said Grecia Magdaleno, policy and advocacy manager with the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance.

Students took the time to “look inward,” resulting in more coming out — and then a backlash.

“A lot of students who identify as LGBTQ are more proud, more out,” Magdaleno said. “We do see these instances of violence and discrimination and harassment as a result of that, as a result of more and more youths coming out and living authentically.”

Schools must ensure all students can learn, something that can’t happen without “supportive and affirming learning environments” for LGBTQ students, Magdaleno said. It’s a matter of teachers, administrators and other adults at schools bearing that responsibility, Magdaleno said — and not trying to “change people’s personal beliefs.”

Youth Outlook has also seen an “enormous” increase in reports, executive director Nancy Mullen said, in areas west of the city — especially in school districts in DeKalb and Whiteside counties. More students are coming out at a younger age, Mullen said, and some middle schools students end up dealing with “unsupportive” or even “hostile” faculty.

At a Downers Grove District 99 High School board meeting Monday, some protested a library book on sexual orientation and gender identity, calling the graphic novel “porn” — although protesters said they objected to images in the book and not necessarily the sexual orientation of the author.

Mullen, whose organization serves Downers Grove, said it reveals a “repetitive” theme.

“There’s often pushback against the most innocent of visibility issues for our LGBT kids,” Mullen said. “As there is some amount of positive visibility, there’s almost instantly negative pushback.”

Anyone seeking assistance can request advocacy help online through the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance.