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Be Who You Are

School will soon start again, and countless LGBT youth will return to classrooms all over the country. Some will return to schools where they find support and protection from harassment – where administrators and teachers work together to ensure a safe learning environment to all students.

Some won’t.

Some students will return to schools where officials turn a blind eye to bullying and harassment. Some will face administrators who tell them “it’s only words and words can’t hurt you”. Some will return to schools in communities where people oppose protecting LGBT students from harassment. Some will contend with people who believe some students should be harassed – and that some harassment should be permitted – “for their own good.”

Some of those students will make it, but some won’t.

Some will have no one to stand up for them, or to show them how to stand up for themselves.

I hope someone tells them about Rochelle Hamilton.

A high school student who says that she was harassed by her teachers in 2007, because she is a lesbian has won a legal settlement from the Vallejo City Unified School District, officials confirmed Monday.

Under the agreement, the district will pay $25,000 to Rochelle Hamilton, 16, who had come out as a lesbian at age 13. The district will also bolster its anti-gay-discrimination training and complaint procedures for all staff and students and be monitored by the American Civil Liberties Union for five years.

… Rochelle began attending Vallejo’s Jesse Bethel High School as a sophomore in the fall of 2007, and was accosted with verbal harassment that continued for months. Most of the attacks, she said, came from her teachers and school staff.

According to Rochelle, a teacher approached while she was hugging her girlfriend and said, “This is ungodly, and you’re going to hell.”

Another teacher allegedly asked her, “What are you, a man or a woman?”

She was required to participate in a school-sponsored “counseling” group designed to discourage students from being lesbian or gay.

I hope they have adults like Cheri Hamiltonin their lives.

So tell me, what’s this journey been like for you?

Cheri: It has been long and painful. With the support from De-Bug and the ACLU, I felt I finally had people who understood our pain. I had to write many letters and make many phone calls, not allowing the district to run from this. Every issue Rochelle faced and every tear she dropped, I brought it to their attention.

Meanwhile, I held Rochelle, reminding her that nothing was wrong with her, that she was beautiful inside and out. As Rochelle asked me why the teachers wouldn’t stop, I reminded her what her father and I endured for being a black and white couple, and if we would have given in to a hateful society then she wouldn’t be here. As Rochelle listened, she realized that she also had to stand up for herself and others. I was not backing down and reminded the school administrators that my daughter has a right to be herself and receive an education in their district. While Rochelle grabbed her strength from me and as I counseled her through every putdown, she gained strength, and became a shoulder or a ear for LGBTQ (lesbian gay bisexual transgender queer) friends wanting to offer any support that they needed. It reminded her how important it was for her to continue the fight for change.

What was the school’s reaction to the case and to Rochelle? Were at least any of them sympathetic or apologetic to Rochelle?

Cheri: The school and the district chose to be sympathetic, but (they were) not willing to apologize. The settlement agreement speaks loudly. Rochelle and I have not focused on a pacified five-letter word “SORRY,” but rather we fought for a six-letter word: “CHANGE.” That was our goal, and we won what we really wanted, to make Vallejo a safer learning environment for all students.

Is there a message you have for other parents of gay teens who have to go through this and don’t know what to do?

Cheri: Always have the will! You are your child’s voice! They are not heard unless you speak. Always be proud of your kids and remember how special they are. Smiles last forever in a mother’s heart. Listen to your kids and find out what is going on at their school, who their teachers are, and if your child is complaining, upset or withdrawn, find out why.

I hope someone shares with them her words of encouragement.

A gay friend told me recently that his teacher said to him, “You just want to be a girl.” I told him to write a complaint. I was so proud that now there’s something we can do. There are too many students who are harassed. Students have rights too. Young people are strong. We have a voice. There are students like me all over California who are working to make their schools and their lives better. When something is wrong, we need to stand up and make a difference. Young people like me, we’re not looking for a five letter word, “sorry.” We’re looking for a six letter word: “change.”

I go to school to learn, but the experience of standing up for myself and for my rights taught me some important lessons.

Lesson Number One: Students can take a stand against adults who discriminate. And they can win. Even when those adults are teachers.

Lesson Number Two: I have the right to be myself. You have the right to be yourself. We all have the right.

So this is my message to everybody else being discriminated against: keep fighting, be who you are ’till the day you die, always stand up for yourself. Or, as I say in a poem I wrote: “I’m happy with my sexuality and I say it with pride you see because this is my life and this is me.”

I can tell you from my own experience that they really need to hear it.

It can make all the difference in the world.

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