By Geoff Kors, Executive Director, Equality California
My best friend Jim Nickoff came out in junior high at the age of 14, a truly rare and courageous act during the 1970s. It wasn’t easy for him. At 15, Jim was rejected by his family and kicked out of his home. He attempted suicide but luckily failed. He went on to finish high school and college, and he eventually moved to San Francisco, where he became an amazing and dedicated activist for LGBT equality. He worked as Chief Financial Officer of the Stop AIDS Project, was the Treasurer of Equality California and worked on the campaigns of several pro-LGBT political candidates.
But underneath his strong demeanor, Jim struggled every day from the pain of rejection and isolation from his childhood, from wounds that never healed. Three years ago, which was truly the darkest day of my life, Jim called me to say goodbye, and he committed suicide.
Knowing Jim and seeing his struggle changed me. We have to make the world a safer place for LGBT youth. Too many of our youth are facing bullying, harassment and intimidation, and many of them are choosing under this pressure to end their lives. And the discrimination they face when young can completely change the course of their lives.
What can be done to prevent further pain, further tragedies? We have to encourage acceptance and tolerance, reduce bullying and create policies at schools that welcome and protect all students.
This year, Equality California is sponsoring three bills to help LGBT youth in schools.
The Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful (FAIR) Education Act, authored by Senator Mark Leno and co-sponsored by the GSA Network, would ask schools to teach about the contributions of LGBT individuals and the movement for LGBT equality in social science and history classes. The FAIR Education Act would ensure that all students hear the stories of Harvey Milk, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, and other heroes of LGBT equality. They would learn about New York City’s Stonewall Riots, AIDS activism in the 1980s, Matthew Shepard and the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and the list goes on. The LGBT rights struggle would be taught, understood and appreciated alongside other historical civil rights movements, helping all youth to better understand what it means to be LGBT and why full equality matters. Research shows that bullying and harassment drop when students learn our movement’s history. (Help us pass this bill — tell your legislator to support it at www.eqca.org/MakeEducationFAIR.)
California already has anti-bullying laws, but these laws don’t go far enough to stop the harassment and intimidation our youth face. Seth’s Law (authored by Assembly member Tom Ammiano) would enhance our state’s laws by requiring schools to have clear anti-bullying policies that are easy to find, and by creating better training and clearer guidelines for teachers and administrators so they can better address issues they see. The bill would also create shorter timelines for investigating claims of bullying. This bill is named after 13-year-old Seth Walsh of Tehachapi, who committed suicide in 2010 after facing years of bullying simply for being himself. With stronger laws, we can create a safer and more respectful environment at school and hopefully prevent more tragic stories like Seth’s. (Advocate for this bill at www.eqca.org/stopbullying.)
The challenges for our youth don’t end when high school does. The Equality and Equal Access in Higher Education Act, authored by Assembly member Marty Block, would require public colleges and universities to improve the campus climate for LGBT students by providing access to student services and by adding sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression to campus anti-discrimination policies. This bill will give LGBT students the support they need to make it to graduation day, as well as anti-discrimination policies that can keep them protected.
I think about Jim and miss him every single day. His life — like the lives of Seth Walsh and many other LGBT youth — was cut short by despair and sadness. We have to create an environment where every LGBT young person can live openly and proudly, knowing that they will be safe and can learn, grow and thrive alongside their peers. Please, join me in advocating for these bills and others. Together we can give our youth hope and equality.
Equality California is sponsoring 11 bills so far for this legislative session, covering issues from the rights of domestic partners to protections for non-biological parents to discrimination against transgender people to data collection on the LGBT community. Read about all 11 bills at www.eqca.org/legislation, and consider donating at www.eqca.org/donate to support our work to secure full equality for LGBT Californians.