Group also releases poll results showing support for LGBT rights

Tammye Nash  |

CITING THE NUMBERS | Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns, left, listens as Equality Texas Executive Director Dennis Coleman outlines the findings of a poll showing that nearly 80 percent of Texans favor inclusive anti-bullying legislation. Equality Texas kicked off an intensive effort to get such a measure passed during the upcoming session of the Texas Legislature at a press conference in Austin on Monday, Dec. 13. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)

AUSTIN — Equality Texas started ramping up efforts to get a comprehensive anti-bullying law passed in the upcoming session of the Texas Legislature with a press conference Monday, Dec. 13, highlighting results from a recently completed poll on LGBT issues.

In the poll — commissioned by Equality Texas and conducted by the national polling firm Glangariff Group Inc. —  79.2 percent of all respondents said they favored legislation that would “provide direction to Texas teachers on how to protect all children from bullying, harassment and
discrimination in school, including the children of gay and lesbian parents or teenagers who are gay,” according to Equality Texas press materials.

Dennis Coleman, Equality Texas’ executive director, said at Monday’s press conference that while bullying in schools is not new, the recent spate of gay teen suicides stemming from such bullying has “moved this issue up the ranks of issues that need to be addressed as soon as possible.

“The Dallas school district recently approved new policies to address bullying. Now it is time for the state as a whole to do the same,” Coleman said.

Coleman said that some seven bills addressing bullying have already been pre-filed for their 2011 legislative session. But, he added, Equality Texas “will not support legislation that does not include all children.”

Chuck Smith, the lobbying organization’s deputy executive director, said that Equality Texas prefers the language in legislation prefiled by Sen. Wendy Davis, which updates the definition of bullying and includes cyber-bullying, and which specifically includes LGBT students.

The bill also calls for data to be collected on bullying and provides guidelines for teachers and administrators on how to respond.

Rep. Mark Strama of Austin has prefiled a similar bill in the House of Representatives. However, Smith said, Strama’s bill does not specifically include the requirement of collecting data on bullying targeting a student’s gender identity or expression.

“That phrase is very important,” Smith said. “Strama’s bill includes gender identity and expression in the definition of bullying, but not in the section requiring collection of data on bullying.”

“These bills provide a present-day definition of what bullying is, and that is so important because too many lawmakers conjure up an image of a skirmish on the playground. That is not bullying,” Smith said. “Bullying is a repetitive pattern based on an imbalance of power and intimidation.”
Smith also said the data collection requirements are an essential piece of the anti-bullying effort.

“In most districts, if you were to ask them they would say they don’t have a problem with bullying. But if you ask them specifically how many incidents they had last year, they can’t answer because they are not currently required to collect that data,” Smith said.

Collecting such statistics, he added, will allow districts to inform their teachers and administrators, at the campus level on whether their anti-bullying training programs are effective.

“There are a lot of common sense things you would assume are already in the Texas Education Code, but they aren’t,” Smith said. “We want to see legislation passed that fills those gaps.”
Gay Fort City Councilman Joel Burns — who became the face of anti-bullying efforts when video of his Oct. 12 speech on his own experience of being bullied as a gay teen went viral — spoke at the press conference, agreeing with Coleman that bullying “is a problem we cannot afford to ignore another day.

Burns said, “As I stand here, there are Texas children who believe their only escape from the bullying and harassment is to put a gun to their heads and pull the trigger, empty the pill bottle into their mouths and swallow, or tighten the noose around their necks and step off the chair.

“Today and every day, those children, without hope, live in our Texas cities and towns, in our neighborhoods, go to school with our children, and unfortunately, might even be children in your own family,” Burns said.

Anne Wynne, new co-chair of the Equality Texas board, participated in the Monday press conference, reading a statement from former Texas first lady and U.S. first lady Laura Bush in support of anti-bullying legislation.

“Bullying of any kind is terrible, and we as adults have to be the ones to do something about it,” Bush’s statement said.
She also described how proud she was of Burns for having the courage to make such a public statement about his own experiences.

Vicki Baldwin, a retired educator with 42 years in the field, said passage of anti-bullying legislation is “a moral issue. You do not treat people — anybody — badly. You do not pick on people because they are different. This is a moral issue, and Texas needs to take the lead” in addressing it.

“In general, I don’t like policies, and I don’t like legislation” Baldwin said. “But I also know everybody isn’t like me. I try to do the right thing, and I always assumed that other people try to do the right thing, too, just instinctively. But that’s not the way it happens. We have reached the point that people’s lives, their actual lives, are involved here, and it is critical that we do something to address it.”

Burns agreed. “Any one life lost is worthy of us taking action,” he said. “And it is past time to take action now.”

Other issues in the poll

Although Monday’s press conference focused on the need for anti-bullying legislation, Equality Texas also released responses from the poll indicating that support for LGBT equality is higher in Texas than most people would assume.

According to the poll, 88 percent of the respondents support a guaranteed right for lesbians and gays to visit their partners in the hospital, and 75.4 percent support prohibiting employment and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation, while 69.7 support prohibiting employment and housing discrimination against transgenders.

Surprisingly, the poll found that 63.1 percent of those responded support allowing gays and lesbians to get a civil union.
In other findings:
• 75.1 percent support a guaranteed right for lesbians and gays to make end-of-life decisions for their partners.
• 68.8 percent support giving gays and lesbians the same legal rights as heterosexual parents regarding their children.
• 67.3 percent support hate crime legislation protecting transgenders.
• 65.4 percent support legal rights of gays and lesbians to inherit their partners’ possessions when no will is in place.

Poll results were also examined based on the political party affiliation of respondents:
• Democratic voters support all 12 LGBT rights listed in the poll by a majority above 65 percent.
• 77.8 percent of Democrats support civil unions for gays and lesbians.
• Independent voters give majority support to 11 of the 12 rights, supporting six of the 12 by more than 65 percent.
• The only right independent voters do not support is the right of same-sex couples to marry. However, 59.4 percent of independent voters do support civil unions.
• A majority of Republican voters support nine of 12 of the LGBT rights covered by the poll, including supporting five of the 12 at levels higher than 65 percent.
• Republican voters do not support the right to same-sex marriage, but 57.6 percent do support civil unions for gays and lesbians.
In looking at responses broken down by religiosity, the poll found:
• A majority of respondents who attend weekly religious services support nine of the 12 rights covered in the poll.
• 51.1 percent of those who attend religious services weekly support civil unions for gays and lesbians.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 17, 2010.