Justice Department Intervenes In Gay Rights Suit For the first time in a decade, the Justice Department has moved to intervene in a lawsuit on behalf of a high school boy who was beaten up for being effeminate. Lawyers argue he is protected under Title IX — and gay and lesbian groups see it as a statement about the Obama administration's priorities.
NPR logo

Justice Department Intervenes In Gay Rights Suit

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/122620723/122620722" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Justice Department Intervenes In Gay Rights Suit

Law

Justice Department Intervenes In Gay Rights Suit

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/122620723/122620722" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

For the first time in a decade, the Justice Department is moving to intervene in a harassment case involving gender stereotypes. It is a case in which a gay male high school student was beaten up for being effeminate.

As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, gay and lesbian groups see it as a statement about the Obama administration's priorities.

ARI SHAPIRO: Jacob and his father, Robbie Sullivan, live in Upstate New York in the town of Mohawk. Jacob is 15 and gay.

Mr. ROBBIE SULLIVAN: He is one of the greatest, loving, timid kind of kid you could meet. And I love him to death and he doesn't give me a bit of problem at all.

SHAPIRO: Robbie says Jacob was always effeminate. Starting in junior high, kids threw food at him and told him to get a sex change. They smashed his iPod and his cell phone. One pulled out a knife and threatened to hang him from a flagpole.

According to court documents, a teacher said: You should hate yourself every day until you change.

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.

Mr.�SULLIVAN: 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 pushed him down the stairs.

SHAPIRO: Over two years, Robbie 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 got so bad that Jacob changed school districts. With the help of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Robbie Sullivan eventually sued.

Mr.�SULLIVAN: A parent can only do so much against an entire school. I can't go to the school and grab the students and investigate it myself. I mean, I have to rely on the school to hopefully do what they're supposed to do.

SHAPIRO: The school superintendent Joyce Caputo was at a conference today and unavailable for comment, but a few months ago, she told the local paper: Our district has not and will not knowingly tolerate discrimination or harassment of its students by anybody.

Now the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has stepped in.

Ms.�HAYLEY GORENBERG (Lambda Legal): We haven't seen this kind of involvement in quite some time. It's a long time coming, and we really need it.

SHAPIRO: Hayley Gorenberg is with Lambda Legal, a group that represents lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Ms.�GORENBERG: I take it as affirming that this Justice Department is interested in taking a stand against harassment and discrimination against students, particularly LGBT students.

SHAPIRO: People who worked in the Civil Rights Division under Republicans agree that only Democrats would make this argument. Roger Clegg served under President Reagan and the first President Bush. He says bullying is wrong, but he does not agree with the Obama administration's interpretation of the law here.

Mr.�ROGER CLEGG (General Counsel, Center for Equal Opportunity): They are making up a legal violation when there hasn't been one.

SHAPIRO: The Justice Department's argument relies on a law called Title IX, which protects students from gender discrimination. Obama administration lawyers say Title IX also covers discrimination based on gender stereotypes, that is to say boys who get beaten up for acting girly. The government has not made that argument in a decade. Roger Clegg.

Mr.�CLEGG: You know, if the Civil Rights Division and the Obama administration want to propose that Title IX be amended to include sexual orientation, that's something that they can do and that can be debated in Congress, but Congress has not passed a law that deals with discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

SHAPIRO: Some courts have ruled that Title IX covers gender expression and sexual orientation, but the law is still murky in this area, and now the Obama administration has made its position known. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.