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Justice Department Intervenes In Gay Rights Suit

For the first time in a decade, Justice Department lawyers have moved to intervene in a lawsuit on behalf of a gay high school student who was beaten up for being effeminate.

The case marks a novel interpretation of the Title IX statute, which prohibits discrimination against students on the basis of gender.

Gay and lesbian groups see it as a bold statement about the Obama administration's priorities.

Brutal Harassment

The case centers around a 15-year-old named Jacob who lives in the town of Mohawk in upstate New York. His family requested that Jacob be identified only by his first name.

"He is one of the greatest, loving, timid kids you could meet," says Jacob's father, Robbie Sullivan, who does not share his son's last name. "I love him to death, and he doesn't give me a bit of problem at all."

Long before Jacob came out of the closet at age 14, he was harassed for being effeminate. According to court papers, kids threw food at him and told him to get a sex change. One student pulled out a knife and threatened to string Jacob up the flagpole. A teacher allegedly told Jacob to "hate himself every day until he changed."

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.

Sullivan described taking his son to the hospital: "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 had pushed him down the stairs."

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

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

School superintendent Joyce Caputo was at a conference Friday and was unavailable for comment. In August, she told the local newspaper, "Our district has not and will not knowingly tolerate discrimination or harassment of its students by anybody."

Is He Protected Under Title IX?

Now the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has asked a judge for permission to intervene on Jacob's behalf.

"We haven't seen this kind of involvement in quite some time," says Hayley Gorenberg of Lambda Legal, a national gay rights legal organization. "It's a long time coming, and we really need it."

Republicans who worked in the Civil Rights Division under previous administrations agree that this is a case conservatives generally would not make.

The Justice Department's argument hinges on a broad reading of the law known as Title IX. Title IX is typically used to protect students from gender discrimination, but in this case, Obama administration lawyers argue that the law also covers discrimination based on gender stereotypes — that is to say, boys who are beaten up for being effeminate.

"They are making up a legal violation where there hasn't been one," says Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity, who worked in the Civil Rights Division under President Reagan and the first President Bush. While he condemns bullying and harassment, Clegg disagrees with the Obama administration's interpretation of federal law in this case.

"If the Civil Rights Division and the Obama administration want to propose that Title IX be amended to include sexual orientation, that's something they can do and that can be debated in Congress," Clegg says. "But Congress has not passed a law that deals with discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation."

Not so, says Gorenberg of Lambda Legal.

"We have clear interpretations out of many federal courts that clearly set forth that Title IX protects against sex stereotyping," she says.

While some courts have ruled that Title IX covers gender expression and sexual orientation, the law remains murky in this area. Gay and lesbian advocates hope this will be the case that establishes the principle more firmly.

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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.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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