In the tiny town of Traer, Iowa, population 1,500, sophomore Robert Perrin-Hayes had to give a speech in front of his public-speaking class. The assigned topic? Bravery. So Robert decided on an angle that would definitely attract some attention: He came out of the closet.
"After I said that, the teacher's eyes were probably the size of owls'. They were huge!" the recent graduate recalled, laughing. "She looked at me, she looked back down and wrote in her book. I don't know what she wrote, but she wrote something!"
Within a few hours, the entire school knew about Robert's surprise announcement, and the reactions were far from supportive.
"I started getting names like faggot, fag, flamer, queer, homo — just anything you could really imagine," he said. He was shoved to the ground in the locker room. One day he was even run off the road.
According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, the type of harassment Robert faced as an out gay teen is extremely common. Perceived sexual orientation is the second-highest reason students say they are bullied, just after physical appearance.
But if you're a small-town high school sophomore, how are you supposed to handle being bullied? Feeling that school officials were ill-equipped to secure his safety, Robert took the next logical step: He became a lobbyist.
Through an organization called the Iowa Pride Network, Robert — along with other gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens — began lobbying state officials to pass a safe-schools bill, legislation designed to protect students from bullying for a variety of reasons, including sexual orientation. Protected classes also include race, gender and religion, among others.
Critics of anti-bullying bills claim that such legislation is unnecessary. All bullying is bad, they say, and all students deserve to be protected, not just those in certain groups. But GLSEN disagrees, citing a study that shows that students in schools with comprehensive policies protecting students from bullying report significantly less harassment.
When Robert first began lobbying as a junior, a safe-schools bill had little chance of passing in Iowa. Although the state's Democratic governor, former presidential candidate Tom Vilsack, seemed sympathetic to the issue, the evenly split Legislature was not.
But last November's election changed all that. The Democratic Party swept control of the Iowa Legislature, and on March 4, the current governor, Chet Culver, signed Iowa's safe-schools bill.
Now Iowa is one of 10 states in the nation with such legislation, and the issue is fast becoming an important one for school boards and state legislatures across the country.
For Robert, the passage of the bill is bittersweet. As a graduating senior, he'll never reap the benefits of the bill he worked so hard to pass, but he doesn't dwell on it.
"After it passed, I just felt kind of relieved that some of this has finally been done, that there actually is a chance for everybody to be treated equally," said Robert, who is heading to culinary school in the fall. "I don't see why other states can't, if Iowa could."