GARDEN CITY, N.Y. – Rachael Scheinman hears anti-gay slurs all the time.
The senior at the Portledge School in Locust Valley, N.Y., says many of her peers use hateful vocabulary as generic putdowns without realizing the harm.
"These slurs are used very cruelly, and when I ask people about it they say they are not being anti-gay; they are just substituting the slur to mean 'stupid' or something like that,"" said the 18-year-old, who identifies herself as gay.
Scheinman was among those celebrating Thursday at the approval of a Parent-Teacher Association chapter designed specifically for the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.
David Kilmnick, executive director of the Long Island GLBT Services Network, said the new organization will lobby for stronger anti-bullying measures that target gays, and seek to have the contributions of gays incorporated into curriculums.
"The bullying gay kids face in our schools is at a much higher level; it's really an epidemic," Kilmnick said. "Parents come to us frustrated and want schools to do something. This PTSA is really going to be a lifesaver for those parents and kids. They will now have a vehicle to have their voice heard."
Representatives of the state and national PTA will present organizers with their charter next week. Kilmnick said the group technically will be known as a parent-teacher-student association and will not be affiliated with any particular school district, and plans are for meetings to be held across Long Island. Membership will be open to anyone.
"You don't have to live on Long Island to join. You don't have to be gay or have a kid who is gay," Kilmnick said. "All you have to do is believe in the movement."
Increasingly, school administrators and lawmakers are acknowledging the need to address issues the Long Island PTA group is seeking to remedy.
Last month, the largest school district in Minnesota reached an agreement on a policy barring the harassment and bullying of students who are gay, or perceived to be gay. That followed the suicide of six students in less than two years, some of whom were gay. The new policy requires teachers to foster a respectful learning environment for all students.
Earlier this year, California became the first state to require public schools to teach the contributions of gays and lesbians. It bans instructional materials judged to reflect adversely on gays or particular religions.
James Martinez, spokesman for the National PTA, said that only one other PTSA has been dedicated specifically to advocacy for gay students. A group in the Seattle formed in 1999 but disbanded five years later.
The national PTA has about 5 million members, including chapters at U.S. military bases overseas with schools that teach the children of American service members. The organization seeks to foster parental involvement in schools.
Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the conservative Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., said his organization supports parental involvement in education, including parents of gay students, but he voiced concerns about the Long Island group's mission.
While the council supports anti-bullying measures, he said, "they should protect all students equally, rather than create special categories."
Martinez said he has heard of several chapters dedicated to the needs of special education students.
The Long Island group initially clashed with state and national PTA officials last November, when it announced its intention to become a PTA chapter without contacting them. Kilmnick and others said subsequent meetings with state PTA officials ironed out any misunderstandings.
Maria Fletcher, president of the New York State PTA, said the organization has not received any complaints about the decision to admit the gay group, and does not expect to.
Its creation, she said, is a "win-win."