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WASHINGTON - As a ninth-grader in Mound, Andy Berlin says, he never meant to be openly gay.
"I didn't need to be," he said. "It was so ... obvious."
When he complained to school administrators about the daily taunts and threats, he remembers the response was, "Well, it's not right, but it's high school. It's to be expected."
So on Thursday, Berlin, now a 19-year-old college student in San Francisco, welcomed legislation introduced by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., protecting gays and lesbians -- and those perceived to be gays and lesbians -- from school bullies.
Long awaited by gay activists, the Student Non-Discrimination Act also would add bisexual and transgender students to the groups federally protected against school violence and harassment.
Said Franken: "Our nation's civil rights laws protect our children from bullying due to race, sex, religion, disability and national origin. My proposal corrects a glaring injustice and extends these protections to our gay and lesbian students who need them just as badly."
Absent from the initial list of 22 Senate cosponsors was fellow Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar, exposing a small rift between Klobuchar and gay activists who have criticized her recently for what they see as her reticence on gay issues. Klobuchar signed on as a cosponsor later in the day, after a public plea from the Family Equality Council, a national gay rights group that supports Franken's bill.
The measure would establish a federal prohibition against discrimination in public schools based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. It would forbid schools from discriminating against gay students or ignoring harassing behavior. Remedies would include loss of federal funding for schools and suits filed by discrimination victims citing violations of the federal law.
A companion bill was introduced in the U.S. House in January by Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., with the support of Minnesota Democrats Betty McCollum, Keith Ellison and Jim Oberstar.
But there has been little action on the bill since then, and key GOP figures are opposed, including Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee.
"We should do what we can to prevent any student from being bullied," Kline said. "But I have serious concerns about any bill that turns our educators into 'thought police' and opens the door to endless lawsuits and litigation against our schools."
The bills in Congress are similar to legislation passed last year by the Minnesota Legislature but vetoed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Backers of the federal and state bills say gay students need special protections because they are frequent targets of bullies. Franken cited surveys indicating that gay and lesbian students are bullied two to three times more often than their heterosexual peers.
"How can you deny that gay teenagers are targeted in high school?" said Berlin, who testified before the Minnesota Legislature on the state effort. "Just spend an hour in a high school."
'Don't ask, don't tell'
Franken's bill comes as Congress has been grappling with another piece of gay rights legislation that would repeal the military's Clinton-era "Don't ask, don't tell" policy.
Both Franken and Klobuchar have signed on to that bill, which was introduced by Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut. There, too, Klobuchar has come under fire from gays, a solid Democratic constituency.
Senate records show Franken signed on to Lieberman's Military Readiness Enhancement Act on March 3. Klobuchar waited until April 28, angering activists who said it showed a lack of leadership on a signature gay issue.
Klobuchar spokeswoman Erikka Knuti noted that Klobuchar is one of 33 senators who have signed on to the Lieberman bill. "Sixty-seven senators have still not joined that fight," she said.
Klobuchar's move on the bill to protect gay students appeared to have extended an olive branch. "We applaud Senators Franken and Klobuchar for cosponsoring the bill," said Family Equality Council spokesman Kevin Nix.
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.