When I behold the callous reaction of some right-wing Christian fundamentalist leaders to the rash of bullying-related teen suicides, I can only recall the famous question that the lawyer Joseph Welch asked in 1954 of a witness in the Army-McCarthy hearings: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you no sense of decency?”
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins says that the gay suicides are caused not by bullying but by the inner understanding of the teenagers that homosexuality is “abnormal.” There is no correlation, he told NPR, between societal attitudes toward homosexuality and “depression and suicide.” Perkins sees gay activism by students as the real problem. The solution: more activism by “Christian” high school students aggressively promoting the case that homosexuality is a sin. Yes, that should prevent tormented gay teenagers from hanging themselves or jumping off bridges and persuade high school bullies not to slam gays (or people whom they think are gay) against lockers or taunt them to tears: Tell the kids that gays–not people who torment gays–are going to hell.
In October, the U.S. Department of Education informed schools tht they were obligated by civil rights laws to try to prevent all forms of harrassment and bullying, including those based on sexual orientation. Schools are left to decide for themselves how best to do that. It’s disgusing that anyone has to remind schools of their obligation to maintain a safe environment for all students.
In many areas of the country, right-wing church leaders and parents have objected to any mention of homosexuality at school (except by those who hate gays) and have demanded that parents be allowed to withdraw their children from any courses in which the subject is discussed. These are, in fact, the same people who don’t want any honest information about hetereosexuality taught in sex ed classes.
After two suicides by gay students, the Anoka-Hennepin Country school district specifically included gay and lesbian students, along with other target groups, in its anti-bullying policies. But the schools also stated that teachers must be neutral on questions of sexual orientation and not endorse gay parenting. In some instances, children of gay couples have been bullied whether the young people are gay or not.
It’s important to realize that bullying is not just a “gay” issue. About 30 percent of American sixth-to-tenth graders say they have been involved in bullying, according to a 2008 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is however, much more common to be bullied if you’re gay. According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Network’s 2007 National School Climate Survey, more than 60 percent of gays said they felt unsafe in school.
Other groups targeted for bullying–if I’m remembering my own school years correctly–are overweight teens (especially girls), kids who seem too studious and don’t hide their intelligence, and boys of small physical stature. In the early 1960s in Okemos, Michigan, most of us had only the vaguest idea of what homosexuality was, but it’s significant that boys who were athletically inept or particularly good students (unless they were also jocks) were often called effeminate. So the prejudice was out there, even though it wasn’t articulated because there was no such thing as an openly gay student in an ordinary high school in middle America at that time.
What has changed–apart from the presence of gays openly demanding their civil rights–is, of course the Internet and the the tendency of many teenagers to flout authority in ways that were simply not tolerated in most schools 50 years ago. The kind of language many kids routinely apply to one another today–particularly slurs against women and gays–are often ignored by school officials, in part because they know that many parents won’t back them up if the students are punished.
I remember very well when one of my classmates became pregnant as a junior in high school–a real scandal in a small town at that time. The school administration–progressive, I believe, for its day–decided that this girl would be allowed to finish the school year. I’m sure that she must have been mortified, and must have endured some taunting from some students, but teachers and most of our parents made it clear to us that “teasing” (as they called it) was not acceptable. A lot of students stood up for this girl and her right to an education. A boy who taped a picture of a nursing mother to her locker was suspended for a week and told he would be expelled if anything like that ever happened again.
I don’t know how much schools can really do to promote genuine “tolerance” of anything that differs from what teens consider their norm. I suspect that many fundamentalist parents, in objecting to any explicit discussion of either homosexuality or the existence of families with gay parents, are exaggerating the degree of influence that schools have over students. Schools are certainly powerless to affect what all teenagers can do on the Interent if they want to torment their peers. But I know one thing schools can do: they can police the halls and lunchrooms vigorously and make certain that every student is safe within the classroom–not only physically safe, but safe from the kind of ridicule that scars kids for a lifetime.
Another thing an intelligent school administration could do is bring in alumni who were victims of bullying in middle and high school–alumni whom kids can recognize as successful adults–to talk about the lives they have today as well as their experiences in high school. The Fort Worth City Council member, Joel Burns, who spoke up about what bullying meant to him, did a powerful lot of good. I’d like to see a lineup of successful gay men and women, successful overweight men and women, successful scientists and scholars–all of whom were bullied for different reasons in high school–telling their stories in terms that the most hardened teen tormenters and the most vulnerable kids can understand.
The real problem for gays, of course, is that many gay-baiting teens are influenced by what they hear every day from adult gay-baiters in pulpits and in homes. Schools can’t do anything about that, but they can offer their students an alternative view. It is the obligation of educational institutions to offer a vision of a broader world: that is the very definition of education, derived from the Latin verb ducere–“to lead out.”
And by the way, bullying is too weak a word for kicking a gay teen in the testicles on the way home from school or posting intimate pictures on the Web. The right words are violence and cruelty. The fundamentalists who talk about hating the sin and loving the sinner, who shirk all responsibility for creating a climate in which teens are humiliated and made to feel unworthy of life, are conscienceless bigots. It almost makes me wish there were a Judgment Day on which they would be punished as they have contributed to the punishment of innocent young people in this life.