It Gets Better
Teen suicide is not a new problem. The way the media has been covering the recent surge might make it seem otherwise, but kids have been getting bullied and driven to drastic measures for as long as anyone living today can remember.
There can be a silver lining to all of the recent, highly-publicized tragedy, though -- if it raises awareness nationwide and leads to serious, concerted changes in the ways we all deal with homophobia and discrimination in general. If it means no kid will feel ostracized and alone because of their sexual orientation or differentness.
Dan Savage (he of Savage Love fame) started the "It Gets Better" project in response to the rash of teen suicides as a way to spread the message to young people who might be feeling hopeless that, if they just hold on through high school, their life can and will improve. They'll be able to choose their peer groups -- people who love and accept them for exactly who they are -- and live full lives.
It's a marvelous movement, and the positive response to it has been overwhelming.
But I've been glad to see many people taking the idea a step further and recognizing that grade school shouldn't have to be such a mine field in the first place. That students and school administrators alike bear the responsibility of fighting against bullying, of enforcing rules that make the learning environment a safe one for every student.
No matter how much we might not like to admit it, there are still major problems with how our society and education system deals with kids who don't fall within the strict guidelines of what has traditionally been seen as "normal." Teachers and faculty that ignore issues when they come up, or outright defend the perpetrators and/or their motives, certainly don't help -- and that does happen. Even right here in Wisconsin.
We have to hold ourselves accountable. Parents, teachers, students, and friends -- all of us are in this together. The causes of bullying don't begin and end with one person -- a kid who lashes out like that is usually bringing it from home.
I was bullied from the moment I moved to a new town in the third grade. I did not like to wear dresses, and I wore my hair short and built tree forts, played sports, so was labeled a "tomboy" from a very early age. The first comment I heard out of a fellow student's mouth as I walked down the hall on that first day at my new school was, "Is that a boy or a girl?" Related taunts from all corners quickly followed where before I'd heard none.
To this day I sometimes draw horrified looks or outright, outspoken anger for daring to use the women's restroom.
In the fourth grade my teacher threw garbage cans at me and called me "unnatural." In sixth grade an older boy tried to choke me with a plastic newspaper tie while we were out on the playground. I was called freak, dyke, boy, insulted without prompting by kids I barely even knew. I fought a lot. I was not proud of it.
Thankfully, by the time high school rolled around I had a good group of friends who liked me just the way I was -- and through it all I was incredibly lucky to have supportive parents who let me be me. Though I still struggled with depression at times, I was able to reach a tentative place of comfort with myself and was able to enjoy at least part of high school in peace.
That didn't stop the taunts. The worst incident of bullying I've ever experience happened over the course of my junior and senior years of high school, in fact, after moving to yet another new city and school. Though I had long become content to let things ride more and get by without resorting to fights, others did not feel the same.
For months on end a boy in the percussion section of the band with me took out his issues, whatever they were, by verbally and physically threatening me. It happened on a daily basis. I started skipping the class, unwilling to deal with it anymore for fear that I'd snap and do something worse in response. Eventually the school noticed my absences and phoned by father. When I explained to him why I'd been cutting, he immediately called the band teacher to schedule a conference.
We were met with, at best, a tepid response. They made the boy apologize and promise to stop harassing me -- and then promptly forgot all about it. He went back to the threats and they went right back to ignoring the whole thing.
I was extremely fortunate to have good friend and family support through all of this, and to have made it out on the other side with better perspective and attitude. I've been able to remain true to myself while pursuing the life that I want to live -- writing, making music, learning, exploring the world -- even when it was anything but easy. And I'm so, so thankful for that.
There are people who've had it easier and people who've had it far worse than me. But we're not talking about maintaining a continuum of suffering; we're talking about making it better for everyone.
Even if we can't immediately convince certain folks to feel total acceptance of the LGBT community right away, we can immediately implement rules about how to better handle bullying and threats. There should be no place in our schools, communities or media for this kind of intimidation and violence. There is, simply put, no excuse for it.
No free passes, no more burying our heads in the sand, no more secretly patting the bullies on the back, no more letting parents off the hook for their children's behavior. The conservative right likes to talk about personal responsibility -- so let's actually see them (and all of us) follow through on it. We are all responsible for the well-being of our society. What we do and say affects everyone, whether we know it or not.
When leaders and public figures fail to denounce or reprimand their acolytes for spewing hatred and stirring up anger -- or when they themselves do those things -- they are partly to blame for the inevitable consequences.
A recent dust-up in the opinion pages of the Washington Post illustrates this issue clearly: Anti-gay activist Tony Perkins was given the newspaper's public platform to write a piece attempting to both excuse himself and others like him from taking any blame for creating the conditions that lead gay teens to depression and even suicide, and to blame the victims themselves. Behold his careful tap dance of deflection and denial:
Where bullying has occurred, the blame should be placed on the bullies themselves -- not on organizations within society who clearly oppose bullying [Christian orgs like the Family Research Council]. I suspect that few, if any, such bullies are people who regularly attend church, and I would not be surprised if most of the "bullies" did not have the positive benefit of both an active mom and dad in their lives. Religious faith and a return to traditional family values are more likely to be a solution to the problem of bullying than a cause.
His exceptionally specious arguments (and the paper's claims that they gave Perkins space to "present both sides" of the issue) were subsequently torn to shreds by Jarrett Barios, president of GLAAD, writing in the same pages a short while later.
By letting Tony Perkins stand on its soapbox, the Washington Post is telling today's kids, their parents, and the educators whose job it is to prepare them for life, that it's perfectly reasonable to claim (as Perkins does) that those dark thoughts are caused by simply being gay -- and not by the fact that people like Perkins have made it their lives' work to deny gay people the opportunity to live freely and peacefully.
If Perkins truly believes that all people -- even gay people -- should be able to live their lives free from bullying, then he needs to stop bullying them himself.
Sirdeaner Walker, the mother of an 11-year-old boy who, after enduring endless teasing and anti-gay bullying, killed himself in 2009, also took to the op-ed pages to express the wrongness of Perkins' article.
I am a single mother and a devout Christian who had never been involved in advocacy work or politics. After my son died, and GLSEN reached out to me, some of my friends and family members expressed concern about the organization's work to address anti-gay bullying in school. They voiced religious opposition to GLSEN. Thanks toTony Perkins' On Faith piece published yesterday, I don't have to repeat the arguments. Perkins' lays them all out practically word for word.
And they're all wrong.
Walker then goes on to dismantle all of the arguments Perkins made and studies he cited to back his claims, leaving him with no ground on which to stand. All from a place of faith and love.
What it all comes down to is that homosexuality does not lead to depression; society's bigotry toward homosexuals, however, does. So it will take the combined effort to improve conditions in school and in our national dialogue to really tackle this issue effectively.
We can't hope to eliminate all the problems that people -- children and adults alike -- face in their lives. But we can certainly make it so much better. It just takes a little will-power, compassion, and the courage to stand up and speak out.