In yesterday’s New York Times, Erik Eckholm shed some important light on a community in Wisconsin struggling with bullying and homosexuality. Here’s the article. The Anoka-Hennepin School District has faced eight student deaths attributed to suicides over the past two years, and it’s believed that four of those students who killed themselves were struggling with issues of sexual identity. District policy states that teachers must remain neutral on issues of sexual orientation, which means that teachers cannot discuss or mention sexual orientation in any way. Many teachers and administrators contest that this is preventing them from stopping the bullying in their classrooms and schools.
The district’s neutrality policy ties the hands of the teachers, people who spend more time with young people than a parent actually does, at least on a typical school day. Last fall when a rash of student suicides gained national attention, I thought about the responsibility that a teacher in a classroom has to prevent students from being bullied or feeling unsafe because of anything other than the learning that needs to happen. This school district, which sits mostly in Michele Bachmann’s congressional district, has silenced the leaders and the facilitators; therefore, there’s no way to model acceptable, humane behavior around difference as it pertains to sexual identity and gender expression.
As a middle school and high school student, I can honestly say that I did not really understand my sexuality, but many boys around me certainly thought I was different and used words like “gay,” “fag,” and “homo” to describe me. One guy in particular, who I think is a minister now (lovely), used to constantly ask me if I believed in gay rights. I would say I did because I was trying to be accepting of others, and then that just made things worse for me. I was naive and pretty stupid when it came to protecting myself. I had been taught not to fight, and I was terrified of getting into trouble at school. The “derogatory” words and the questions were painful and difficult to get out from under. When I tried to talk to people about this, I was most often told to just “let the comments roll off my back. Be the bigger person. They’re just jealous.” These pieces of passive advice did not help me in the least, and ultimately just magnified how badly I felt about myself. I know that the people offering these pieces of advice meant well. I also now recognize that I must have been a confusing young adult to offer counsel to.
Thankfully, I had a couple of teachers who would help me and tell me that these guys who were giving me a problem were jerks. Side note: the irony of so much of this is that now some of these guys want to be friends with me on Facebook. I wonder if they actually think that I forget the names that they used to call me. Or if they even remember using those words to describe me. Double the irony when I see that that they now have kids of their own. I wonder if their kids are being bullied or are bullies. But I digress. The point here is that I had a COUPLE of teachers who helped me. In large part, these teachers were female. The male teachers, particularly where the harassment was the worst, like gym class, were unhelpful, and I felt sometimes were even contributing to the bullying. And this didn’t stop with teachers. I played on a local soccer team for a number of years, and the verbal harassment was often the worst at those practices, where a coach was someone’s parent and did nothing to stop the verbal bullying. I remember one moment in particular. I was in the 7th grade, and we were having a team scrimmage. I played right wing on that team. I was dribbling the ball, and across the field, the left winger yelled something like, “Pass, the ball, Fag!” Nothing happened to that left winger, but I rode my bike home that evening feeling pretty awful and wondering why this guy would call me this name. And also wondering why no one did anything to come to my defense, especially the coach.
Here’s another example. In the summer between my junior and senior year in high school, I was selected to attend New Jersey Boys State. This was supposed to be some great honor, sponsored by the state VFW. Boys in my class were interviewed and then we were selected as delegates by the local VFW. We had to go to Rider College and spend a week electing two houses of a state congress and a Boys State governor. We all had to wear the same clothes, literally march back and forth to meals, and live in hot, stuffy, dorm rooms with an assigned roommate. I became the Election Board Official for my dorm city, and the VFW mentor, Norman, tried to get me to participate beyond counting votes. I couldn’t quite get myself to participate fully in the shirtless pissing matches that were going on in the dorm common room, so I stayed in my room and read To Kill a Mockingbird. So gay…
One evening, the various dorm cities came together for a primary vote, and the Election Board Officials had to count the votes by a show of hands. We were in this lecture hall, and I was standing in the aisle, and these boys were trying to give me false numbers, as a way to throw the vote. They kept calling me “fag” and “homo” and trying to intimidate me so I would report different numbers than the counts indicated. There were adults around, but no one did anything to stop the name calling. In retrospect, I find it ironic that a state program meant to teach civic responsibility would allow this kind of blatant harassment of another student.
These are just a couple of examples where I think that adults failed to help a young person who was being verbally bullied by his peers. And I wasn’t even identifying as gay at those points in my life. But for some reason, we have allowed these words and this kind of harassment to continue and to be “ok.” I know from people who live in my hometown that bullying still exists and that adults still aren’t doing anything about it. And for me, this spells trouble. Why are teachers, school administrators, coaches, Sunday School teachers, and anyone else working with young people not held accountable for protecting a young person’s right to dignity?
Regardless of what Michele Bachmann and her posse have to say about homosexuality, I’ve got news for all of them. Gay people are not going away any time soon. Even if they believe that gayness is some kind of genetic mutation, we’ve got generations to go before that mutation works itself out of the gene pool. It’s like having an appendix, people. Accept that it’s around, and stop worrying about what’s for. Homosexual behavior will not disappear as long as sexual desire exists, and gay identity is creeping closer and closer to the center of our culture. If you stop and think how many “gay” things everyday people do now, you’ll realize that what I say is true. I have four letters to say: “YMCA.” This song happens at every hetero wedding I’ve ever been to, yet it’s SUPER GAY. Heterosexuals LOVE to appropriate gayness, and I LOVE it.
So, I didn’t tell my tales of bullying woe to get any sympathy. I don’t need anyone’s sympathy. I’m happier than I’ve ever been, presumably gayer than I’ve ever been by some people’s standards, and my life is pretty great. However, I shared those moments to illustrate that ADULTS need to step up here. ADULTS could do a lot of good work around stopping young people from bullying each other. ADULTS, regardless of what religious beliefs they have, could encourage young people to stop judging and pouncing on difference. When an adult is in a position of power or authority over a gr0up of young people, s/he needs to model the acceptance of difference. If we really live in the United States and believe in all the hoo hah of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, then ADULTS better start to model that, and remind young people that the LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL at the end of the Pledge of Allegiance includes the DIFFERENT kids in the classroom.
This community in Wisconsin is just the beginning. Michele Bachmann better get her act together and stop wiping about this. And Barack Obama too. And all the rest of these so-called leaders. Basic human rights, people. Basic human rights. It’s not brain surgery. And the toilet paper rolls are empty.