A lot of words have been written since Justin Aaberg, Billy Lucas, Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, and Tyler Clementi took their own lives after being subjected to callous humiliation and, in most cases, outright hostility by their peers. These young men ranged in age from 13 to 18, and lived in Minnesota, Indiana, Texas, California, and New Jersey, respectively. Justin Aaberg took his own life in July; the other young men committed suicide in September. Each of them identified himself as or was perceived by others to be gay.
I haven't attempted a real analysis, but I'd say most of what I saw and read about this harrowing series of suicides focused on the bad behavior of those who humiliated and tormented these five young men.
Let's not beat around the bush: that behavior was bad. It was awful. Those who humiliated and tortured Justin, Billy, Asher, Seth, and Tyler will have blood on their hands for the rest of their lives. Should they be legally punished for this bad behavior? I don't know, and I haven't got much riding on cookie-cutter answers to such a crude (as in not-nuanced) question. Whether or not or how severely they are punished doesn't change the fact that they must now and for decades to come bear responsibility for the fatal consequences of their actions, which cannot be undone.
But bad behavior is not what I want to focus on. I want to focus on three good things.
First good thing: cultural change can strengthen kids against the inevitable predation of bullies. Second: parents can help to better proof their kids against a culture in which those changes have not yet been realized. And third: kids can and do actively claim their right to be who they are.
None of the ideas in this blog post are original. In fact, I'm going to render what I think needs to be said in other people's words. This post is not about being the first to come up with an idea; it's about recognizing what's essential amid all the hullabaloo -- about separating the wheat from the chaff.
Richard Kim blogged on The Nation's site on October 6th. He eloquently separated wheat from chaff and needed fewer than 1500 words to do the job.
The chaff, with respect to Rutgers University students Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei (who used a webcam to spy on Tyler Clementi having sex with another man days before he jumped from the George Washington Bridge): "What Ravi and Wei did was immature, prurient and thoughtless; it undoubtedly played some role in what became an awful, awful tragedy. That they acted with homophobic malice, that they understood what the consequences of their actions might be, or that their prank alone, or even chiefly, triggered Clementi's suicide is far less clear."
And the wheat: "So when faced with something so painful and complicated as gay teen suicide, it's easier to go down the familiar path, to invoke the wrath of law and order, to create scapegoats out of child bullies who ape the denials and anxieties of adults, to blame it on technology or to pare down homophobia into a social menace called "anti-gay bullying" and then confine it to the borders of the schoolyard. It's tougher, more uncertain work creating a world that loves queer kids, that wants them to live and thrive. But try -- try as if someone's life depended on it. Imagine saying I really wish my son turns out to be gay. Imagine hoping that your 2-year-old daughter grows up to be transgendered. Imagine not assuming the gender of your child's future prom date or spouse; imagine keeping that space blank or occupied by boys and girls of all types. Imagine petitioning your local board of education to hire more gay elementary school teachers."
There will always be people -- kids and adults -- who commit cruel acts against children and youth. Some of these acts will be deliberate and conscious. Others will be thoughtless, callow, inadvertent, stupid, or fueled by antediluvian cultural values. What can be done? To the extent possible, we can each help to build a world in which kids understand that cruel acts committed by cruel and callow people are exceptional and wrong. That these acts are not the whole of the known universe. That the world is better than that, and they can be part of it. That's what Dan Savage's It Gets Better Project has been about. If you haven't heard of it, follow the link (and ask yourself: where have I been?). By speaking person-to-person across the internet through the medium of videos, the project does an end run around isolationists, reaching kids who need to know that queer people grow up to live satisfied, productive, emotionally rich lives in communities of their own choosing.
If there's a heaven, Dan Savage has secured a place in it, make no mistake.
Speaking of heaven, let's not pretend for a moment that cultural change will go down easy. This weekend, the NY Times published an article In Efforts to End Bullying, Some See Agenda. As they have since time immemorial, social conservatives -- a.k.a. people who try to isolate kids from truths they need to know -- are whipping out scripture and ferreting out the hateful passages. In Helena, Montana, school officials proposed "new guidelines for teaching about sexuality and tolerance. They proposed teaching first graders that 'human beings can love people of the same gender,' and fifth graders that sexual intercourse can involve 'vaginal, oral or anal penetration.'" In the actual real world that human beings inhabit, these are facts. The guidelines propose teaching about things that happen. Indeed, these are things that happen with significant frequency, often between people who make considered moral choices about them.
So what does one mother quoted in the NY Times story think about teaching facts to children? "'Anyone who reads this document can see that it promotes acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle,' one mother said at a six-hour school board meeting in late September." And Pastor Rick DeMato explains: "Of course we’re all against bullying. But the Bible says very clearly that homosexuality is wrong, and Christians don’t want the schools to teach subjects that are repulsive to their values."
Well -- leaving aside the further evidence that socially conservative Christians have a deceitful habit of pretending they speak for all Christians, which is absurd on its face but not the topic of this post -- there's the rub.
Anybody can say they're against bullying. But in communities that actively refuse to teach or accept that it takes all kinds to make a world -- communities that refuse to pull difference out from under what Richard Kim called "the denials and anxieties of adults" -- humiliation and torment breed like sewer rats. History has taught that lesson over and over again.
Being a good parent
A week ago today, a Midwestern mother of three who blogs as "Nerdy Apple Bottom," posted a blog titled My son is gay. If I were put in charge of assigning required reading for parents of young children, I would assign this blog post.
The post begins, starting with the title: "My son is gay. Or he’s not. I don’t care. He is still my son. And he is 5. And I am his mother. And if you have a problem with anything mentioned above, I don’t want to know you."
In short, an adorable boy, age five, chose to dress up as a cartoon character for Halloween this year. The cartoon character is female. When the blogger escorted her adorable five year old to preschool on Halloween, dressed as he chose, a number of other mothers whose children attend the preschool tried to make the boy and his mother feel very very icky because they are so positively certain it's wrong for a boy to choose to dress as a girl. On Halloween, mind you.
(Is it worth noting, as the blogger does, that her child's preschool is a church-hosted program? I'm not sure. As implied above, I am not one of those who thinks all religion is tainted with hatred and conservatism, or that all religious people are, at bottom, haters. I think ideas like that are ridiculous and patently false. And, indeed, Nerdy Apple Bottom proves this in her post: both she, who loves her child as he is, and the mothers who spew denial and anxiety as though possessed all send their kids to the same church preschool. It ain't about religion. It's about bigotry.)
Here's how Nerdy Apple Bottom ended her blog post: "If he wants to carry a purse, or marry a man, or paint fingernails with his best girlfriend, then ok. My job as his mother is not to stifle that man that he will be, but to help him along his way. Mine is not to dictate what is 'normal' and what is not, but to help him become a good person. I hope I am doing that. And my little man worked that costume like no other. He rocked that wig, and I wouldn't want it any other way."
Claiming a place in the world
Sayre Quevedo is a 17 year old who lives in the same city I do: Berkeley, California. (I do not know him.) He's a reporter with Youth Radio, and published an op-ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle on October 26th. Sayre was nine years old when he came out to his mother. She asked him if he was sure, Sayre wrote, then said, "Well, I'm happy for you, honey. Now get ready for bed."
(Word to the wise: that's not the way it goes down for most kids who come out to their parents. Heck, I waited until I was 23 years old and it wasn't that way for me.)
Sayre wrote about supportive experience in his life, and also about tough times, when other kids screamed at him that he was "sick" and was "going to hell." He wrote that he likes Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" campaign, because it's something that can make a difference during those tough times. Most importantly, he wrote about what he has found and made to claim his place in the world: "But what made the difference was the support system that had my back. My friends, my family, my Gay-Straight Alliance and the staff at my school who I knew would enforce rules regarding homophobia."
Sayre Quevedo doesn't live in a perfect world. Kids in his school scream hate and scorn in his face. But he's got the support at home (see previous section) and in his community (see the section before that) to understand that hate and scorn do not define the borders of his world. In fact, while Sayre has to wade through hate and scorn and other forms of human idiocy -- because he's human like the rest of us -- he does not accept that hate and scorn have any rightful place at all in his world.
This is a lesson to all of us.
Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Toxic fundamentalism here at home
Thanks to jglsongs for the photo of the Gay-Straight Alliance school bus from Seattle Pride, 2008.