The Ugly Heart of Bullying

This post has made my morning: Unpacking Bullying posted at Trans/plant/portation.

The bullies themselves are not the core of the problem. It is families and society that teaches hate, intolerance and hurting others (sometimes just so they won’t hurt you) is the larger problem.

When a child decides to say something mean, they’re not necessarily (or often, for that matter) selecting a castigating remark based on what they think is the best “fit” for that target; they go straight for the thing they think is most hurtful. Often, that is a gay slur. They didn’t invent epithets, we adults taught it to them. We also showed them how to use these words with the sharpest points and manner of presentation possible. When we focus on bullies, we seem to forget that we ourselves are implicated in their behavior.

Education needs to happen at home, in our culture at large, and in schools – but it isn’t a message of “don’t bully” that the kids need it is a message about being strong and confident without kicking everyone else down so you can step on top of them.

The Food Chain

Yesterday my daughter and I were talking about bullying and the fact that it comes from families of origin, but the hate and fear is magnified by each kid’s own insecurities.

“So, the bully is so afraid of being at the bottom of the food chain that he pushes his way to the top so he can eat everyone else before they eat him?” That sums up part of the issue.

When I went to my daughter’s school to speak with her principal, I didn’t want to hear about the zero tolerance policy for bullying. By the time we are addressing incidents of harassment it is already too late. I wanted us to work together to teach the kids about diversity, acceptance, and the real ramifications of hate speech.

If a kid legitimately doesn’t know that “fag” isn’t a synonym for “stupid” he doesn’t understand that he is participating in LGBT bullying. Calling someone “stupid” isn’t okay either, but kids learn these terms from somewhere and they don’t always understand them. (I cringe when I recall my ignorant use of certain words – and I am appreciative that the adults who set me right did not humiliate me when they did)

The Big Picture

Safe and nurturing environments for our kids do not arise from simple assemblies about not bullying, but from inclusive education about the contributions of LGBT people throughout history, that gay families and straight families are more alike than dissimilar, that gender is not binary, and so on.

Let me leave you with the author’s last statement, but seriously go read the entire post:

We also affect how we think about bullies by focusing only on two extreme responses: the kids who commit suicide, and the kids who then hurt or kill other kids, as in the Columbine school massacre. But there are a whole host of other responses that get no media attention, and thus only a thin slice of the conversation. These are the kids who walk around with self-hatred, who insist they’re not gay for years longer than they may have otherwise, who become bitter or dysfunctional, who join ex-gay or gay reformer organizations, and so on, and that is another big price to pay for avoiding a subject or looking at only a few aspects of it.

We need to be more honest about LGBT/youth/LGBT youth suicide, because we care about human life and living it with happiness. This means we need to get honest with ourselves about how well we support our youngest generations’ emotional needs, and what we’re willing to do to make material improvements in their lives.

I am trying to nurture a strong, proud lesbian before the haters get to her. She already sees her identity as not hers alone, but part of a formidable community around the world and throughout time.

When I listen to her recount what happens in school I hear her interpreting the slurs of other children as attacks on all women or all queers – not just her. She seems to regard the world as having teams, some that support all that is best about LGBT-ness, and another made up of a disorganized set of people who are “narrow-minded and ignorant.” The ignorant, she believes might be educated, and the truly narrow-minded must not run amok without some push-back, but they are beyond wasting time on, especially when she could be swinging on the swings with her friends.


Can I protect my daughter from bullies?

Last week and this week CNN and Anderson Cooper AC360° is featuring An Anderson Cooper Special Report – “Bullying: It Stops Here.”

Tonight, Friday, October 14 at 8 and 10 p.m. ET, Cooper hosts a town hall: “Bullying: It Stops Here”.

For as long at it is available on YouTube I highly recommend watching the October 5th episode. There is astounding video of what one child endures on the bus (in part 3 of 4) and a sickening video of a principal intervening in a active incident of bullying (in part 4). They are must-see videos (links below).

Be warned this show will likely make you sad and furious.

I have spent a lot of time discussing and role-playing with my daughter how to defuse the hostile situations that she encounters and may encounter in the future. It is important defuse them so they don’t escalate, but it is also absolutely essential that she feel that she can defend herself too. She has a series of responses that she uses to answer back to ignorant and hateful statements. She has crafted arguments on her own and with us to answer comments which come from a variety of loathsome discriminatory origins: religiously motivated bigotry, misogyny, physical disgust direct at LGBT individuals, etc.

Sometimes she quasi-jokingly says she will sock the perpetrator in the nose. Of course I make it clear that a violent response to a hostile situation is not okay, but truthfully after watching the videos of what these kids endure, I find myself thinking that she would be justified if she socked a bully in the nose.

At this point I do not trust that if she went to anyone at the school that they would be able to effectively deal with the situation. If schools cannot figure out how to productively address issues of diversity and bigotry before there is a incident on the playground, in the cafeteria, or on the bus, I have NO FAITH that they will be able to deal with it once it is happening.

One thing that becomes crystal clear from this program is that principals, teachers, all school staff need to be trained how to deal with this. They are clearly at a loss about how to respond.

How would school personnel know how to handle LGBT bullying if the school district, the school, and the principal have never made crystal clear what will and will not be tolerated? If there are no institutionally prescribed consequences for homo-prejudice before there are incidences of violence, how is a teacher supposed to have any power to do anything?

And how can we trust our schools to protect our kids when teachers like Viki Knox in New Jersey makes public statements about her own personal homo-prejudice? How many other Viki Knoxes are teaching in our school classrooms, but are smart enough not to out themselves as bigots on Facebook and Twitter? We are yet to see what will happen to her, but America would not tolerate a public school teacher in 2011 making racist statements on Twitter and Facebook because they were offended by Black History Month being honored in their school.

I now see that my daughter and I have to role-play and problem solve what she should do in a situation where an adult is as ill-equipped to handle LGBT bullying as the principal in the video in the AC360° October 5th episode. I need to make her aware that some teachers are bigots who cannot separate their prejudices from their obligations as educators bound by a duty to all students.

Her teachers say they love having her in class; they praise her polite and respectful demeanor. Yesterday at I even overheard my daughter thank the maintenance man for taking such great care of the school. I am happy that she is that kind of child, but I will not have her politely subject herself to ill-prepared, perhaps ill-intentioned, school personnel and their potentially destructive “interventions.”

I hope that Anderson Cooper AC360° and CNN will continue to make this episode available to the public. Allowing continued access to this material would be a real contribution to raising awareness about the lives of LGBT youth and the need to end bullying.

Here are the links:

“Bullying: It Stops Here,” part 1/4

“Bullying: It Stops Here,” part 2/4

“Bullying: It Stops Here,” part 3/4

“Bullying: It Stops Here,” part 4/4


LGBT-friendly Schools

With my daughter out as a lesbian at school I am holding my breath waiting to see what happens. So far so good. She has almost two years to go until middle school though. Middle school was just the worst for me, and from the kids I know in the neighborhood who are in or just graduated from middle school it still is hard to endure.

Earlier this week I avoided doing work and tried to assuage my concerns about my daughter by checking out the local school district’s Visual Arts Magnet middle school and high school on the internet. Maybe those schools would offer a more nurturing, diverse environment for my artistically-inclined daughter, I thought. Educationally, I feel the future is up in the air in a way it wasn’t before. I just don’t know what’s going to happen at school tomorrow, next month, next year and the media offers me a daily array of nightmares to ponder.

I used to live in NYC near the Harvey Milk school for LGBT kids. As I understood it from someone who used to teach there the kids who manage to transfer to Harvey Milk had a really rough time wherever they’d been before. It wasn’t a school you went to just to enjoy the comradeship of other queer kids. Schools like Harvey Milk are few and far between.

Thus far my girl has been tough and brave. She says the kids who use religion to denounce her are stupid; she claims she doesn’t listen to them. Perhaps more importantly she has a circle of friends who embrace her (though I am pretty sure most of the parents still haven’t heard about her disclosure from their kids yet – let’s see what happens when the news trickles up to the parents). Her natural commitment to social justice would suggest that she can handle life in the neighborhood public school – that she might even do some good there.

Yet as a mother I don’t want ANYONE to be mean to my kid. Obviously, that is unrealistic since kids are mean to each other for many reasons and few people, if any, get out of childhood without a few battle scars.

TIME magazine is running a special feature on bullying, and one of the articles is about the Alliance School in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It’s an LGBT-friendly charter school, the first in the nation. The article gives voice to the kids who find the Alliance School a safe haven, as well as those who would say my daughter might be better placed in her neighborhood school, for her own sake and for the sake of her classmates.

The article, A Separate Peace argues that schools like Alliance might not be the answer, yet for some children a school like this is the thing that will keep them alive long enough to make it through school. Author Kayla Webley writes,

Parents want to protect their kids, but is wrapping them in an Alliance-style cocoon of tolerance the best solution? Some conservatives oppose the idea of a gay-friendly school on moral grounds, others for fiscal reasons: Why should taxpayers help make sexuality a central part of a child’s or a school’s identity? Developmental experts — and many gay activists — question the wisdom of shielding some students rather than teaching kids coping skills and promoting an atmosphere of respect on all campuses. “Being segregated doesn’t help gay kids learn, it doesn’t help straight kids learn, it doesn’t help bullies learn,” says Ritch Savin-Williams, a professor at Cornell University who chairs the human-development department. “All it does is relieve the school and the teachers of responsibility. It’s a lose-lose situation all around.” And yet to some bullying victims, it’s nothing short of a lifeline.

It is hard to embrace the argument that taking queer kids out of hostile schools is a problem because it relieves the schools of the duty to educate their staff and students about diversity and LGBT issues, and fails to hold the schools accountable for teaching bullies the error of their ways. As far as I can tell many schools are choosing to ignore LGBT students until someone dies. Moreover, in many states it seems to be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to get LGBT awareness materials added to the curriculum in any form.
I’d like to know that there was a school like the Alliance School in our general area, just in case life gets tougher for our girl down the road. For now I will keep holding my breath and waiting.

LGBT Discrimination by School Leadership Disgraceful

School principals set the tone for the culture of the school. This situation is disgraceful.

Tennessee’s Principal’s Reaction to GSA T-Shirt Raises the Question: Who’s Really Causing the Disruption Here?

Sequoyah High School student Chris Sigler were seeking to form a Gay-Straight Alliance at his school. Sequoyah principal Maurice Moser thwarted their efforts at every turn.

The Sequoyah High School GSA should have been a done deal by now…if it weren’t for the principal, Maurice Moser. When they circulated a petition to show support for the GSA and got over 150 signatures, students say Moser banned petitions about the GSA at the school. Then, when Chris and two other students put together an application for school recognition of the GSA, Moser wouldn’t even take it from them because they hadn’t named a faculty sponsor. At least three teachers have expressed interest in sponsoring the GSA but then changed their minds after meeting with Moser about it. We’ve read that Moser has admitted that in the past, when other clubs needed sponsors, he helped them out – but this time he refused to help.

When Sigler wore a t-shirt emblazoned with “Gay Straight Alliance: We’ve Got Your Back” the principal told him to change his shirt, turn it inside out, or go home.

Chris ignored that [demand], because he knew his shirt was fine under the Sequoyah dress code. Later, Moser charged into Chris’s economics class, interrupted the students in the middle of taking a test, and ordered everyone except Chris to leave. What happened next is a matter for the criminal justice system. But putting aside the assault and battery allegations against Moser, it’s unconstitutional and totally inappropriate for a high school student to be punished for speaking his mind peacefully through the words on a T-shirt. The Supreme Court says that students can express whatever ideas they want through their clothing as long as they don’t cause a “substantial disruption,” and it sounds like the only person causing a substantial disruption at Sequoyah last week was Moser.

Stories like this not only anger me, but they make me wonder what the future holds for our family. My daughter is just the kind of person who’d start a GSA if the school didn’t already have one. In fact, if she knew about them now she’d probably try to start one in her elementary school.

The sense of clarity and resolution that I used to have about my daughter’s public school education, like she’ll go to X Middle School and then onto Y High School, has completely disappeared. Now I know we’ll play it by ear and try to find the most nurturing/least hostile environment for her.

All of a sudden the grade on her last spelling test doesn’t seem so important.


Gay Rights Activists – Where Are They?

Listening to public radio today in the car my daughter and I heard a story about a famous civil rights activist.

She looked at me, “why haven’t their been any gay rights activists?”

“There have been gay rights activists. Lots of them.”

A look of betrayal crossed her face. “Why don’t we learn about them in school?”

“I think it isn’t allowed in the curriculum. Do you want to learn about gay and lesbian history?”

“Yes! And that school isn’t going to know what hit them. I demand that we learn this,” her small body tense with anger and determination.

“I can teach you about gay history but, . . . I really think teaching it in the schools is not allowed. In fact when you have sex education they aren’t going to tell you about anything gay either.”

“What!? I don’t want to be less educated than everyone else!”

I assured her that I had never intended to leave her sex education to the public schools and besides in our community sex education is abstinence only, so she can rest assured plenty of the straight kids will be far more uneducated than I’d ever let her be.

I think that last little snarkiness directed at the public school sex education curriculum went over her head.

Nevertheless, she was buzzing with righteous anger. She has a sense of justice. She has learned about the fights for civil rights in her Social Studies classes. She knows about slavery and women’s suffrage in the 19th century, the fight for gender equality and the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. She knows that there was a time when we didn’t teach about those fights for justice in the schools.

Teaching that history in the public schools is part of our continued progress toward equality and justice.

It’s a sad moment when you have to tell your fifth grader that in 2011 the school refuses to teach her history and her sexuality.


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