The term "bullying" refers to someone who habitually intimidates weaker people. We usually think of classmates as bullies, and indeed for most of the national conversation about bullying, we have been talking about how "it gets better" with regard to bullying because one grows up and out of the context where the bullies dominate.
Recently, President Obama posted an "It Gets Better" message to teens. The Obama message goes far to encourage LGBT teens to realize that it gets better but fails to speak to the people that really matter in these teens' lives: their parents.
A quarter of LGBT teens who come out to their parents are thrown out of the house. A third of homeless youth are LGBT. What happens to these kids? Their self-esteem is shot, often for life, as they try to find a place to live. Drugs and prostitution replace school as a way of life. At the most critical time of their lives, their parents have denied them the support they need to become productive adults.
Before I came out in the early 1980s at 13, I had many thoughts of suicide. I called a hot line and spoke with social workers to process whether to come out to my parents. I gradually came out to friends and thought that I should tell my parents soon so that I could save up for college if they were to throw me out. What's amazing is that I had these fears at all in a household where my parents took me frequently to theater and a gay-owned restaurant on Christopher Street. When my parents found out later that school year, it turned out that they were fine, and they ultimately became very supportive.
I was fine, but I was the exception. In Gay and Lesbian Youth of New York, a youth-run group that met at the then-brand-new Lesbian and Gay Community Center, the other kids mostly weren't out to their parents. Several kids, thrown out of their homes, were sleeping in stairwells at the Center. When I lead Long Island Lesbian and Gay Youth in my senior year of high school, I fielded many calls from kids who needed help: kids thrown out of their homes, kids severely beaten and abused by their parents for being gay.
Support services can help, but not much when one's home is one where hatred resides.
I've never met any parents such as these. As a parent I know that it is love that motivates most parents, even homophobic ones. Fortunately, when I came out, my parents called my pediatrician, and then a psychologist, both of whom said it didn't matter if I was gay. Less lucky teens have parents who believe or are encouraged to believe that homosexuality is a disease and that their children require "conversion" by "Reparative Therapy." Such "therapy" robs teens of a healthy and supportive upbringing that can lead to a productive life.
Unlike a bully at school, a parent's hatred cannot be escaped so easily. If the teen is not out to his or her parents, their lives entail a constant struggle to hide the truth. When parents find out that their teen is LGBT, their response will determine for many of these teens what their lives will look like. Will the kid go to college and be a productive member of society, or will she be thrown out or run away and be subject to society's cruelest elements?
Kids whose parents are homophobes have no safe haven from their bullying.
Parents, in short, often end up being an LGBT teen's worst enemy. As our society finally faces up to the incessant bullying that has victimized LGBT teens, we need to recognize that the real threat to these kids is in their own homes. We need to not only educate all teens to behave appropriately, but parents need to heed this lesson as well.
In everyday interactions with children, parents establish the norms that govern their child's life -- and the hetero nature of these norms is utterly pervasive, from joking with a five-year-old boy about his female friend being his "girlfriend" to discouraging clothing and behavior against stereotype.
Let's tell LGBT teens "it gets better," but let's also tell the parents of all children to "make it better."