This week another young life was silently lost in our nation's schools. Eleven year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover killed himself after enduring months of anti-gay bullying at his school in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Carl's shocking suicide is the latest in a growing trend. Just last week, parents in Ohio filed a lawsuit against the school district where their son, Eric Mohat, was also subjected to ongoing anti-gay harassment before, he too, committed suicide. The pervasiveness of bullying, and more specifically bullying targeted at boys who do not fit into the narrow box of masculinity proscribed for them, has raised alarms among educators and mental health professionals for over a decade.
But still, in the majority of U.S. schools there is still no professional training provided about how and why to handle homophobia; no curriculum that counters pervasive misinformation about gays and lesbians; no visible support for youth who are gender non-conforming, transgender, lesbian or gay; and no mandate for a school wide culture that values speaking out against injustice to make sure truly 'no child is left behind.' How can we still be failing to create learning environments in which youth feel safe to actually learn?
Perhaps it's because the people most affected by anti-gay harassment - youth themselves - are rarely invited to talk openly about the social climate in their schools, or about the underlying prejudice and misinformation that fuels so much of our national bullying epidemic. In fact, most of the time, the adults in charge encourage them to be silent and sweep these issues under the rug. At least seven states, for example, actually have laws prohibiting any discussion of lesbian and gay issues in the classroom, and many other schools often censor these topics in curriculum and student newspapers.
So even though today's students hear dozens of slurs a day, they are told that classrooms are not the place to talk about prejudice, especially around sexual orientation. Feelings go unshared, taunts unchecked, schools unchanged. And the suicides, shootings, and ruined lives continue.
I have had the opportunity to interview hundreds of youth over the last ten years while making several documentary films designed to end this institutionalized silence. Whether the topic is bullying in middle school (Let's Get Real), family diversity in elementary school (That's A Family!), or how high school students navigate the barrage of gender-based pressures (Straightlaced--How Gender's Got Us All Tied Up, our current new release), student after student has jumped at the opportunity to tell me about their experiences with anti-gay harassment. When one (straight) high school football player said he would be called gay for just agreeing to be interviewed, I asked why he chose to participate. "Because I finally had a chance to speak my mind," he replied.
It is not enough to simply say 'be kind,' put up a "No Bullies Welcome Here" poster or encourage the golden rule, like Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover's school did. We have to acknowledge and take action to address the fact that students are targeted because they defy gender norms. We have to stop acting as if it is generic meanness that causes so much pain, and confront the fact that all too often, it is very specifically anti-gay hostility that is the root of the problem.
Today tens of thousands of students across the country will choose to demonstrate their commitment to stopping anti-gay harassment by not saying a word all day, participating in GLSEN's Day of Silence. How ironic that our loudest call for an end to homophobic bullying is being made by youth in a form that cannot be heard. Maybe its time for the adults to start making some noise.
Debra Chasnoff is an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and the Executive Director of GroundSpark, a non-profit organization creating visionary films and educational campaigns that move individuals and communities to take action for a more just world.
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