It's been said that once you have a child, you look at the suffering of other families in a different way. You know what it means to love someone with your entire being, in a way that you never could have imagined before bringing your child into your life. In a way, every child becomes your child.
The suicides this week of two young men, Asher Brown and Tyler Clementi, are devastating, and they are sounding an alarm to all of us about the crisis state of bullying in this country. These tragic events are also a call to parents everywhere to stand up and speak out on behalf of tolerance, respect and dignity for children everywhere.
I can't stop thinking about these two young men, and the burning humiliation they must have felt as they were dehumanized for their gender identity and sexuality. For parts of themselves they were born into, and could not change. Both were fighting to embrace who they were in a community as small as a dorm room and as large as a public middle school.
The suicides are also jarring wake-up call that we're a long way off from an easy life for gay youth. I'm getting a little tired of hearing about how much easier it is to be a gay teen today. I don't argue the point, but that doesn't mean we're off the hook.
According to the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network's (GLSEN) National 2009 School Climate Survey, nearly nine out of 10 LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) students experienced harassment at school in the past year, and nearly two-thirds felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation. Nearly a third of LGBT students skipped at least one day of school in the past month because of safety concerns. And while, yes, there has been a decreasing trend in the frequency of hearing homophobic remarks, LGBT students' experiences with more severe forms of bullying and harassment have remained relatively constant.
For all the rules and workshops and policies that anti-bullying advocates like me call for, there's one pretty powerful weapon we can all use against bullying. It doesn't cost anything, and you don't need to bring any experts to your school to use it. It's empathy. All of us -- parents, teachers, mentors, big brothers and sisters -- can talk with kids about what Asher Brown must have been feeling as he went to school, day after day: as he was tripped down the stairs, had his backpack emptied and its contents scattered, berated with insults like "fag." You can ask: What emotions did he feel? Is there anyone at your school who goes through that? What can you do to help that person?
If your kids aren't old enough to talk about the suicides, there are opportunities to model empathy all around you: when you give food to a hungry person, make eye contact with someone who is hurting, or acknowledge your own child's pain by saying, "I know you must feel hurt right now, and I'm sorry." Your children will learn to connect with the suffering of others, and feel the moral imperative to help, by watching you.
If you don't already, institute a zero tolerance policy in your family for gay slurs. In schools all over this country, even the progressive ones, "gay" is a stand-in for stupid or weird. When kids use the word "gay" or "fag" as a slur, disrespect becomes part of their slang. When kids call other people or things gay, they dehumanize the people who actually are gay.
If you hear it in the backseat, in your kitchen, in the bleachers, say something. Be the person who stands up. Even if it embarrasses your child, do it. Check out this PSA and consider showing it to your kids, too.
Talk about and embrace the continuum of masculinity and femininity. An overwhelming number of kids get bullied because they look, act or speak in a way that deviates from the tough guy or girly girl. Most kids walk into schools every day where conventional gender identity is a source of respect and status - and a reason to put others down and disrespect them. Be the voice that exposes this injustice. Praise and support the gender-unconventional in your children and their friends. Support boys for being sensitive or unathletic; tell girls it's okay if they don't want to wear makeup, date or go shopping.
Talk about every human being's right to dignity. This is a point Rosalind Wiseman makes beautifully. Even if you don't support gay marriage or even a gay "lifestyle," as some call it, you likely do believe that every human being is entitled to respect and dignity. Talk with your children about that distinction: we may not like every person we meet, or agree with everything they do, but each and every human being deserves to be respected and feel safe.
We can honor the memories of Tyler and Asher, and the others who took their lives this past week, by standing up for them and the countless other children who suffer every day at school. If not us, who? They are our children, too.