It's been a difficult spring. The schools I work with have experienced an unprecedented level of bullying. An 8th grade boy beats up a female student on the bus while his peers egg him on. A sophomore boy refuses to take down embarrassing pictures he has of a female student unless she sends him more. Two fifth grade girls give $5 to a boy in their grade if he asks out a girl they don't like to go out with him--and then dump her the next day. Two 8th grade girls record themselves on YouTube completely trashing another girl in their grade and won't take it down.
And now in the last two weeks two boys, both under 12 have committed suicide because their peers relentlessly teased them for being gay.
When you read these stories your heart breaks for these kids. If you have kids, you may have gone through the anger and frustration if anything like this has happened to your child. If it hasn't, you worry if they will be targeted. Then we wonder what is wrong with children today. They're heartless. They have no sense of decency. We shake our heads and then don't know what to do so we go back to our lives hoping this problem won't touch the kids we know and love.
But we really could stop this. By "we" I mean parents, teachers, administrators, and anyone who works with kids. Because when we don't, we become the bystanders who could have helped but chose to look the other way.
How can we help? My challenge to you is to start a conversation.
With any child you are close to or work with you say, "I don't know if bullying is a problem for you (at school, in your youth group, athletic team) but I need to get really clear with you about where I stand. When people use the word "gay" or "fag" to put someone down, that is intolerable to me. It is against everything this I stand for. If there is someone in your class, someone you don't even know well, that is being constantly humiliated in any way, I want you to come talk to me about it. When you tell me, I'm not going to freak out. But we will bring it to the attention of the right people so the target can get help.
"If I find out that you have been involved in humiliating someone in this manner either in real life or using your cell phone or computer, I will work with the school to discipline you in a manner where you learn that a person's dignity is more important that your right to demean them."
"If you are targeted, I will support you every step of the way to get the help you need. You have the right to exist in this life without people making you feel miserable and unworthy."
We also must get ourselves straight (pun intended) about homophobia. It should go without saying that every one has the right to be treated with dignity--gay or not. This dignity is not negotiable. You do not have to change your religion or your politics in order to have the basic human decency to respect another person's right to exist in this world.
Kids calling each other "gay" and "fag" and parents not understanding its wide-ranging implications creates an environment where violence occurs. Starting around 4th or 5th grade boys are called gay or fags not just when they are acting like girls but when they speak out against bullying. You see a kid in school being teased and you want to say something about it? If you do, any boy by 6th grade knows he's going to be labeled gay for doing it. In high school this dynamic is so powerful and pervasive that most boys don't realize its vise like grip on their behavior. So whether you see a boy being teased for being a fag or watch your junior friend try to get a freshmen girl drunk so you can hook up with her, if you speak out, you will be labeled a fag.
What's so frustrating and ironic about this is that calling boys fags for speaking out makes no sense. Guys who speak out about social injustice don't want to have sex with other guys--but that's what the bullies believe when they try to silence others with, "Don't be a fag."
But even more important, is that connecting being gay with speaking out against degradation and violence is that we are saying is that real men--heterosexual men--say nothing when they see someone being degraded.
We must do better. We must individually and collectively change the definition of masculinity to standing up for social justice so that real men speak out when they see someone being targeted.
Go to your children and talk to them. If you're a parent, talk to them tonight before they go to bed or do it on the way to school tomorrow. If you're a teacher start the class tomorrow making sure that your students know your classroom is a sanctuary. And if you're straight, you have an even larger responsibility to speak out--because we won't be so easily dismissed for trying to advance "an agenda."
We have the power to transform a target's life from desperation to dignity. It is beyond time for us to begin.