The recent suicide death of 14-year-old Kenneth James Weishuhn, Jr., from the northwestern corner of my home state, tossed and battered me like an Iowa tornado. Though I never met Kenneth in life, I feel that I know him in death. His passing spun me like the death of an old, trusted friend. His loss to me is palpable. Kenneth reportedly took his life just weeks after coming out as gay at South O'Brien High School. Classmates teased and bullied him on campus and sent him death threats via text, and they created a Facebook hate campaign.
In the midst of the statewide and national grief surrounding Kenneth's tragic and avoidable death, I just learned of the loss to suicide of Jack Reese, a 17-year-old gay Utah teen. On a Facebook page dedicated to his memory, one Facebook user writes, "His suicide has impacted so many people. I HONESTLY hope things will change because of this, but I also wish that it didn't have to come down to this for awareness to actually be seen in others who decide to bully others for their sexuality."
In what can clearly be referred to as a continuing pandemic, a number of gay and questioning young men have also taken their lives, by all indications as a result of the unrelenting homophobic taunts, harassment, and attacks they had to endure by their peers: Seth Walsh, 13, hanged himself from a tree outside his California home; Billy Lucas, 15, hanged himself in Indiana; Asher Brown, 13, from Texas, shot himself in the head; Tyler Clementi, 18, a first-year student from Rutgers University, took his life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge; Raymond Chase, 19, from Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, hanged himself in his dorm room; Carl Joseph Walker Hoover, 11 years old, hanged himself in Springfield, Mass.; Justin Aaberg, 15, from Minnesota, also hanged himself. And unfortunately, the list goes on.
Bullying must not be seen as simply a "youth problem" but as resulting from larger societal issues. Institutional bullying and harassment do not exist within a vacuum but reflect and actually reproduce the messages and actions stemming from the social environment. I refer to this as the social ecology of bullying and harassment. "Ecology" can be defined as the relationships between organisms and their environment. We must, therefore, investigate the larger sociological and psychological environment for us to determine, understand, and, if necessary, institute procedures to change our institutional environments.
Those who bully often fulfill the social "function" of establishing and reinforcing the social norms. They often justify their behaviors by blaming the targets of their attacks, and emphasizing that they somehow deserve the aggression because they in some ways deviate from the established peer social norms.
Within this continuing pandemic, I find it appalling when I hear national and state politicians running for and holding elective office not only downplaying but in fact denying the tenacity of bullying in general, and specifically the bullying of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth, as well as the bullying of those who may define as heterosexual and gender-normative but whose peers question their sexuality and gender identities.
For example, on the floor of the Tennessee legislature, State Representative Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) railed against the passage of a proposed cyberbullying prevention bill. He referred to the recent suicide deaths of two gay Tennessee teens: Phillip Parker, 14, who died in January, and Jacob Rogers, a senior at Cheatham County Central High School who reportedly suffered anti-gay harassment for years and died in December. According to Rep. Faison, these suicides resulted not from homophobic bullying but from bad parenting. He argued:
We can't continue to legislate everything. We've had some horrible things happen in America and in our state, and there's children that have actually committed suicide, but I submit to you today that they did not commit suicide because of somebody bullying them. They committed suicide because they were not instilled the proper principles of where their self-esteem came from at home.
Faison went on to claim that even some of the legislators in the chamber during his speech may have acted as bullies during their youth, but "you didn't grow up to be a bad person."
This came less than one year after the Tennessee Senate passed a bill that would have banned teachers from discussing LGBT issues in the classroom prior to the ninth grade. Colloquially known as the "Don't Say Gay" bill, it was sponsored by Republican State Senator Stacey Campfield, who unsuccessfully urged passage of a similar bill while serving in the Tennessee House of Representatives. The bill, SB 49, "requires that any instruction or materials made available or provided at or to a public elementary or middle school must be limited exclusively to natural human reproduction science."
In addition, in a move that seems more like a perverse parody or a distasteful joke than an official legislative action, the Michigan Senate passed what I am calling the "Permission to Bully Act," in the guise of protecting youth from bullying and harassment in the schools. Divided along political party lines, Republican senators passed the measure by a margin of 26 to 11. The bill includes no reporting requirements, does not incorporate any type of possible best practices found effective in research and in application, and contains no enumerated categories included in many other states, such as race, gender, sexual identity, gender identity and expression, or disability, among others. However, the bill does include a passage, Section 8, that reads:
This section does not abridge the rights under the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States or under Article 1 of the state Constitution of 1963 of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil's parent or guardian. This section does not prohibit a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or pupil's parent of guardian.
This extremely weak bill, with the addition of Section 8, grants anyone within the school environment permission to bully and harass on "religious" or "moral" grounds -- as long as it stems from conviction.
The denial and resistance to facing the real problem of bullying within our society and how it filters into our schools must end if we are to reduce and eliminate the tragedies. I consider the half-truths, the lies, the misinformation, the deletions, the omissions, the distortions, and the overall censorship of LGBT history, literature, culture, and enumeration in bullying prevention policies in the schools a form of violence, which itself promotes violence.
Unfortunately, still today, educators require courage to counter opposing forces, such as the current attacks on ethnic studies programs currently underway in Arizona, and the attacks on LGBT inclusion in states like Michigan and Tennessee.
Though I support the It Gets Better campaign and The Trevor Project (two fine and dedicated operations working tirelessly to reduce teen suicide), I assert most emphatically that conditions must get better now, because later, or next week, or after high school graduation can seem like an eternity when one suffers the humiliation, pain, fear, and anger of unrelenting harassment and bullying, sometimes on a daily basis.
In the final analysis, all of us, regardless of our social identities, have been made to feel "less-than" by individuals, organizations and institutions, and the larger society. If we can remember how that has felt for us, we can begin to develop empathy for those who suffer marginalization by individuals, institutions, and the larger society that regards their identities as different at best, but more likely in contempt.
We don't have to "agree" with those identities, but through discussion, interaction, and empathy we can begin to relax the stereotypes and the possible fear, and experience those we previously viewed as "the other," and begin to see their humanity and their contributions to our collective society. We have much to share with one another once we can get beyond the divide.
For all the young people we have lost too soon, and for their families and friends, and for all of us, I do believe that love will conquer the hatred. In your name we will continue the struggle to make the world a safer and more supportive environment for all people. May your gentle and sensitive spirits forever rest in peace.