I was asked to give a presentation focusing on bullying prevention to approximately 200 high-school students in a moderately sized Midwestern city. My presentation addressed why bullying and harassment cannot be viewed simply as youth problems and behaviors; instead, we must investigate the contexts in which bullying "trickles down" from the larger society and is reproduced within the schools.
I began by stating that my topic was not merely an area of academic research for me but an extremely personal matter, because I was bullied continually throughout elementary school, middle school, and high school during the 1950s and 1960s because I did not and could not conform to the strict gender-role socialization dictated to me by a society that constructed only one norm for males, masculinity, and one for females, femininity.
I talked about growing up gay during the so-called McCarthy era, a very conservative time in U.S. history, a time when any form of human difference was held suspect, a time before the rise of school clubs sometimes called "gay-straight alliances." I explained to the students the isolation I experienced and the low self-esteem I developed during my school years, and how it still adversely affects me to this very day.
I felt that the students and I shared an instant connection; they laughed at my awful punnie jokes ("Now remember, you can't buy gender roles at a bakery!"), they asked wonderfully perceptive and honest questions, and generally, they seemed open and truly engaged. One student came up to me at the end of my talk, telling me, "That was cool, man!" Another told me, "My brother is gay, and I wish he could have heard your talk."
The next day, the organizer of the event emailed me to say that five of the 200 students' parents had called the principal to complain, some upset that my presentation contained "statements about homosexuality," and specifically that I'd "made statements that [I] was gay and stated as fact that 'homosexuality is something you are born with,'" and that I'd said, "My parents knew I was gay when I was 18 months old." I find it rather alarming that still today, one is condemned for telling people who one is. In fact, I never stated that "homosexuality is something one is born with," because I really don't know, and quite frankly, I don't care.
The event organizer also wrote to me, "Parents complained that this message was not totally about anti-bullying and anti-harassment and that with a captive audience their children were subjected to a politically charged message." Yes, during my presentation, I did indirectly challenged some strongly held political beliefs: that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people should remain locked within a closet of denial and fear, that young people should not be "exposed" to positive LGBT role models, that we must not think critically about who we are and what we are taught and told, and that it is our duty to conform to societal "norms" even when these norms are not integral to who we are and what we value.
I would argue that educators must structure learning for our youth that will enable them to work and live in a diverse community, country, and world and provide a space for anyone and everyone who differs from the mythical norm of the white, cisgender (gender-conforming), tall, thin, athletic, Christian, upper-middle-class, Anglo-Saxon, English-language-proficient, U.S.-born American, so that they know they are fine the way they are and do not have to conform to a socialization process that denies their integrity, humanity, and their multiple identities. This we must impart to our youth, even, and especially, in the face of the backlash that surely comes when one challenges the ruthless status quo. We will always receive complaints from a few parents and others, but we cannot allow the few to control and restrict the education for the many.
Indeed, my challenge at this student assembly was extraordinarily "political." I cannot think of an institution in our society any more "political" than education. Every statement educators make, every piece of curricular material, the people hired, the lessons taught, the choice of administrators, everything about the institution stands as political, especially when one attempts to challenge "knowledge" dominantly produced at the expense of alternative voices and perspectives. If we as a country are to advance, however, if we are to make a world for our youth to prosper and grow as individuals and communities, then we must continue to be who we are and speak our truths.
I believe that students gained much from my presentation and were very grateful that I treated them and their ideas not condescendingly but with respect for their intelligence and their prior learning. We cannot allow the naysayers to ever silence us. That will only perpetuate the abuse on our youth, thereby continuing the risk factors, ranging from depression and social isolation to lowered educational outcomes and suicidal ideation, attempts, and completion.
This experience reminded me of a magazine cartoon I saw a few years ago. It showed an adult man and an adult woman, presumably two parents, sitting on a living-room sofa, and two young people, a girl and a boy, seated on the floor in front of them. They were all gazing at a TV screen with the written announcement: "Due to the homosexual content of the following program, children might have to explain it to their parents."
To all young people, we still have much to teach our parents, but let the teaching and learning begin!