The first time I remember contemplating suicide I was 9 years old. An awkward pre-teen raised in a small Montana town with a rough home life and an even rougher time at school -- I was a target of bullying in every aspect of my life. In the 1970s, teachers didn't understand the effects of bullying and the scars my classmate's words carved into my mental psyche as they called me a wide range of anti-gay slurs. There wasn't a day that went by I didn't wish I could be folded up and put away like my failing math homework. Columbine wasn't a part of our collective psyche yet, although the bullying I experienced often times pushed me towards thoughts of unforgiving pain.
When I see anti-gay television ads that try to claim that marriage equality impacts educational policy, it makes my heart sink. My own experience being bullied in school and the growing number of stories of bullying and suicide that we are hearing coming out of our high schools tells me we still have a long way to go until we teach our students that all people should be treated equally. And votes on marriage equality is not going to have any impact on what we teach our children in schools.
Children are bullied because they appear different. Children are harassed because they do not appear to fit in. Children experience harassment and abuse from their peers because of societal norms, taught at home, that do not embrace inclusiveness. And schools, largely unequipped to handle bulling, stand idly by. A rather large statement, I know, but children do not have the intellect or the ability to converse about inclusion, and so they attempt to understand through exclusion -- which typically manifests itself through bullying and harassment.
If we as a society continue to vote against LGBT people, based on false and fear mongering messaging, then the message we are sending our children is one of exclusion -- or the right to bully.
My parents are grateful I didn't kill myself while in school. The truth is that they didn't know how close I came. Six out of ten teenagers, in 2011, witness bullying at least once a day in school. Those who are bullied are two to nine times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims. When you add those numbers together, there are a lot of children in our school systems who are isolated and alone and hurting. There are 160,000 children who stay home from school -- every day -- because of fear of bullying.
As a retired Naval Officer with a son in high school I know I would move heaven and earth to ensure my son wouldn't have to endure the bullying I went through. If that means that he receives education on how to respect and appreciate the rich diversity of people within our country, then I will put my personal agenda aside so that he can be a better person than I ever hoped. After all, isn't that what we want for our children -- for them to have a better life than us? Education is the only key we have to offer our kids -- and in the process, we just might save someone who is being bullied.
The tools that didn't exist in the 1970s are now available through awareness programs like Spirit Day, as well as organizations like GLAAD, The Trevor Project, GLSEN, and through stories -- like mine.
Take a stand towards the affirmative. Be a better parent than your own parents, and in turn, your child will become a better parent than you. Inclusion: It's the only way to stop bullying and end the harassment. If we teach our youth anything, we should be teaching them to respect and care for all people, regardless of how different they might be from ourselves. Then, we can move forward together.