10/07/2010

Bullying: We're all responsible; we can all do something

I am deeply saddened, frustrated, and angry that so many gay teenagers have been bullied so harshly, and for so long, that they feel they have no choice but to kill themselves. I'm not surprised.

So many of us otherwise nice, everyday people who would never bully a gay teenager ourselves have, lurking not so far under the surface, a deep-seated need to squash difference as soon as they see it. Never mind whether that difference might be good (a child performing several years above grade level), bad (a child who can't keep his temper and hits the other kids in his class), or neutral (a child who is gay). The attitude comes out in perfectly nice adults, and children who are not so nice pick it up, and are bound to bully anyone different. Unfortunately, in this culture, gays are an easy and "acceptable" target, but the same bullies attack people who are different in all sorts of other ways. As long as we either promote or condone fear or hatred of people who are different, we create an environment in which people will be bullied.

You might not think this applies to anyone you know. After all, you are most likely a tolerant, upper-class liberal sort, who would never dream of looking down on anyone for their race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, country of origin, economic status, etc. You haven't looked down on someone for dressing and talking like a "goth" or a "prep" since high school. You might even champion "diversity" at times. Well, let me tell you a story.

***

The preschool teacher came up to Jane with a worried look on your face. "Your daughter is so charming," she said, "But she's just too different. She writes her whole name on all her pictures, and worse, she insists on signing her pictures as 'Buttercup' when everyone knows that's not her real name. She reads whole books. Whenever she reads about the planets, she calls herself the earth and me the sun and starts dancing around me. She actually says she believes in fairies. You need to do something about her or she'll be miserable in kindergarten. The other kids will make fun of her."

Note the tacit acceptance of the other students' behavior. The teacher felt a deep sense of urgency--but not about teaching children not to torment others who are different. Apparently, the real crime is not to be a bully, but to be a target.

Jane's daughter did not seem like the sort of child who anyone would dislike. Dainty, dimpled, and anachronistically wearing dresses, bows, and patent leather shoes, she looked like she'd just stepped out of a doll catalogue. Only rarely was she seen without a smile, and she skipped everywhere. She greeted everyone around her fearlessly, including total strangers, hoping to strike up a conversation. And of course there was that high-pitched little child's voice using words that were bigger than she was, and pronouncing them perfectly. When she danced, as she did at the slightest opportunity, she would go into almost a trance, where people would comment on the grace and beauty of her movements and ask where she took lessons. (Her mother was amused, as she was always too busy dancing to pay attention in ballet class, and besides, she couldn't tell her left from her right). In short: imagine the living incarnation of the song "I Hope You'll Dance" and all it represents, in the body of a four year old.

To be fair, Jane's child was guilty of more than just being academically advanced, imaginative, emotionally engaged in everything she did, and full of zest for life. Her teachers were also concerned that she couldn't throw or catch a ball and that when she cut things out, she always turned the scissors instead of the paper. That emotional involvement could be a problem when she got so attached to her drawings that she wouldn't let anyone touch them or throw them out. In one particularly amusing episode, she was so deeply involved with pretending to be a hen laying her eggs that when some other kids grabbed the eggs out from under her to play with in the toy kitchen, she argued with them and then started crying as if her own babies had really been taken away. She would occasionally run into the street at that age because the lamp posts, which looked like the scary black dinosaurs in Fantasia, seemed scarier than the cars driving by. Anyone who has spent any time with a quirky kid knows that the same traits that make them cute, charming, lovable, and occasionally awe-inspiring also make them maddening sometimes. There is nothing wrong with insisting that a child like this learn how to cut with scissors, or stay calm when someone interrupts her fantasy world, or sit down and listen during a lesson instead of dancing around acting out the lesson. The problem is when the teacher then goes on to say: "There is something wrong with who your child is. Your child needs to change. Someone will bully your child. And rather than tolerate your child, we will tolerate the bullies."

Kids absorb messages from their teachers, without them ever being verbalized explicitly. Think about the messages this child's putative kindergarten classmates were getting. Could some of these kids have grown up to bully some poor gay kid to death? Or make some other, closeted gay kid live in fear that someone would find out who he really was?

And while this child was too young to absorb the attitudes towards her, what happens a few years later when she starts realizing her teacher and her classmates want her to be someone different from who she is? Best case scenario, she doesn't think or feel that there's anything wrong with her. She likes how she thinks and feels and behaves, and her parents do too, and support her. Now she faces a major existential conflict between herself and the people with whom she spends a majority of her day. School feels like an exhausting war zone. She learns to put up a front of not caring what other people think of her and take refuge in being "the smart kid," but still, years of nasty words, or worse, being treated as if she were invisible, still leave scars. Long after it all ends and people treat her as just another person, she still expects to be rejected.

Now imagine that you aren't sure that you're okay, and if your parents knew who you really were, they wouldn't think you were okay, either. So you have no one to turn to (or believe as much), and you feel utterly alone. No one supports you, not even yourself. You are abused or ignored. You know that no one in authority cares; after all, they tacitly support the bullies. In fact, you're pretty sure the teachers and authorities hate you, too. All of that before we even get to the cultural images that call you a wimp, and worse.

Did that hit you like a punch to the stomach? Now imagine you're a gay teenager and you get to experience that wonderful feeling 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. For four long years of high school, and then...who knows?

I hope the recent suicides inspire you, as they do me, to create an environment that truly welcomes people who are different. Those of us who would never bully anyone ourselves have tremendous social power, which we can use to embrace gay people and others who are different, and "boycott" those who mistreat them. Let's use that power. Not out of pity, but because given a chance, they're amazing people and our lives would be so much emptier and duller without them.