This past Wednesday, October 20, millions of Americans wore purple to show their support for GLBT youth in what has now been dubbed “Spirit Day.” Helping to spread the word was Facebook, which recently announced its determination to work against cyber bullying with the help of a number of prominent gay activist organizations.
This is surely an opportune time to listen, learn, and act. How many more young lives must be lost before we take a stand? The question is, Are we taking the right stand? Put another way, Is it possible to be caring, compassionate, and concerned while choosing not to wear purple and join the Spirit Day bandwagon?
Statistics tell us that between four and five thousand teenagers commit suicide each year in America. This works out to between 80 and 100 youngsters taking their lives every week, an absolutely jarring number. Why aren’t we hearing about the rest of these stories?
By all means, we should know about the kids who took their lives over gay-related issues, but why is it only deemed newsworthy when LGBT kids cut their precious lives short? What about kids who were bullied for other reasons, ultimately killing themselves? Don’t their stories merit attention as well? Isn’t the life of a straight teenager just as valuable as the life of a gay teenager?
But there’s something else that is amiss in the current calls to reduce or eradicate the bullying of kids who are gay (or, are perceived to be gay), and it is this: Our message should be “Bullying is bad” rather than “Gay is good.” In other words, our schools do not need to nurture homosexuality (or transgenderism); they need to discourage bullying and cruelty.
We know that kids are picked on when they are perceived to be weak or different, often because of appearance. Some of you remember being cruelly taunted because you were overweight as a kid, and such taunting of fat children continues to this day. Should we then design an “Obesity is good” curriculum? Surely, first lady Michelle Obama would demur.
Some kids are bullied because they have ADHD and struggle to fit in socially. Others are harassed because of a physical defect or abnormality. Others suffer because they are exceptionally smart, making their peers jealous. In each case, the solution is the same: We must teach our children that bullying is always wrong, and there must be penalties for wrong behavior.
The focus should not be on obesity or ADHD or a physical abnormality. The focus should be on discouraging wrong behavior – how would you feel if someone treated you like that? – and on teaching our children that every kid is special, also addressing the insecurities and struggles of the bullies.
When it comes, however, to the mistreatment of kids who identify as gay (or are perceived to be gay), it is different. We must teach that gay is OK. We must encourage preteens in middle school to discover their true sexual orientation, providing Gay Straight Alliances where they can “come out” to their peers without parental notification. We must even allow a boy who identifies as transgender to come to school wearing a dress, giving him access to the girls’ bathroom and locker room. (This is official school policy in San Francisco.)
Yes, if we want to stop the spate of gay-related suicides, this is the action we must take – or is it? The truth be told, not only have some groups politicized the deaths of these young people, they are also sending the wrong message. That is to say, if it is wrong to bully gay kids because gay is OK, what if gay is not OK? Is bullying of gays no longer wrong?
Gay activist educators should also ask themselves if, by encouraging kids to “come out” at earlier and earlier ages, they are adding to the social confusion of young people, perhaps even leading to more mistreatment at the hands of their schoolmates. We have even missed the main point of the tragic suicide of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi, namely that cyber-invasion of privacy is nothing less than criminal. (Rutgers, it should be noted, is well-known as a gay-friendly campus.)
To be sure, this is a teachable moment in America, but we are teaching the wrong lessons, also focusing on one bullied group to the neglect of the rest. So, rather than making our message “Gay is good,” let’s make our message “Bullying is bad.” And rather than launching a crusade against those who do not want to promote homosexuality in our schools (or, wear purple on Spirit Day), let’s join together to fight against cruelty and hatred, determining to treat all people with kindness and respect, thereby modeling this behavior for our children. Can anyone call this a bigoted proposal?
Michael Brown holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from New York University. He is the author of 25 books, includingLine of Fire. Follow him at AskDrBrown on Facebook or @drmichaellbrown on Twitter.