Anti-Gay Bullying and Suicide: Clergy, Politicians, Parents, and the Blood on Your Hands
Who killed Tyler Clemente, Brandon Bitner, Justin Aaberg, Billy Lucas, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, Jaheem Herrera, Sakia Gunn, Matthew Shepard, and countless others?
You who seek to deny lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people their rights, including the right to defend their country, get married and live a life protected from discrimination and crime.
You--religious leaders who selectively interpret the Bible to justify your hatred.
You who object and prevent anti-gay bullying programs in your children's schools, failing to protect kids who may or may not be gay from anti-gay hate speech and physical violence. You implicitly allow and even condone use of the words sissy, fag, dyke, and queer, which combine with kicking and punching to make a lethal weapon to torment and terrorize kids until they jump off bridges, in front of trains, or hang themselves from tree branches.
And the rest of you, members of homophobic churches or political movements, who remain outwardly silent, but whisper into your gay friend, colleague or relative's ears-- "I am not like that" -your silence is also to blame for these children's slaughter.
As a professor at Rutgers University where Tyler Clemente was a student, I have been repeatedly asked whether societal intolerance is to blame for the anti-gay bullying that leads some to commit suicide. As an experienced social worker and social work educator, I am surprised by this question and must fight the impulse to retort "Is the sky blue?" We social workers take for granted the idea that oppression in our social, political, and religious institutions gravitates downward much like a sinking ship descends to the ocean floor. If churches, elected officials, and judges are saying that homosexuality destroys the family and violates the law of God, and if government officials believe that openly visible gay people serving in our military or getting married will harm society, is it not much of a stretch that some people will interpret these messages as evidence that gay men, lesbians, transgender, and bisexual persons are subhuman and therefore justifiable targets of violence?
Jesus called and he wants his religious back.
It is particularly galling that people who object to including material promoting LGBT understanding and tolerance in their anti-bullying content are citing religious reasons for their bigotry, and their arguments, for the most part, go unchallenged. For example, in a recent NY Times article a pastor fought against putting information about LGBT people into anti-bullying curricula by arguing: "Of course we're all against bullying...but the Bible says very clearly that homosexuality is wrong and Christians don't want the schools to teach subjects that are repulsive to their values." A mother quoted in this same article sees the anti-gay bullying component of such programs as having "a darker purpose" and "promoting a homosexual lifestyle."
Diabolical as it is, in some ways it makes sense that such people would work hard to keep anything about LGBT people out of their children's schools. The campaign to make LGBT people invisible is a well orchestrated, well-funded and fully developed program with a 40 year history. Those who oppose equal rights and fair and just treatment for LGBT people seek to render them invisible thereby reducing the possibility of knowledge and contact between LGBT people and others including their children. They know that when people have personal contact with those from other races, ethnicities, gender identites or sexual orientations, prejudices evaporate and tolerance grows. Furthermore, keeping LGBT people as invisible as possible allows others to project onto them their deepest fears.
Premises of immorality and threats to children would quickly dissolve as more people became acquainted with LGBT people and understood their lived experience. However, the invective used to pollute people's minds can have devastating effects as we are now seeing. It should be remembered that not too long ago the Bible was also used to justify slavery and racism, as well as the subhuman treatment of African Americans and Native Americans in this country. The Bible (read it!) contains passages that justify slavery, animal sacrifice and urges harsh treatment for men who cut their sideburns or work on the Sabbath. However, the idea that homosexuality and those who practice it are enemies of God goes unchallenged. Think about how such an idea can fuel the violence of a bully.
"It Gets Better?" Make it better now!
Recently, I was interviewed by a very smart, well meaning high school student who was reporting for her school newspaper. She asked me the following questions:
1. Do organizations like "It Gets Better" and others significantly help LGBT teens who are being bullied?
2. Does increased media attention on the bullying LGBT teens face make a difference?
3. Would more attention to the problems LGBT teens face in high school lead to greater acceptance and more tolerance?
4. Does seeing celebrities endorse organizations like "It Gets Better" help teens in need more than just seeing regular people endorse these causes?
Of course, the answer to all of these questions is yes. A recent Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network survey of over 7000 LGBT middle and high school students throughout the U.S (www.GLSEN.org). tells us that kids in schools with gay student alliances and anti-gay bullying programs experience less bullying than those in schools without these programs. No surprise there. However, without addressing the homophobia and heterosexism that infects our society, these are simply band-aids covering an oozing wound.
What is really needed is a sea change in our culture that would make it unacceptable to refuse LGBT people their basic rights and where anti-gay violence and epithets including the expression "That's so gay!" would be as condemnable as the "n" word. Until then, when religious or political leaders say something negative against gay or lesbian or bisexual, or trans people, they are handing a loaded gun of justification to some bully out there-- justification to exert his cruel and murderous aggression.This sea change must happen if we are to ensure the health and well-being of gays, lesbians, bisexual, transgender people and those who care about them.