“She’s queer! She has cooties and a penis,” a boy named Jeff, pointing to me, hissed to his pals, when I was eating lunch one afternoon during my freshman year of high school.
Later, during my teenage years, I heard girls whisper that my friend Matt was a “faggot” and listened helplessly when Matt told me he’d been punched in the face for being “a pansy.”
These are some of my memories of anti-LGBTQ bullying. Back in the day, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was little you could do if you were bullied because you were queer. There was no Trevor Project or Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. If you were attacked or harassed verbally or physically for being gay, you likely told no one about it. Few people came out then and until 1973 being gay was considered to be a mental illness. For many of us, the bullying compounded the shame that we already felt about our sexual orientation; we weren’t going to shame ourselves more by letting a teacher, parent or even a friend know about what we’d endured.
Today, thankfully, things have changed greatly for queer youth. Many more of us are out now — from athletes to actors to teachers to clergy. LGBTQ characters are found in comic books, movies and TV shows. Most schools have gay and straight alliances. Many parents and educators, queer and straight, want to stop bullying of young people, hetero and LGBTQ. Internet sites provide queer youth community and resources on everything from gender identity to dating. Everyone from eight to 80 is dancing to Gaga’s hit “Born This Way.”
Yet, despite this changed climate, bullying in all its ugliness and deadliness still exists. This became increasingly evident last year when it was reported (by the Blade and other news outlets) that several queer youth killed themselves after they were bullied.
In September, a video was posted online of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi reportedly having sex with another man. After the video was posted, Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge.
Sirdeaner Walker of Springfield, Mass., is a GLSEN board member. In 2009 her son Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover killed himself after being taunted for being gay.
Bullying isn’t an isolated or inconsequential phenomenon, and straight as well as queer students are bullied. But, LGBTQ youth are “up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers due to a myriad of increased social challenges and risk factors, including being subjected to anti-gay sentiments and bullying at school, at home and in public,” according to the Trevor Project, a group that works on crisis and suicide prevention for queer youth.
Who knows why, when we can legally marry in five states and D.C. and coming out often seems as natural as breathing and the future looks so bright for so many, so much bullying is still directed at queer youth? Maybe it is part of a backlash that ensues after every oppressed group has won increased acceptance. Perhaps the ogres of homophobia and hate simmer and grow even as our culture (from the TV show “Modern Family” to Barbara Bush supporting same-sex marriage) grows more queer friendly.
Fortunately, many of us from President Obama to writers, artists, advocates and ordinary citizens, queer and straight, are working to fight bullying. On March 10, teachers, students, queer advocacy groups and other leaders aired concerns about anti-LGBTQ bullying at a White House conference. The event (and the publicity surrounding it), which was hosted by President Obama, the Department of Education and the Department of Health & Human Services, brings much needed attention and commitment to addressing a heartbreaking national problem.
On March 22, the book “It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living,” edited by Dan Savage and Terry Miller, comes out from Dutton. This moving volume is a collection of essays by ordinary people and famous folk (from Obama to cartoonist Alison Bechdel to singer Michael Feinstein) who have posted videos of encouragement to queer youth for the It Gets Better Project.
It won’t be easy. But we can combat bullying. Let’s work to make it better.
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