Blatant bullying and harassment of LGBT youth is an obvious problem. For a long time, the prevailing wisdom on bullying has been that it’s a fact of childhood that cannot and perhaps should not be controlled by policy. This thinking is reflected in the widespread beliefs such as “boys will be boys,” a harmful notion that has long sanctioned violence and harassment among children and absolved many boys (and the adults around them) of responsibility for their actions. Such “wisdom” has left many LGBT and other historically marginalized youth completely alone in the face of their tormentors. For some this has meant having to endure day after day of verbal or physical harassment. For others it has been a death sentence. Tragedy, however, presents us with certain opportunities. It appears that many educators and families have begun to reach out and grasp the present opportunity to make schools safer, and life better, for queer children and teenagers.
This is good.
I hope, though, that our recent focus on schoolyard bullying does not blind us to the ways in which LGBT youth (and adults) are subliminally and constantly bullied in many situations other folk might misconstrue as “safe.”
Let me further elucidate my point. I know many adults who would self-identify as allies to LGBT people. These are people who would mourn the suicides of gay youth, strongly support anti-bullying legislation, affix rainbow bumper stickers or HRC equality decals to their cars, favor the legalization of same-sex marriage, and love gay high schooler “Kurt” from Glee. However, many of these same people engage in the subliminal bullying of queer people on a daily basis. For instance, how many of us have heard well-meaning friends joke that someone’s adorable baby boy is going to “get all the ladies” when he grows up or that a charming baby girl will “have the boys lined up around the block”? How many of us have said anything to counter the assumptions implicit in such jokes?
I always have the same question when I hear these kinds of comments – What if the baby is gay? What if the baby is trans? We might not know the answers to those kinds of questions for some years, and while an infant or toddler may not completely understand the things adults say, they can and do absorb the subliminal messages, which nearly always reinforce conventional gender norms. When we joke that a baby boy is going to be a “ladies man” when he grows up, we send the message to those around us that this is normal – that it is good for men to date women, and that it’s abnormal and undesirable for them to date men. These messages are compounded every time children see a television show that pokes “benign” fun at the notion that a character might be gay, or every time they are told that certain clothes or certain colors or certain toys are for boys and others for girls and never the two shall mix, or every time a relative asks a teenage girl if she has a boyfriend or a teenage boy is he has a girlfriend without thinking that these may be the wrong questions.
People might say I’m being too sensitive or too critical, that I’m pursuing political correctness to a point that limits even light-hearted banter. I am sensitive about this issue. I am critical. Queer youth are significantly more likely than heterosexual youth to run away from home. They are more likely to struggle academically, abuse drugs, and experience low self-esteem and depression. LGBT youth attempt suicide at four times the rate of their non-LGBT peers. Why? The isolation and depression experienced by queer youth is often the result of physical bullying, but it is also the result of uncertainty and fear about their identities and their futures in a world that, when not outwardly hostile towards them, constantly fails to affirm them in the way that heterosexual youth are affirmed. Queer youth fear physical assault at times, for sure. But they also fear disappointing their parents. They fear losing friends. They fear being judged by teachers and peers. They fear loss of respect from adults they value. They fear being lonely. I would wager a bet that these fears preoccupy LGBT youth into the wee hours of the night as much as fears of more “conventional” schoolyard bullying do.
The social and familial pressure to be “normal” exerts itself on queer youth whether or not they are subject to physical and verbal torment. Just like racism is not solely defined by blatant acts of hatred such as those perpetrated by groups like the KKK, and sexism is not solely defined by acts of deliberate discrimination or physical harassment against women, homophobia and transphobia are not solely defined by physical and verbal abuse. Things like racism, sexism, heterosexism, and the gender binary are rooted in our institutions, and in deeply ingrained cultural biases. This makes these “isms” rather difficult to pinpoint and fight against, but it also means that every individual has the power to stand for justice. Everyone is complicit, so we all have the opportunity to reflect on our own experiences and begin to eliminate subliminal racist, sexist, and heterosexist behavior from our lives. Each of us must reflect on the ways in which we have been an unconscious bully of LGBT persons. Each of us can become a better ally and we have the power to do it immediately.
Being “politically correct” (what an absurdly sterile term to describe manners of speech and behavior that reflect respect and caring for all people) is not my end goal. My agenda is the creation of a truly safe and affirming world in which all young people can discover themselves safely, and with the joyfulness that should accompany youth. So the next time someone says that your baby girl (or your niece or godchild or friend’s daughter...) is going to have a million boyfriends someday, it may make you uncomfortable to say, “Or girlfriends,” but when she grows up and tells you she was able to make it through because she knew you were always on her side, I bet you’ll say it was worth it.