Editors' Note: Shane Windmeyer is the executive director of Campus Pride, the only national organization for student leaders and campus organizations working to create a safer college environment for LGBT students. Warren J. Blumenfeld, Ed.D., is Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. They co-wrote today's guest post.
What can clearly be referred to as an epidemic, within only the past few weeks, a number of gay young men have taken their lives by all indications as a result of the unrelenting homophobic taunts, harassment, and attacks they had to endure by their peers: Seth Walsh, 13, hung himself from a tree outside his California home; Billy Lucas, 15, hung himself in Indiana; Asher Brown, 13, from Texas shot himself in the head; Tyler Clementi, 18, first-year student from Rutgers University took his life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. And though we are not yet certain of the precipitating factors, now we hear of the tragic suicide of gay student, Raymond Chase, 19, from Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island.
All this comes on the heels of the news from Michigan, where Assistant District Attorney, Andrew Shirvell, has been targeting University of Michigan's gay student-assembly president, Chris Armstrong, for the past six months with abusive and highly inflammatory epithets and images on his internet blog site. For example, Shirvell displayed a photo of a swastika placed over a gay-pride rainbow flag with an arrow pointing to Armstrong's face.
Also on the blog, Shirvell accused Armstrong of seducing "a previously conservative" student until he "morphed into a proponent of the radical homosexual agenda." He also has protested outside Armstrong's house, loudly shouting that Armstrong is "Satan's representative on the student assembly."
What has Chris Armstrong done as student-assembly president to incite such outrage? Well, he has advocated for the school cafeteria to remain open longer hours, and has campaigned for reduced student tuition fees. Certainly, these are not very "radical" ideas.
What about Chris's support for gender-neutral housing specifically for transgender students who have not yet undergone sex-reassignment surgery? This proposal shows the student-assembly president's deep sensitivity and advocacy for the emotional and physical safety concerns of a student population that is typically overlooked and underserved.
Asked to comment about his employee, Michigan attorney general Mike Cox stated, "His immaturity and lack of judgment outside the office are clear." Shirvell, however, continues to harass Chris. In fact, speaking with Anderson Cooper on CNN, Shirvell proclaimed, "I'm a Christian citizen exercising my First Amendment rights." With all the publicity surrounding his actions, on October 1, Shirvell decided to take a voluntary leave of absence from the Michigan Attorney General's office.
Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian media ministry organization, asserted in published accounts that gay rights advocates are forcing their viewpoints (their so-called "gay agenda") in schools in the guise of bullying prevention. Focus on the Family spokesperson, Candi Cushman, asserted that gay activists are the real schoolyard bullies while conservative Christians are the victims. According to Cushman, "We feel more and more that activists are being deceptive in using anti-bullying rhetoric to introduce their viewpoints, while the viewpoint of Christian students and parents are increasingly belittled."
Psychologist Albert Banbura showed that individuals learn by observing and associating with others. He asserted that the process of social modeling can be enough for young people to incorporate and act on their own beliefs and behaviors. If we are ever to interrupt the vicious cycle of bullying and cyberbully in our schools and in our society at large, one necessary step in the process is to make unacceptable abusive behaviors by adults, like Shirvell.
This past week Campus Pride released the 2010 State of Higher Education for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People which included 5,149 participants (LGBT students, faculty, staff, and administrators) representing over 2000 campuses in all fifty states. The report discovered that LGBT students, faculty, and staff remain at significantly higher risk, compared with their heterosexual and gender conforming counterparts, for harassment on our colleges and universities.
Participants reported that much of the neglect or overt hostility and harassment they experience on college and university campuses comes directly from professors and staff employees, and also from adult members within the off-campus community.
According to one participant of in the Campus Pride study: "Mine is a Catholic university. Questions of sexuality and gender identity are largely ignored - probably in the hope that they will go away. The administration works actively against GLBTQ groups and activities." A staff participant explained, "My department included me as long as I never mentioned my life or my partner. As soon as I did (like everyone else), people shut down."
Other participants underscored their experiences with psychological abuse and their fears for their physical safety. For example, one student participant noted, "Professors have pathologized my experiences as a member of the LGBT community by claiming that participating in activism within the LGBT community is indicative of mental illness."
Participants often claimed that, overall, their institutions are doing little or nothing to improve conditions. According to one participant, "Our campus is currently experiencing an anti-gay atmosphere that the institution is ignoring."
To engage in conversation, discussion, and dialogue (the overall learning process) entails a level of trust and respect, and involves an honest and open exchange of ideas. Once we digress into personal attacks, innuendo, character assassination, name calling, and calling into question another's motives, a critical line has been crossed, a line from civil discourse into bullying, and the potential for real education has been lost. Shirvell has done just that by engaging in acts of cyberbullying and harassment of college student Chris Armstrong.
Demeaning acts by bigots like Shirvell do a great disservice not only to those individuals impacted directly, but also to our universities, and to our entire community. If five gay youth suicides in the last three weeks is not enough of a tragedy to remind of us of the harms and hostility created by bigoted acts, then what does it take to move us to action as a nation to curb LGBT bias and hate?
Together we must call on Michigan attorney general Mike Cox to put an end to this. The potential harms associated with the safety of all Michigan college students are now at stake. The longer Shirvell is allowed to continue in his public service role, the greater the climate of harm and hostility grows. Complacency and inaction demonstrates acceptance. Enough is enough already.