Retard. Stupid. Uneducable. These were the words that were used to describe me and dozens of students with disabilities in my elementary school.
Each morning, the "resource room" teacher would walk the hallways going from classroom to classroom calling out the names of the students whose minds and bodies were not fit for the "mainstream." We were rounded up --herded like cattle--and delivered to what they called the "resource room." It was certainly a misnomer because no teaching occurred in the resource room.
Taken together, our disabilities ranged the spectrum from physical and cognitive to learning. Yet, regardless of the specificity of our disabilities, the powers that be determined that we were unable to learn, that we were a "distraction" to students in mainstream classroom and that the best place for each one of us was lumped together in one room.
Homeroom and recess is where the rubber hit the road. It was the only time of the day where we interacted with all of the other students in the school. Undoubtedly, many of the resource room students were bullied. We were called retard and stupid. We were taunted and told that we were babies who needed to be babysat. I can't remember how many times the resource room teacher came to my classroom to pull me out for the day and students would snicker. The playground, which was anything but playful, is where I got an earful of hurtful and hateful words and where I experienced the most isolation.
I share this experience in honor of the many LGBT young people who have committed suicide in recent weeks due to bullying. I also share this experience in honor of the millions of young people who are bullied and isolated because they experience difference of any kind. It is shameful that we live in a homo/bi/transphobic society as well as one that perpetuates a climate of hate towards individual and collective bodies that do not fit our society's definition of a "normative" body. This means that bodies that are Black, Brown, female, gender queer, trans, intersex, disabled, poor, immigrant... are targets for this kind of hate and violence because we live in a society that considers complex bodies to be disposable bodies. The more complex your body is the more disposable your body is.
I've always considered bullying to be a complex social justice issue. In the late 90's when I worked in the LGBT family movement, it was so clear to me that one way to stop bullying was to do anti-oppression training with students, parents and teachers. If we don't connect issues of power and privilege to the reasons why bullying occurs, then we aren't getting to the root of the issue. Young people bully because in some way, shape or form they either feel superior to those they bully or they are told by peers or adults that they are superior to those they bully. Anti-oppression training and organizing within communities and schools, can challenge all of us to deal directly with the issues of power, popularity and privilege that fuels bullying.
In addition, looking at bullying through an anti-oppression lens allows parents and students grappling with difference to find those intersections and use them to build unity. Dr. King put it so aptly when he said "like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man's sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true."
When we don't let hate corrode our unity and when we come together across our differences to stop it, we can break the isolation and build collective power. Anti-oppression training and organizing within schools and communities is just one tool we can use to stop this kind of hate. I commend all of the activists, teachers, parents and organizations approaching the issue of bullying from this perspective.
Bullying is a social justice issue because it occurs within a broader social and economic context. We live in a culture saturated with hate and violence. We live in a culture that has given birth to the KKK, militia groups, Focus on the Family, the Tea Party and hundreds of white supremacist groups throughout the history of the US. We live in a culture that promotes violence on TV, in video games, in the media and in movies. We are all fish immersed in these violent waters.
Do we really think that bullying is divorced from violence against women or same gender domestic violence? Do we really think that bullying has nothing to do with the fact that we live in a society saturated with guns and hate groups? Do we really think that bullying isn't rooted in the reality that our society thrives on war and killing undesirable bodies at its boarders? Do we really think that bullying doesn't rest squarely on the shoulders of a culture that was built on stolen land, the genocide of First Nations People, the enslavement of Africans and the internment of Japanese people?
In my view, violence, hate and bullying occur because we live in a society in which violence is permissible. Permissible particularly against disposable bodies. This is why bullying is a broader social justice issue.
Dr. Cornel West, in a speech he gave in 1996 about the history of the US over 50 years, speaks truth to power by connecting all of these issues by rooting them in violence and white supremacy: He then furthers his analysis by challenging left movements to be guided by a sharp and critical analysis of wealth, power and violence. He also challenges us to engage in "courageous praxis" and organizing knowing that the just society we long for is one that we have been and will continue to work for over generations.
Unfortunately, our national mainstream LGBT movement isn't often engaging in "courageous praxis" by connection the dots between violence and hate as it impacts our communities. For example, I am not from the school of thought that believes that things will get better as young LGBT people age. The recent "It Gets Better" campaign launched by Dan Savage assumes some dangerous things. First it assumes that all or most young LGBT people will age. If you understand the complexity of the racial, economic, environmental and disability justice issues facing our LGBT communities this is not a given. Secondly, for many LGBT young people their sexual orientation and gender identity might be one of several reasons why they are targeted, bullied and isolated. For many of us facing multiple forms of oppression, things don't just "get better" because we live in a society in which oppression is complex and systemic. It ain't that simple Dan and company!
In a blog entitled "Does it Get Better, and If So for Who?" Southerners on New Ground speak directly to this by challenging us all to hold the complexity of the conditions communities at the margin of society face:
"In any community, when young people are killing themselves, we have no choice but to look hard at what realities they are living, get real smart about how we approach them, and then fight for them and with them. Only truly seeing the realities of our young people can help us begin to make whole the generational fabric of our communities, from elders to children, who have been cut away from each other by oppression. SONG knows that the recent 6 reported suicides of youth linked to homophobia and bullying are only representative of a deep and brutal gap between how we are told 'we are treated' as LGBTQ people, and how we know we are. We are told by straight people and often by privileged LGBTQ people that the conditions we live through and within our families, places of worship, work places, streets, and communities are "not that bad", or that "we make it worse" by being out."
What SONG is getting at, in part, is that much of the way that the mainstream LGBT movement continues to respond to bullying is in a narrowly defined framework. Savage's campaign is just the latest example of this. Bullying, like all other forms of violence, should be connected to a broader set of systemic conditions of power and privilege. Placed within a narrowly defined, mainstream, simplistic LGBT framework dismisses the deeper roots of the way violence impacts communities at the margins of our society.
Wouldn't it be transformational if our movement understood interdependence and interconnectedness and therefore engaged in organizing and policy work from a place of complexity? Wouldn't it be transformational if our movement was committed to ensuring that the most complex bodies in our communities were at the center of our movement and defining the agenda? There is this concept in disability justice called "universal design" and it means that if you design a space, an agenda, a movement based on the most marginalized bodies than everyone benefits. In other words, all boats rise!
When young people kill themselves because they are bullied it's not only time for "courageous praxis" but it's time to build an LGBT movement that takes seriously the interconnected issues of violence that face the full breadth and depth of our LGBT communities. It won't get better unless we organize to change and challenge the long history of hate and violence in our culture aimed at all communities at the margin of society. Let's act, but let's act with history and conscious as our guide.
Artwork by Ricardo Levins Morales.