Nadine Smith

We Are Not Helpless

Filed By Nadine Smith | March 03, 2008 7:36 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics, Politics, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: bullying, Florida, hate crimes against LGBT people, Larry King, Lawrence King, noose, Ryan Skipper, Simmie Williams, stereotypes, violence

We can be horrified, but we cannot be surprised.

Witness the death of yet another child who said he was gay -- the murder of another teenager who defied gender stereotypes.

On Friday, Feb. 22, 17-year-old Simmie Williams Jr. was gunned down on a street corner in Broward County. Just 10 days earlier, Lawrence King, a 15-year-old Oxnard, Calif., junior high student, was shot to death in his own classroom because he wore makeup -- because he was different. And less than one year ago, Ryan Keith Skipper, 24, was stabbed to death in Polk County.

In Broward, police are investigating Simmie Williams' murder as a possible hate crime based on the words they say were exchanged before the shooting. In California, Lawrence King, a constant target of harassment and ridicule, was shot in the back and in the head by a 14-year-old who told friends in advance that Lawrence was "having his last day." Ryan's teenaged killers drove around town in his stolen, blood-soaked car bragging that they had "killed a fag."

Now comes word that a noose has been left in a Pembroke Pines cafeteria in an apparent act of racial intimidation. We must condemn that act as well. We must stand up to hate no matter what form it takes and demand that others stand with the LGBT community just as visibly.

We can be overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness in the face of such horrifying tragedy. But we can no longer indulge in the fantasy that there is nothing we could have done to stop it.

There is a clear path to reducing the harassment and murder of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Across the country, study after study has shown that hate violence starts with bullying in schools. We know the perpetrators are overwhelmingly teenagers and young adults.

And yet for seven years, the Florida Legislature has failed to pass a ban on school bullying for one shameful reason -- lawmakers have not wanted to include protections for lesbian, gay and transgender students. They have chosen to sacrifice the safety of students to avoid acknowledging that some of our most vulnerable young people are gay and transgender.

Instead, they have proposed a ban that leaves out the types of bullying that account for the highest incidences and the most violence: bullying based on appearance, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. Racist, sexist and religious-based bullying are referenced, and rightly so, but this weak measure is written to fail kids who are in urgent need of the law's protection, kids like Simmie and Lawrence.

Specificity in this kind of law is essential to enforcement. A vague anti-bullying law is like having signs that say "Don't Speed" instead of signs that say "55 mph." Too many good teachers and administrators have either not been trained to intervene effectively when bullying occurs, or they hesitate because they fear they will not receive the support of school administrations.

Research shows that anti-gay attacks are socially acceptable and rampant in schools today -- ignored or even encouraged by teachers and administrators working without guidelines or training. We have let harassment, physical abuse and psychological violence against transgender, gay, lesbian and bisexual students become commonplace, even as we shake our heads over the latest deaths.

Lawrence's, Ryan's and Simmie's deaths are not aberrations, and it is disingenuous for us to act surprised. They are brutally predictable in a culture that teaches children that it's OK to insult, harass, beat up and dehumanize a person who is gay or transgender. The murderers in these crimes are often children themselves.

As the Florida Legislature begins session and moves toward the expected passage of a safe schools bill, they owe it to the families of Simmie Williams Jr., Ryan Skipper and Lawrence King to make sure that sexual orientation and gender identity and expression are included alongside race, sex and religion. We cannot have integrity in grieving with these families when our remedy pointedly leaves them out, glosses over their deaths, or lets the law generalize to the point of uselessness.

Our horror, our outrage, our prayers are empty until we take action to protect the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students and families from this epidemic of violence. When we let anti-gay hatred and violence flourish, we share responsibility for the blood that eventually spills.

We can be horrified, but we cannot be surprised.

Nadine Smith is executive director of Equality Florida in St. Petersburg.

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Thanks for all that you do to lead the fight for equality in Florida. I sleep better knowing the folks like you are helping advance our rights; we need strong leadership like yours.

The Florida legislature - and Mayor Naugle and the board that fired Susan Stanton - have blood on their hands.

Nadine, you are so correct. Almost all of the bullying in schools starts with a term like "punk" or "sissy", "fag" or "queer". It is a disgrace and an outrage that school administrators would fail to provide protection for children, and it is a disgrace and an outrage that we as a society would allow their ignorance and bigotry to affect our children. It is time to put and end to it, once and for all. We are the one.

Michael Bedwell | March 3, 2008 3:22 PM

Brava, Nadine! All the more because your fight is waged in a state that has a decades-long history of aggressive, government-sanctioned anti LGBT oppression.

I count my blessings that I live in San Francisco, and that California has its “Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act” which explicitly includes “actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.” It has a special provision that “explicitly provides that ‘instruction or materials that discuss gender, sexual orientation, or family law and do not discuss human reproductive organs or theirfunctions’ is NOT subject to the parental notice and opt out laws’.”

But California and even San Francisco are not free of anti-LGBT bigotry and violence. It was just a year and a half ago that a teacher in a nearby community complained on religious grounds about having to post in his classroom “Safe Space” signs mandated by district administration for all classrooms K through 12. The signs, designed by the high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance read, “Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Questioning Youth—This is a safe place to be who you are. This sign affirms that support and resources are available for you in this school.” And, of course, another Bay Area community was the scene of the brutal murder of transgender Gwen Araujo. And Lawrence King's recent murder was in Southern California.

Again, I take this opportunity to encourage everyone to contribute what they can [no amount is too little] to the creation of the traveling exhibit intended to educate the non-LGBT public on LGBT hate crimes being created by the Gay American Heroes Foundation for which Nadine and fellow Bilerico contributor Waymon Hudson are advisers.

The link below to an interview with the project’s cofounder Chip Arndt includes a few images of the mock-up displayed at an NGLTF Winter Party event last week. The actual mobile display will be approximately 7 feet high and 75 feet long.


I'd also like to say, thanks for all you do. I've been following your activism since I used to live over there in Tampa/St. Pete., myself.

While I agree that teaching kids values in school as young as possible will be the best/fastest way to effect change in the next generation, it's also important to understand the other point of view. (Please keep in mind this is me playing Devil's advocate, and not promoting these points of view.)

Almost as important and cherished as our individual liberties in this country, is the notion that we keep a very hands-off approach to how people raise their kids. It's been said that they make you get licensed and take a test to prove that you know how to drive before letting you get behind the wheel (not to mention requiring you to have insurance to cover damages your driving may cause to others or their property) but there are no such requirements to have a child; any ol' pair of idiots can get together, make some whoopie, and bingo, they've got themselves a kid (without benefit of first proving they have the skills to raise it, that they can afford to raise it, that they have any decent values themselves to pass-along to it, etc.) but that's the way it's always been and always will be (particularly in this country). Start telling people who can and can't have a child and you're going to get compared to Hitler. Start telling people how to raise their kids or what values their kids should be taught, and you'll find a boot in your ass.

That line of thinking gets extended to the classroom, unfortunately. As far as most parents are concerned, socialization skills and related issues be damned, they're not about to let anyone but themselves teach their kids morals or values. Teachers are there to teach their kids facts, nothing more. Nevermind that the parents never got around to sitting down with their kids to teach them those morals or values, but don't you dare go filling their precious children's heads with your ideas (and these days, that would even include facts that they don't happen to agree with).

But this is the reason that it's so difficult to get any kind of tough and/or meaningful anti-bullying laws passed in this country, and it would be worthwhile for us to understand this when we have these arguments with those who oppose us, instead of having some kind of attitude like ours is the only correct point of view and people who don't agree with us must be blind or something.

Again, this is nothing against anything Nadine or anyone else here has said, but it does seem to be a point that a lot of folks on our "side" don't seem to "get".