Guest Blogger

'Getting Real' About Bullying-Related Suicides

Filed By Guest Blogger | April 21, 2009 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: anti-gay bullying, bullying, bullying related suicides, Day of Silence, Debra Chasnoff, gay children

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Debra Chasnoff is an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and the Executive Director of GroundSpark, a non-profit organization creating visionary films and educational campaigns that move individuals and communities to take action for a more just world.

Debra.jpgTwo weeks ago another young life was silently lost in our nation's schools. Eleven year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover killed himself after enduring months of anti-gay bullying at his school in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Carl's shocking suicide is one of the latest in a growing trend. Just last week, parents in Ohio filed a lawsuit against the school district where their son, Eric Mohat, was also subjected to ongoing anti-gay harassment before, he too, committed suicide. The pervasiveness of bullying, and more specifically bullying targeted at boys who do not fit into the narrow box of masculinity proscribed for them, has raised alarms among educators and mental health professionals for over a decade.

But still, in the majority of U.S. schools there is still no professional training provided about how and why to handle homophobia; no curriculum that counters pervasive misinformation about gays and lesbians; no visible support for youth who are gender non-conforming, transgender, lesbian or gay; and no mandate for a school wide culture that values speaking out against injustice to make sure truly 'no child is left behind.' How can we still be failing to create learning environments in which youth feel safe to actually learn?

Perhaps its because the people affected most by anti-gay harassment - youth themselves - are rarely invited to talk openly about the social climate in their schools, or about the underlying prejudice and misinformation that fuels so much of our national bullying epidemic. In fact, most of the time, the adults in charge encourage them to be silent and sweep these issues under the rug. At least seven states, for example, actually have laws prohibiting any discussion of lesbian and gay issues in the classroom, and many other schools often censor these topics in curriculum and student newspapers.

So even though today's students hear dozens of slurs a day, they are told that classrooms are not the place to talk about prejudice, especially around sexual orientation. Feelings go unshared, taunts unchecked, schools unchanged. And the suicides, shootings, and ruined lives continue.

I have had the opportunity to interview hundreds of youth over the last ten years while making several documentary films designed to end this institutionalized silence. Whether the topic is bullying in middle school (Let's Get Real), family diversity in elementary school (That's A Family!), or how high school students navigate the barrage of gender-based pressures (Straightlaced--How Gender's Got Us All Tied Up, our current new release), student after student has jumped at the opportunity to tell me about their experiences with anti-gay harassment. When one (straight) high school football player said he would be called gay for just agreeing to be interviewed, I asked why he chose to participate. "Because I finally had a chance to speak my mind," he replied.

It is not enough to simply say 'be kind,' put up a "No Bullies Welcome Here" poster or encourage the golden rule, like Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover's school did. We have to acknowledge and take action to address the fact that students are targeted because they defy gender norms. We have to stop acting as if it is generic meanness that causes so much pain, and confront the fact that all too often, it is very specifically anti-gay hostility that is the root of the problem.

Last Friday tens of thousands of students across the country chose to demonstrate their commitment to stopping anti-gay harassment by not saying a word all day, participating in GLSEN's Day of Silence. How ironic that our loudest call for an end to homophobic bullying is being made by youth in a form that cannot be heard. Maybe its time for the adults to start making some noise.

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One of the first steps is to make sure that the people who claim to speak about the issue understand LGBTQQA issues them selves. For instance, this one mentions homophobia, gay, lesbian and trans. Nothing about bi kids or asexual kids or questioning.
It is hard to take someone seriously when he or she can't even remember that we are a varied community. I work with bi queer kids every day and the ones who are bi often feel like our supposed queer leaders consider them to be an afterthought.
Frankly I wouldn't want you to speak to my kids on these issues because your view as expressed is so limited. I would not want you to speak to our schools on these issues for the same reasons. Before you venture into claims about making stuff to educate make sure that you are covering the subject yourself. Honestly, either enter the current discussion or retire. I for one am tired of having to deal with the bi, trans and asexual kids who are upset because the other queers ignore them, hate them or simply fail to acknowledge them.
IMO your article here represents a commonly seen approach in the queer information and education field which ultimately does more damage than it prevents. You are contributing to gaywashing.
We have a bi summit next month in NYC at the Center. Maybe you should stop in and learn something because your view is too limited as expressed here for you to realistically claim to be educating anyone.

I disagree, Rob. I think Debra was entirely appropriate.

While the kids you mentor might feel left out by LGBT leadership, that's not Debra's fault nor even topical to her post.

When those bi kids are getting bullied in school, they're being called "queer," "faggot," "dyke," etc. No one's going around calling them "bi" as a pejorative. No one is making fun of them for the part of their sexuality that is attracted to the opposite sex. Instead, they're being taunted for the queer portion.

The "queer portion"? Since when were we bisexuals portioned out into "queer" and "hetero" portions?

I know that I and my bi friends have been teased and harassed for our bisexuality by straight and LG people. Rob Barton has written well about it.

Thank you for continuing to educate students, teachers, and administrators about these issues. As the deaths of Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, Jaheem Herrera, Lawrence King, and unknown others tragically prove, work like yours is sorely needed. As a mother with a son about to start elementary school, I am doubly thankful for all you do.

Anthony in Nashville | April 22, 2009 10:35 AM

I don't want to get off topic, but I was confused when you mentioned asexual kids feeling rejected by LGBTs.

Is there a reason why people who identify as asexual should be grouped with LGBT? I don't see what they have in common.

In some circles the asexual kids are considered to be queer also. Some people have started to put LGBTQQA in order to show this. I know that some people do not feel that they should be included but I don't see where anyone should consider himself.herself to be able to decide who is or is not queer or queer enough. If an asexual kid find community with us I'm all for it.

Bill, I want you to reread what you posted. "Queer portion" ... so we bi people are only partially queer now? I know that you didn't intend that to read that way, but that is exactly what the bi kids see and hear all of the time and it often comes from people who are claiming to represent them or help them. Such as when the founder of a queer blogging site says that they are being picked on because of their "queer portion".

I can't agree with you here Bill they are not just being picked on through homophobia they are being picked on through biphobia and that biphobia is sometimes aimed at them from other queers. They are being gaywashed when they are left out and not mentioned in the educational and protest material.

Bill here are several instances from within the last two years.

#1. I had to work with a bi young man who was getting picked on for being bi, not gay in fact some of the people giving him a hard time about it were gay teens.

#2 A young lady was having trouble and being picked on because she was bi, she had started cutting and the school wanted her family to put her in a mental health treatment program and take her out of the school. Her family and my wife and myself worked on this issue. I was in the room once when she suffered a humiliation about being bi, from another child who grew up with a gay uncle and the term thrown at her was bi.

#3 A teenager contacts me because his family had finally said that they accepted him and went to their first PFLAG meeting where it was authoritatively explained to them that their son was only saying that he was bi in order to better fit in and that he would eventually admit that he was gay. His parents came home and explained to him that he was really gay and they accepted that. He wanted to kill himself because his parents went from trying to convince him that he was in a stage and was really straight to in a stage and really gay.

#4 A sixteen year old young man who volunteered with the local Special Olympics was outed as bi to the leadership and was promptly told to leave.

#5 Last year on the way to an Indigo girls concert I was told to "pick a team already", not the first time that I've heard it.

#6 I walk down stairs one morning to check my computer for posts, it is 7:40 my IM's had been on all night there was a several hour series of posts from a fifteen year old boy who had cut himself and was bleeding and had tried to contact me around 2am, I was asleep, he kept a running monologue of how he was feeling and part of it was about being bi and people not accepting it or understanding it. The last post was at 7:24. I started pinging his computer with posts until the noise got the attention of his older brother who found him unconscious and rushed him to the hospital. He gets picked on for being bi and sometimes the ones who give him a hard time are gay or lesbian.

#7 Please read your own comment again. And imagine how a bisexual teenager who needs to belong is going to feel when he or she reads that. When he or she is told that only a portion is queer. So are we going to tech these kids that some queers are more queer or better than other queers. Are we setting up a best queer model now? Bill I know that you did not intend that but look how easy it is to say something that actively alienates these kids.

It is relative to her post because she is only addressing one aspect of the bullying problem because kids are bullied for being bi and that term is used and they do feel alienated and gaywashed by people like Debra because they are left out and they feel it from people who write blogs and articles and run organizations.

gregorybrown | April 22, 2009 11:38 AM

I think asexual kids fit here because their perceived failure to show "appropriate" interest in others in likely to stir fears by its very ambiguity. They are automatically Outsiders and fair game for bullies who don't know how to deal with anybody outside familiar, identifiable categories. They cause the same kind of discomfort as queer men and women who don't fit the popular stereotypes.