We are all bystanders — until we stand up

I just left my sleeping son, whose only disappointment today was that he would not see cross-dressing boys singing “Buddy Beware” at the rehearsal of his mother’s youth theater company rehearsal of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. He was sleeping peacefully, wrist outstretched ’til the backs of his fingers touched his sister’s shoulder.  They’ve been sharing a pull-out futon bed in their mom’s office for the past month’s final stage of  house remodel displacement. He’s years away from an adolescence which, to way too many of his peers, is not just punishing, but life-threatening. I’m glad this part of his life is so far away, since right now, it’s what I dread the most.

Many of you know that a memorial service for Seth Walsh is going to be held today. You know his name because he was the third young man to commit suicide this month following unremitting, unchecked harrassment by “peers” for being or seeming to be gay. He died Wednesday after ten days on life support, having been found after hanging himself from his back yard tree following another incident of harassment after school.  Seth was 13.

Billy Lucas was 15; he hanged himself earlier this month, in a barn on his grandmother’s property in Indiana, after years of harassment over the perception of his being gay.  Asher Brown shot himself in his family home in Cypress, TX on September 23.  He had come out to his stepfather just that morning; he was 13.  Services for him are on Saturday.

Tyler Clementi was the fourth gay (or perceived to be gay) teenage boy to commit suicide this month. Last Wednesday he jumped off the George Washington bridge connecting upper Manhattan to New Jersey (he was a freshman at Rutgers).  It was following the public video streaming, by his dorm roommate, of a date with a guy.  He was shy, he was an accomplished violinist, he was not publicly out; he was 18.

Read Pam Spaulding’s September 30 special to CNN on Tyler Clemetni’s death.  One of her most salient points:

While they may find acceptance by loving parents and be encouraged by a culture increasingly embracing their identity, these young people find that “being themselves” is not always well-received by an important slice of their world — school administrators, children who bully, and even teachers who subscribe to the “toughen up” philosophy. This world has not caught up, even as anti-bullying policies are being passed across the country.

Ellen DeGeneris, an ardent supporter of The Trevor Project, the “leading national organization focused on crisis and suicide prevention efforts among LGBTQ youth,” recorded this PSA:

It’s essentially a video version of this post to her show’s website, “It’s Time to End Teenage Bullying,” well worth distributing since at the bottom of it are a number of very useful links to resources.

To despondent young queer kids, the message is: hang on. “Things will get better,” she says, “people’s minds will change, and you should be around to see it.”  Dan Savage said the same thing, floored as many of us were by Billy Lucas’ death.  He wants more to say it with him, and so he started the It Gets Better Project.  Here:

My brother-in-law, a devoted “Savage Love” reader, told me about this over a week ago.  But at the time I was simply overwhelmed by another young gay suicide, and after the hardships of last year, couldn’t push past that to write anything.  That was when there were just three deaths in one month.

In the column in which he introduced the It Gets Better Project, Savage says:

We have the tools to reach out to them and tell our stories and let them know that it does get better. Online support groups are great, GLSEN does amazing work, the Trevor Project is invaluable. But many LGBT youth can’t picture what their lives might be like as openly gay adults. They can’t imagine a future for themselves. So let’s show them what our lives are like, let’s show them what the future may hold in store for them.

The video my husband and I made is up now all by itself. I’d like to add submissions from other gay and lesbian adults, singles and couples, with kids or without, established in careers or just starting out, urban and rural, of all races and religious backgrounds. (Go to www.youtube.com/itgetsbetterproject to find instructions for submitting your video.) If you’re gay or lesbian or bi or trans and you’ve ever read about a kid like Billy Lucas and thought, “Fuck, I wish I could’ve told him that it gets better,” this is your chance. We can’t help Billy, but there are lots of other Billys out there — other despairing LGBT kids who are being bullied and harassed, kids who don’t think they have a future — and we can help them.

They need to know that it gets better. Submit a video. Give them hope.

Here’s a little coverage of it at the NY Times Health blog “The Well,” by Tara Parker-Pope.

I am grateful for the attention drawn by DeGeneres and the constructive project launched by Savage.  Alongside these two high-profile individuals are countless more, including whole organizations dedicated to anti-bullying work in the schools and at large.  The Southern Poverty Law Center recently announced, in the wake of these deaths, that they are making their documentary Bullied: A Student, a School and a Case that Made History, along with its accompanying educational kit, free to every school in the country.

And Human Rights Campaign has spent years developing the Welcoming Schools initiative, revolving around a thoroughly researched and piloted curriculum, to address family diversity, gender stereotyping, and bullying in elementary school environments. I am beyond proud to say that our kids’ school district will be the first in the country to incorporate the Welcoming Schools curriculum across its K-5 classrooms; a district-wide teacher in-service on it will take place in a little over a week, and over the coming months I’m sure (as I recover my blogging bearings) I’ll have things to share about the ups and downs of its introduction into our schools.

I certainly have way more thoughts and feelings about all this than I have time or spirit to convey now. But the strongest, most obvious, most focussed thought is this, though: we are all responsible; we are all accessories. Some in a heinous way — I’m thinking here about all the high-profile, professional homophobes and demagogues who have access to media coverage (NOM, springs immediately to mind) ; I’m thinking of all the high-profile “leaders” who continue to stand by and do nothing or little to counter their hateful rhetoric. We may not be direct bystanders, like the twenty or so witnesses to a gang rape at a Richmond, CA high school a year ago. But by dint of participating in the same society, however tangentially, we are implicated.

The Richmond gang rape triggered renewed interest in what had been called the bystander effect, or the Genovese Syndrome, after the notorious 1964 Queens, NY murder. John Darley, now a Psychology professor at Princeton, was living in New York at the time and decided, with a colleague, to pursue a study of the psychological forces underlying the “altruistic inertia” that seemed to have prevented life-saving intervention in her murder.  Dacher Keltner and Jason Moss wrote about this several years ago, in a piece for the Greater Good Science Center publication: “We Are All Bystanders.” In it they cite Darley’s work, noting some practical findings about how people move from being passive to active (i.e., intervening) bystanders:

[Darley] also identified actions a victim can take to get others to help him. One is to make his need clear–”I’ve twisted my ankle and I can’t walk; I need help”–and the other is to select a specific person for help–”You there, can you help me?” By doing this, the victim overcomes the two biggest obstacles to intervention.

So. Our children are being bullied, terrorized, and hated to death. You — you reading this — can you help? Learn about anti-bullying efforts at the schools in your community; support what’s afoot. If they don’t have any, start some. Get resources like Groundspark’s Let’s Get Real, a documentary and curriculum guide about bullying and name-calling in schools, into your kids’ school. Get active in your PTA and show the Groundspark or SPLC documentaries to them — or even interested members from them — as a start. Talk with your kids about how they can become allies or “upstanders,” help build the numbers of allies and “upstanders” around them so that whether or not they’re targets or bystanders to harassment, they will not be alone.  Here’s a resource from Teach Peace; here’s another from Partners Against Hate; here’s another from Rethinking Schools; hell, download the whole Introduction to Welcoming Schools PDF, share it with your favorite teacher or administrator, and start a conversation.


LGBT youth contemplating suicide are urged to immediately reach out to The Trevor Project, day or night, at 866-488-7386. ALL CALLS ARE CONFIDENTIAL AND TOLL-FREE FROM ANYWHERE IN THE UNITED STATES 24-HOURS A DAY, 7 DAYS A WEEK.

12 thoughts on “We are all bystanders — until we stand up”

  1. Thank you for encouraging us all to share our experience, strength and hope with those who come behind us. As a mom of boys this really touched me. I shared about it on my blog in hopes to carry the message. It really is our responsibility but the how sometimes feels big and vulnerable.

    • Thank you laraplus2, and welcome! I’ve gone longer than I ever have, not posting here (half a month, saints preserve us!), and am grateful, among many other things, that anyone is still happening by.

      I have such different worries for each of my kids: after the root one that they simply manage, by fate, not to be struck down with a terminal disease before they come of age, for the girl it’s that she manage to escape sexual violence and the magnetic attraction, perpetuated far and wide in the culture at large, to hate her female self; for the boy that he manage to make it through the whole long coming-of-age hazing to the other side with his full-spectrum feminine/masculine identity intact. The young men we saw at my partner’s youth theater rehearsal last night seemed to be in a safe space, supported for all of who they were, singing and dancing. I have no idea how hard or easy it is for them outside this safe space, even in such a bleeding edge pro-feminist/ pro-diversity town as Berkeley. I do know that boys have been harassed — verbally, and backed up with violence — for their femininity at both my kids’ elementary school and the closest middle school, within just the past several years. Don’t think I don’t keep homeschooling or winning the lottery and paying for independent school always close at hand, when/if the worst happens to either of them. Meanwhile, I do what I can to support the school and the district’s work toward anti-bullying curricula.

      At root I do agree that it is our responsibility: adults teach kids everything, EVERYTHING, mostly by example. Kids, whether young or old, harass and torment because there’s something about that which is either not noticed at all at home, or made to seem tolerable. Kids will translate into their language (both verbally and behaviorally) what they see in the grown-up society around them. And right now, they see a hell of a lot of intolerance. A hell of a lot. Kindness, as my partner and I reflected at the breakfast table this morning, must be restored as a paramount value — over good grades, over seemingly obedient behavior — before we’re going to see the change we all need.

  2. Thank you for this. I’ve read and thought a lot about this recent rash of well-publicized suicides, and your piece has resonated the most for me. (I also like that when I shared it on FB, the first thumbnail that came up to accompany it was the picture that is second from the right at the bottom of your page — it seems strangely appropriate.)

  3. Ah, but are we bystanders? You said it, LD, that adults teach kids everything – from the prejudice and bigotry that puts these kids in dangerous situations to the blinders that we put on ourselves to keep from seeing the consequences of our (in)actions. At some level, aren’t we all participants, willing or no? Isn’t the question not if, but how we choose to participate – and whether the choice is a conscious one or not?

    All the time I was reading this post – between trips to the kleenex box – I had that wonderful song from South Pacific in my head – “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear/It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear/You’ve got to be carefully taught.” True then, true now.

  4. Hi Lesbian Dad,

    There’s another group of students who are routinely bullied, starting in elementary school: the neurodiverse — students with autism and ADHD. Emily Willingham is homeschooling one of her sons because of the severe bullying he endured. The school can often be complicit in the bullying, as seems to be true with Asher Brown.

    Because schools aren’t effectively ending bullying, Emily is calling for a national hotline and ombudsman for bullied youth. Check out her post here http://daisymayfattypants.blogspot.com/2010/09/it-is-time-for-deadly-bullying-in-this.html. Be sure to read the comments.

    • Thank you all, and welcome lizditz and Diane to the conversation, which has been fairly dormant for a wee mite as things at the actual Casa LD have been way way busy of late (How much longer? Not much longer!).

      More to add with more time, but I wanted also to pass along something from Lisa Walls, who wrote:


      Check out Committee for Children (cfchildren.org) for their
      anti-bullying/violence prevention/social-emotional learning curricula, Second
      Step (K-8).

      They rock!

  5. It’s interesting the mix of feelings that the It Gets Better project evokes. On the one hand, you think: great idea! On the other, you think: why should these kids have to wait four years before being treated with respect and dignity?

    I agree completely that we need to ask what values our society, and especially our schools, are modeling. I think anti-bullying programs are all to the good, but when I see kids treating other kids like objects, rather than as full-fledged human beings, I think: you don’t have to look far, in K-12 schooling, for models of that kind of behavior. Much of the national debate about education is framed in exactly those terms: kids are a means to the goal of improving the gross national product and boosting our competitiveness in the global marketplace. Our job is not to engage them as partners in their own development, but to manipulate, trick, coerce, and punish them into doing what we think is best for us — er, I mean, for them. We give them little or no say in how they are treated, and discourage them from thinking critically about the institution they are confined to. We give them no outlet for their grievances against those institutions. We reduce their civil liberties to a minimum. We insist that they be quiet and obedient. In short, we push them around a lot — though we tell ourselves that it’s for their own good — and we can do it because they’re powerless to stop us. Is that a recipe for getting kids to treat each other with respect and dignity?

    Intolerance and cruelty are almost universally seen as immutable features of childhood — something to be endured, but not avoided. Is it true? How is it that, as many of the videos point out, this type of cruelty greatly diminishes the minute the kids set foot on a college campus? Is it because an extra year has utterly transformed their characters? Or is it because they suddenly find themselves in a very different kind of institution?

    Most of these thoughts are taken from a post I wrote earlier this week for my own blog (which is here). I stumbled across your blog last week while surfing progressive parenting sites. When I see parents raising their young children in progressive ways, I always wonder: how will they react when their kids get to school? There seems to be so much progressive parenting going on — at least through age 5 — but so little progressive schooling. I’m always curious how those parents confront that reality — as you say, short of homeschooling or private alternative schools, which aren’t options for everybody.

  6. Yay! I found my login!

    I think this would make a perfect piece for Joanne Bamberger/PunditMom’s book Mothers of Intention. Pretty please would you talk with her about it? I sent her a link without asking you, although I am at least telling you. I hope that’s ok. 🙂

    • Youbetcha, friend. So much to be said/ thought/ felt/ done about all this. I’m a wee ant, but a caring one alongside many others. I’d love to help keep the conversation moving and spreading. Off I go now to check out her book project.

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