Lesbian Dad

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.

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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.


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