Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Bullying: I do not think the problem is what you think it is.

(Princess Bride reference aside, let's call this "Adults and Cowardice.")

Bullying. You've all heard about it recently-- the heartbreaking stories of gay children and teens driven to suicide, and the 14-year-old girl who hanged herself after being bullied for coming out as a rape survivor. Bullying has suddenly become a big deal. Great, you might think, people might actually support anti-bullying programs in schools now that numerous victims have already died. But no. Christian groups like Focus on the Family argue that anti-bullying programs "push the gay agenda." A Michigan high school teacher was suspended for kicking a student out of class who made a homophobic comment. What is this, people? Jezebel has got it totally right: it's time schools quit treating homophobia like it's a valid opinion worth respecting. Homophobic hate speech is no different from racism, and you wouldn't allow that in your schools now, would you?

One recent argument I heard against homosexual couples was that the children that gay couples might adopt would be harmed. A slew of studies have shown that this is not the case. (That article links to several different reports and studies.) As far as studies go, the most recent one was fairly scientifically rigorous: the measurement of social development and psychological health of the children was not based on the opinions of their parents alone but also of outside observers, like teachers and caregivers, and a control group of heterosexual couples was used. The conclusion? Quality of parenting determines the psychological health of the child, not the sexual orientation of the parents. From a policy standpoint, the data provide no justification for denying lesbian and gay adults from adopting children.

But won't children of gay and lesbian parents be bullied in school, you might ask? Yes, there is a high likelihood that they will. However, obese children, ethnic minorities, economically disadvantaged children, even smart children get bullied too. The solution to the bullying problem is to address the bullying, not use it as a reason to prohibit gay couples from adopting children.

When I was in elementary school, I was bullied every day. Sometimes it was for being Asian in a neighborhood of rich white kids; sometimes it was for being a smart girl; but usually it was about my physical appearance. I got picked on for having a "mustache," the unfortunate result of having black hair but light skin. This bullying went on for years and only got worse as the tormentors grew in vocabulary and cleverness. It was a sly comment here, a rude gesture there. All things that might have been caught and reprimanded in kindergarten but ironically were ignored in sixth grade. I cried every day when I came home from school. Finally, I told my parents, and they spoke to my teacher about the bullying.

Her response? "That happened to me growing up too. You can buy products at CVS to bleach that hair."

My parents accepted that as an answer. So did I, at the time. Only after I left for college and had the ability to look back on those years without overwhelming bitterness did I realize how wrong a response that was. Where was the apology for letting this hateful bullying happen right under her nose? More importantly, where was the action in response to it? Even after my parents met with her, she never spoke up or stood up for me against the bullies. They never got in trouble, even though now she couldn't say she didn't know it was happening.

This is the huge problem with bullying nowadays. It is easier for teachers and administrators to coerce the bullied into changing than it is to confront the bullies themselves. Society already does its fair share of looking down upon the marginalized and pressuring them to change their identities; that makes it far too easy for adults to do it under the guise of looking out for the child's best interests when it is in fact a cowardly way of handling the problem.

If gay children are bullied, don't try to change them-- stop the bullying. If children of gay parents are bullied, don't prohibit gay couples from adopting-- stop the bullying. The problem is not why these children are the way they are. The problem lies with the parents, teachers, and administrators who turn a blind eye to the hateful words and actions that shouldn't be tolerated in the first place.

Why is this such a hard concept for policy-makers to understand? It's not like bullying is a valuable skill that children need to learn to grow into healthy, capable adults. (And if it is, well, something is grievously wrong with our society.) Stop bullying. Make sure kids understand that it is wrong, it is hurtful, and it reflects badly on them, not their victims. Give victims support. Stand up and say that bullying will not be tolerated in my classroom/school. And actually follow through with that-- watch for instances of bullying and address it every time it happens, not just when you feel like it.

No one should have to change who they are in order to go to school and not be picked on constantly. It's not about "pushing the gay agenda" or "protecting freedom of speech"; it's about creating a healthy environment for children to learn and grow in. Racism, classism, homophobia, and all other forms of hate speech are not valid opinions to be respected. Period.

On a more heartwarming note, here are two things that refresh my faith in humanity:

A 14-year-old student gave an eloquent speech in defense of the high school teacher that took a stand against homophobia. I was touched.

A mother proudly defended her son's right to wear whatever he wants for Halloween and correctly points to other mothers' judgmental attitudes as the problem. This was an amazing and uplifting piece to read.


  1. I don't think people are saying "Don't stop bullying."

    But I also don't agree with people who think her mother should sue the school or that the other children should be punished as if they're murderers. They're not. I'm sure they didn't want her to die.

    I think a rational discussion of the girl in Michigan needs to also include, "The girl tried to kill herself one time before (the time line is unclear to me; was this before she even had sex with the boy?). Maybe we should look at what could have been done differently (better services at the center that evaluated her? more time off from school after [changing mandatory attendance policies so she didn't get a letter saying she would fail if she didn't come back soon would be a good start]? more supervision at home [telling a suicidal 14 year old that she can't go to her room by herself and close her door would not seem unreasonable to me; if she hadn't been able to do that, she wouldn't have been able to hang herself]?) and we should make sure other students don't go through this by trying to prevent future bullying, etc. As with all suicides, I don't think we can simplify the cause into one issue (eg, she was bullied; she was 'raped' [which she didn't claim in her first statement to the police; she just had sex with an older classmate - not that unusual]).

  2. To children, death is often a very abstract concept. Did they actually want her to die? Maybe not. But I wouldn't be surprised if their taunts included such language. Gay children who were bullied often report death threats.

    I agree that her mother shouldn't sue the school, but do try to understand misplaced grief. Should the children be treated as murderers? No, not to that extent, but remember that these are high-schoolers; they are old enough to be conscious of right and wrong. I think some punishment would be appropriate.

  3. What kind of punishment would you suggest?

  4. I'm not sure what would be effective, to be honest. I would be a terrible policy-maker in this instance because I can't be objective and because I don't know enough information. Suspension doesn't seem like it would be effective in that I can't see it preventing future bullying. I don't think anti-bullying programs wouldn't get through to older kids either.

    Really, if I had a choice, I would want them to feel the kind of pain, despair, and humiliation that their bullying causes in their victims. However, there's no ethical way to do that...

  5. Dear Anonymous----

    In response to : "I don't think people are saying "Don't stop bullying."

    While people might not be saying explicitly THAT, the fact is that people not only wrongly blame the victim, they also justify their blaming.