While the whole world watches

Published November 1, 2010

Faggot, whore, slut, homo.

For a teen or pre-teen in our culture, these are the most effective taunts any bully can throw at you, whether you’re gay or straight. Why? Because this is the time when peer relations are most important to you, and when you really, really want to belong, especially if you’re a girl. This is also when your sexual identity is being formed.

When youth become isolated, then desperate, all hell can break loose.

Sexual bullying has reached an all-time high, particularly for youth who are LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered). For these youngsters, say experts, the incidence of sexual bullying is two to three times higher than for other kids.

In 2005, the first national online survey of bullying and LGBT youth in the U.S. was conducted by GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. More than 3,400 students ages 13-18 responded; so did 1,000 secondary school teachers.

The survey showed that 90 per cent of LGBT youth had been harrassed or assaulted because they were gay or thought to be gay. That figure was high for non-LGBT teens too, 62 per cent of whom reported being harassed or assaulted in the previous year.

Most kids said they don’t report problems to teachers. No big surprise there. Of straight students, 57 per cent said they didn’t think teachers could or would help. For LGBT youth, this figure jumped to 67 per cent.

The consequences of chronic bullying can be tragic. Recent examples include Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, the 11-year old Springfield, Mass. student who didn’t identify as gay but was still bullied as if he were. In spite of his mother’s pleas for help, nothing changed and in April, the boy hanged himself, just days before his 12th birthday.

Tyler Clementi, the 19-year-old Rutgers University student who jumped off the George Washington Bridge in October, was humiliated beyond comprehension when his roommate posted a video on YouTube. In it, Clementi was making out with a boy.

Phoebe Prince, the pretty young Irish teen who briefly dated a popular boy at her new Northampton, Mass. highschool, was subjected to three months of abuse. In April, the 15-year-old hanged herself at home. Nine teenagers were charged with crimes ranging from statutory rape to criminal harassment.

“Most bullying is sexual in nature,” notes Barbara Coloroso, author of The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander. “If you look at the kids who have killed themselves, you’ll see they were all targeted for their sexuality.”

“When a student brings a knife to school, declaring ‘That faggot has to die,’ he’s learned it somewhere,” continues Coloroso, a former nun. “You have to learn to put somebody outside your circle of caring.”

Learning how to treat others begins at home. Coloroso warns parents that they must first deal with their own biases, especially when it comes to LGBT youth. “These [LGBT] kids matter,” she told the Anglican Journal. “We cannot have people learning at home that they are less than human and deserve to die.”

Coloroso, who spent time in Rwanda researching her latest book, Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide, says it is but a short walk from bullying to hate crimes to genocide. “Bullying is about utter contempt for another human being,” she says. “It’s about getting pleasure from another person’s pain.” Hate crimes, she adds, are just “criminal bullying.”

Bullies today come in all shapes and sizes. Male and female. Rich, even. The “high-status social bully” comes armed with a sense of entitlement, the freedom to exclude and an intolerance towards differences. In California, this is playing out in ever more horrific ways, including the murder of homeless people.

According to a Globe and Mail report (Mar. 11), the stress of chronic bullying may cause physiological changes to the teen brain that can lead to cognitive deficits and mental health problems such as depression. University of Ottawa psychologist Tracy Vaillancourt has been following a group of 70 teens for the past five years. Some have been bullied for the entire time they’ve been in the study. With the help of colleagues at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., brain scans will be conducted in 15 of the most extreme cases-like the girl who stood in her gym uniform while classmates urinated on her school clothes. “At some point, their brains stop reacting,” says Dr. Vaillancourt, who holds a Canada Research Chair in children’s mental health and violence prevention.

Once a child is targeted, bullies can threaten anytime, anywhere. Thanks to the Internet, there is no safe place anymore. “Bullying is happening to kids when they’re in their own bedrooms at home,” says David Barker, a product manager for an Internet-based service that helps parents monitor their kids’ use of Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. “You can’t hide from it. It’s 24/7.”

Generally speaking, kids get involved in social media around 10-15 years of age. But some children as young as eight are going online, notes Barker. “This is really about educating the child to not give personal information out and not to send sexually explicit content. It’s surprising how many young teens are sending out this kind of content.”

Saavy Internet use goes beyond avoiding bullies and predators to what Barker calls “reputation management.” If your child is using profanity or posting questionable photos online, for instance, it can come back to haunt him or her later in life. “Everything they put up there [on the Internet] is permanent,” points out Barker. “Now the whole world can see when you make a mistake.” This includes universities and potential employers, many of whom routinely check applicants’ Facebook pages.

How do we raise a generation of kids who will stand up for what’s right and what’s not, even when those around them may not? Adults must “walk the talk,” says Coloroso, whose genocide studies revealed “uncommon goodness” in ordinary people. What made these individuals take action? Their ability to see common humanity in all.

Like the woman who rescued Jews by hiding them in the home of a Nazi general. Youth who rescued “saw the other as ‘thou’ not ‘it,’ ” says Coloroso, who emphasizes that inclusiveness begins at home. The Jews were regarded as vermin before they were put to death, she reminds me. Ω

Kristin Jenkins is editor of the Anglican Journal.


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