Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Week in Review: Combating Violence Against Gay Youth

As this week winds to a close, and I try to juggle multiple projects (what birthday gift do you give a connoisseur of chocolate who has every variety in the world?), it occurs to me to gather an assortment of articles that have impressed me in recent days. All are pertinent to themes discussed in previous postings.

As my profile for this blogsite indicates, one of the issues that most engages my passion is to stop bullying of LGBT children in school. This passion stems, in part, from my own experience of having been bullied for my conspicuous lack of gender “normativity” in childhood. I can recall being taunted in junior high school, called a queer, even before I had any inkling what that term meant. I remember coming home the first time I was called this, and asking my mother what the term meant.

Her answer was a variant of one she gave me when I learned the 10 commandments as a young child, and asked what “adultery” meant: “It’s when mommies and daddies do bad things.” “Queer,” she replied, means “when men do bad things.”

Not very enlightening, but enough to clue me in to the fact that this term had something to do with the forbidden area of sex, and that, as with everything falling into that murky shadowland, to be queer was to be shameful. So I was queer, then, even though I had no clear idea what this meant, and the area of sexuality itself was a complete shadowland into which I had never even ventured . . . .

Whatever being queer was, I soon learned, it evidently justified being knocked down by the vice-president of the school’s bible study club, whenever I missed a shot in volleyball (not an infrequent occurrence). It justified the coaches standing by and watching this happen and doing nothing to reprimand the boy who repeatedly assaulted me.

Being queer evidently also allowed other boys to grope what they called my breasts (my non-existent male breasts!) in gym class, again without any punishment by the coaches. It allowed the coaches to put me at the start of the line of boys on all fours over which the class vaulted when we did gymnastics, a position that allowed anyone vaulting over to kick the first person in line in the ribs or side—hard kicks excused as part of the launching process.

I sensed, without having full clarity, that being queer had something to do with being a sissy, another term with which I had contended in school (and at home, and at church) as far back as I could recall. I was a liability in most games boys played on the school ground, so that I was almost always chosen last for a sport. In baseball, I was put far, far into one of the fields, where I could usually find something that really interested me, like heads of clover to be woven into flower necklaces—thus confirming the poor opinion of my sporting skills when the ball that I wouldn’t have caught, anyway, flew over my head as I sat on the ground in the clover, oblivious to the game around me.

I remember the cheek-burning shame of being nominated for the position of captain of the safety patrol team in fifth grade (whatever can S. Gibbs have been thinking?), and the speech my nominator gave before the whole school: “Bill Lindsey may walk like a girl and talk like a girl, but I can assure you he’s all boy.” Most of all, I remember the howls of laughter that day from the sixth-grade classes who occupied the front rows of the auditorium.

I don’t recall these scenes to wallow in self-pity. I can laugh at most of them now. I recall them to remind myself and others that there are still children enduring this treatment in our school system—and with the full complicity of school officials and parents. What happened this week to Lawrence King in Oxnard, CA—a gay fifteen-year old boy murdered by a classmate after repeated taunts about his sexual orientation--should not happen again to any other child in an American school:

And even now, the “mainstream” media remains shamefully silent about this event, and about the problem of bullying of LGBT children in schools (on media silence, see At my last job, where I was repeatedly reprimanded (in a church-based institution!) for bringing up issues having to do with LGBT concerns, I remember being told—by a supervisor whose son is gay, no less—that it was inappropriate and unacceptable for me to mention GLSEN, Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, in a discussion of the school’s mission to educate students to address social ills.

Never mind that the school prides itself on having a founder who linked liberal education to civic engagement, and who stressed that the scope of a college’s civic engagement should be as wide as the needs of the community it served. Or that the university’s Education Department is accredited by an institution that requires the Department to assure that it does not discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation, and prepares teachers who can respect diversity and teach tolerance . . . . Or that my charge was to lead the faculty in preparing a major project that would highlight the school’s commitment to civic engagement of all kinds . . . . Or that violence towards gay students is a serious problem on many historically black college/university campuses (HBCUs)—a group to which this university belongs—where a culture of silence feeds violence and leaves LGBT students with few role models to help them navigate currents of shame and self-loathing.

I was also told by the same supervisor that bringing up attacks on homeless people was unacceptable, because the faculty leaders who reported to me weren’t interested in hearing about this problem. Interestingly enough, just this past week, the NY Times reported that the community in which the university is located has been identified as the key city in the nation in which educational networks must address the problem of violence against the homeless. This is an epidemic problem in the community in which this civic engagement-oriented HBCU is located; and it is youth, youth who need education, who are primarily responsible for the problem.

When I proposed that GLSEN, among many other organizations helping youth address social ills, should be looked at as a possible resource for our school’s civic engagement project, I was told by my supervisor that I was “putting my lifestyle into the face of colleagues.” My response—that I have a life, and not a lifestyle—was not well-received, to say the least. When the powers that be decree that LGBT people have lifestyles rather than lives, it evidently behooves us to accept the demeaning social location we’ve been assigned, and to be silent—even when we are educators charged with leading civic engagement projects on behalf of the youth we are educating.

So my concern with LGBT bullying has deep roots. For that reason, an article in today’s Bilerico blog caught my eye: Erik Leven asks what happens when we leave LGBT children to fend for themselves as they are bullied and shamed. He calls the churches to accountability for their silence about this endemic American problem. A choice quote:

“If a child is particularly beaten down--by their church, their parents, their school or their peers when they come out--the baggage is that much heavier. As they approach adulthood it would be common and understandable if they carry feelings of worthlessness, self-loathing and general depression. Is this what we want? All you Christians who believe you're speaking FOR Jesus--do you really think Jesus himself would want this? Whole populations of unhealthy, unhappy kids who go on to lead unhappy and unhealthy lives. This is not because we're gay. It's because YOU can't accept it. Wouldn't you suppose this world would be a better place if children were to feel comfortable with who they are and then approach adulthood in that way?”

On a related, but separate, theme, this week’s news carries many articles noting that the Vatican’s attack on the Spanish government, which has legalized gay marriage and teaches tolerance for LGBT persons in its schools, continues. On this, see especially two postings on the Clerical Whispers blog at, entitled "Rift Between Madrid and Vatican" and "Spanish Opposition Leader Targets Gays." It strikes me as particularly reprehensible that the Vatican-backed opposition party is using the issue of gay adoption as a wedge issue to gain votes.

And on the continuing use of that wedge issue in our own political context, I recommend Brynn Craffey's

"God’s got my back,” indeed.

For a humorous look at how gay marriage is responsible for every possible calamity in the universe, see the second video on Peterson Toscano’s a musing blog under the entry “Friday Night Ex-Gay Entertainment” at

And as a reminder that gay artists and activists are interested in issues transcending those of the gay community, see Sam Harris’s new anti-war song at

And, finally, for a heartening reminder that some church folks do get it, see the following article about a Catholic Chinese ministry to the gay community at Clerical Whispers:

Since this is Black History Month, I want to close this week in review blog entry with a quote from one of my African-American heroes, who worked intently (as did Bayard Rustin, the black gay Quaker activist whose quote about angelic troublemakers forms the footer for this blog page) to develop strategies of social analysis that recognize the interconnection of problems such as racism, sexism, poverty, and homophobia. This hero is Mary McLeod Bethune.

Bethune once spoke of seeing a small girl cross the street and thinking to herself that this child could one day be a Mary McLeod Bethune. Mary McLeod Bethune saw everyone’s child as a child to be nurtured, educated, taught self-respect. Her philosophy of educating students through requiring them to be involved in civic engagement is based on a strong conviction that colleges and universities should be involved in addressing the social ills of their own communities.

If Mary McLeod Bethune were alive today, I have absolutely no doubt that she would be intently concerned about incidents such as the murder of Lawrence King. I have no doubt that she would be strongly supporting the coalition of HBCUs who have banded together under the auspices of the Human Rights Project to address anti-gay violence on black college campuses. And I can well imagine she would applaud Barack Obama for his heroic speech in a black church in Atlanta several Sundays ago, in which he spoke courageously and forthrightly about the need of the African-American community to confront homophobia.

Bethune’s last will and testament speaks eloquently of her commitment to build a better world for youth. During Black History Month, wouldn’t it be wonderful if black churches and white churches—all churches alike—realized that some of the youth to whom we are handing over the world are gay and lesbian youth, or youth who will choose new gender identities? Those youth are often, as people are reporting about Lawrence King, sensitive, kind, gentle, gifted human beings whose gifts are sorely needed to build a more humane world.

They do not deserve to live in shame. They certainly do not deserve to be bashed, taunted, or murdered. I call on the churches to listen to Mary McLeod Bethune’s last will and testament and to imagine some of the youth Bethune envisages here as gay youth:

"The world around us really belongs to youth for youth will take over its future management. Our children must never lose their zeal for building a better world. They must not be discouraged from aspiring toward greatness, for they are to be the leaders of tomorrow. . . .We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good ends."

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