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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Into the Light


I hated gym class. Skinny, uncoordinated and myopic, I knew that whatever activity they dreamed up, I wasn't going to be good at it. Some things, like crab soccer and pillow polo, were okay, because they really didn't require much skill. But I dreaded anything where some kids, invariably the jocks, got to pick teams, because I was certain to be damn near last, and with good reason.

None of us kids was particularly athletic, although at least one of my sisters played softball on a real team and was apparently popular to acquire a non-derogatory nickname from the P.E. teacher. I was afforded no such cool moniker; instead, one of the other kid's dads who was brought in as a guest teacher said I "wrestled like a girl". I find that interesting because I don't think mud wrestling was popular yet, so I don't know upon what experience he based his assessment.

But I guess I was lucky; I didn't go to the school in Decatur, Ala., where the teacher invented a game called "smear the queer" in which a single student is singled out to be slogged by volleyballs by the entire rest of the class.

Seems kind of shocking that only happened about twelve years ago. Would we tolerate such a thing now? Apparently, we would. In the past few weeks, no fewer than three high school boys committed suicide after enduring sustained torment at the hands of their peers.

Seth Walsh, 13, of Tehachapie, California, hanged himself from a tree on September 19th. He was found alive and placed on life support, but died a few days later. Despite a program to prevent such abuse and a principal whose principal boasts of her degree in child counseling, investigators were told by Seth's peers that he had been the victim of sustained bullying. They determined, however, that no crime had been committed and no charges were filed.

Asher Brown, an eighth-grader from Houston, shot himself in the head last week. His parents say they have complained repeatedly to the school, by phone and in person, about the four classmates made hassling Asher a full-time job for the past eighteen months, simulating gay sex acts on him in gym class and making fun of his inexpensive clothes. Administrators say they were never told about the bullying.

Billy Lucas, from Indiana, never told anybody he was gay, but his classmates apparently decided that for him. Administrators claim he was "happy and well-adjusted", but yet classmates tell a different story which should be getting sadly familiar by now. His family found him in their barn where he had hanged himself.

One could ask what the hell is going on in these schools that there could be so much opportunity for kids to lash out at one another unchecked by a teacher or other adult. Maybe all the budget cuts have made it impossible to know who's doing what to who. I would like to hear from those who work in schools: Do you see kids like Billy, Asher and Seth? What is done about it?

I have to wonder, however, how many teachers and coaches and parents think such behavior is normal (et tu, Darwin?) and thus allow it continue or even encourage it. You know, it'll make a man out of you. And if this was limited to a few embarrassing moments in gym class, it might be survivable. But I shared with you in a former post the case of Roy Jones, a seventeen-month-old boy who died from a beating he got from his mother's boyfriend, because he "acted like a girl". I liked that ABC called him a baby, even though technically he isn't, because it emphasizes the mania in our culture around gender roles and the lengths to which people will go to make sure the traditional ones are enforced, even at an age where a kid doesn't even know what they mean or whether he or she is exhibiting them or not.

Today's story was the proverbial straw. News is spreading tonight about the case of Tyler Clementi, a first-year Rutgers student from Ridgewood, N.J. and classical violinist. Tyler had either told his roommate he was gay or at least it was suspected, because when he asked for a few hours of privacy, a webcam was left running to record his romantic time with a male visitor while the roommate provided a running commentary on Twitter as well as a video feed on the Internet. Confronted with this invasion, the shy student was so distraught that he lept from the George Washington Bridge to his death.

I do not know all the facts of all these cases. I don't know these boys' mental health histories or to what degree either parents or administrators were forthcoming in what they told the media and the police. What I do know is that our kids learn what they know about what it means to be male, female, gay, straight or somewhere in between from us. From what we say, how we act, and how we treat people.

34,000 Americans commit suicide every year, and -- among young people -- every suicide is shadowed by 100-200 unsuccesful attempts. LGBT youth are four times more likely to commit or attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. I don't believe that is due to some genetic trait: I think it's because growing up is hard enough without being told repeatedly by peers, trusted adults and the media that there's something abnormal about you.

If it outrages or saddens you that so many young lives have been diminished or snuffed out, than know this: These are just a handful of extreme cases... this goes on all the time, in varying degrees, in every school in this country because some kids don't live up to other people's expectations of how they should dress, talk or throw a ball.

Teachers, look out for the Trevors and the Billys. Think about the words you use and understand the difference between good-natured teasing and outright terror. Maybe you could be the one adult that they can count on if things rough. Parents, you can't expect the school to teach your kids that it's not okay to treat people this way; they need to hear it from you. And maybe you should let them read the stories about these boys: Seth, Asher, Billy, Tyler, and poor little Roy, so that they see what it does to them inside.

I was lucky to have enough of a support system to reach adulthood and understand that people who act this way are saying more about themselves and their own insecurities than they are about you. In college I started lifting weights, finally finding an athletic activity that I didn't need great hand-eye coordination to accomplish. Current deadlift, 300 lb, thankyouverymuch, and I no longer feel like a victim. Most of the time.

On October 17th, friends and I are participating in Out of the Darkness, a Community Walk to benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. If you are in a position to contribute anything to help this worthy cause, please visit this link. It would be much appreciated. If you would like to know more about anti-bullying, LGBT youth and suicide prevention, please visit the links below:


  1. Thanks for this, Chris. I have sent a link to my friend Grandmere Mimi at Wounded Bird (via email). She has been documenting these atrocities on her blog and I thought she would want to read yours.

  2. Thank you for this...

  3. You should also check out this new project from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

    "In response to mounting reports of vicious anti-gay bullying and student suicides, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project is making a new documentary film and educational kit available – free of charge – to every school in the country."

  4. Obviously there are cases where teachers are aware of bullying and don't do anything. But kids are really, really good at hiding things. Stuff happens in the restroom, on the playground, at lunch, that is just completely under the radar of even the best of teachers.

    I was bullied for being fat (or possibly for being weird.) The teachers never saw it because it was psychological, not physical. I never talked about it because the one time my parents called the school (after a particularly vicious 'anonymous' note) nothing changed.

    You're right that teachers and other adults need to be on the lookout for the kids who get bullied. But they also need to look out for the bullies, because you don't bully unless there's something wrong.