In this day and age, in 2009, in the first state in the U.S. to legalize same-sex marriage, adults are still reluctant to talk about gay kids? It is taking every ounce of energy that I have to write about it rather than storm out my door and start shouting "Shame! Shame!" at random reporters, who honestly should know better.
I mean, I know that I wrote that post about choice, but in it, I even said that some people don't choose, some people feel strongly that they were "born that way". Of those who do, most that I have known feel that they knew when they were children, often before puberty, but if not, then certainly at the advent of puberty (that charming period of life when sexual attraction, and thus orientation, starts to flower and, in a cruel twist of fate, the period of life when children are most ruthless to one another).
I'm sure you know of the tragic suicides of two young boys in the past week, both connected to their being taunted and perceived as "gay". In all of the articles, even in the gay press, they point out that the 11 year old (!!) from Springfield, MA "did not identify as gay", though he was clearly teased for "acting gay" and "dressing gay". These attacks are being chalked up to "bullying" (which they obviously were) and much discussion has ensued about the use of anti-gay epithets as all-purpose ammunition for use against anyone who somehow stands out.
I don't think it's enough. I think there is still phenomenal self-censorship (albeit out of respect to the boys' families, a good reason if there ever was one, though why is it is more "respectful" to omit discussions of sexual orientation is a problem in itself). And way more than enough internalized homophobia (not to mention the good old garden variety) to go around.
I have now read countless articles about the deaths of these boys. Most of the mainstream press articles do not discuss at any length the anti-gay nature of the taunting. They briefly mention it, and then quickly move on to a discussion of how terrible bullying is (they've got no argument from me on that last point).
I've been reading about these cases for more than a week now, and of course have found the situation deeply disturbing. We should all be deeply concerned when young children are killing themselves as a result of being teased, taunted, and bullied. Like one of my favorite bumper stickers says: "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention".
Few of the articles talk about the rates of suicide for gay youth. Yes, I know that young Carl Walker-Hoover did not "identify as gay" (which I found out only from the gay press), but so what? I do not presume to speak for this now lost child, nor his family, but I thoroughly reject the notion that the fact that he did not identify as such means this case is closed, and now we can just talk about bullying in general, and not about the way that children who do not tow the line close enough to the stereotypical gender norm are at risk? What exactly did they mean that he "acted gay"? He was clearly bold enough to be himself, and yet he obviously stood out in some fashion. This is not about random bullying, which is bad enough in itself. This is about the intolerance of gender variance, and our culture's lightning-fast leap to categorize it into "normal" and "deviant" categories. And it's also about homophobia. No, not on the kids' parts, though that's true, too.
On all of our parts.
Why are we so quick to point out that "he didn't identify as gay"? Why does that matter? What if he was gay? Would that be bad? What if he wasn't, and then came to realize differently at some point later in life, as happens for so many? What if he was, but had not yet gotten to an age or a stage in puberty when he was particularly aware of his own orientation or attraction? For so many, being gay as a child is simply about feeling "different", nothing more. Or what if he wasn't gay, but he was accepting of those who were? And most disturbing of all, what if he, in fact, wasn't gay and never would be, but just exhibited some behaviors that could be associated with "being gay" in a young boy...like being kind, for example?
And at the risk of being overly politically correct (and maybe even seeming a little heartless, which I assure you I am not), are we being too quick to lay his suicide solely at his tormentors' feet? What if they were right? Did he feel safe to share that at home? In his community? Did he have role models who were gay, adults to stand up for him and tell him that he was a wonderful person, a child of God, a kind soul, whether or not he was gay?
Yes, bullying is terrible and should never be allowed. And yes, as we know from Columbine and elsewhere, alienation and taunting can wreak havoc in a young person's life. I was bullied as a child, as were many people I know, and I still carry the scars 41 years later--and my treatment was nothing like this boy experienced. Anyone who experienced it can tell you. It's horrendous.
But this case is not just about bullying, and we're letting it be just that. It's about homophobia, even if this child was not gay. It's about how we let anti-gay slurs pass when we interrupt racial ones. It's about one of the "last acceptable prejudices". It's about our acceptance of "boys will be boys". It's about our intolerance for even the slightest amount of gender-role variance. It's about our failure to rein in children who have somehow missed the lesson of tolerance and decent behavior. It's about our rush to reassure ourselves that he wasn't gay, he was just being mercilessly taunted. Maybe.
One of these cases was in Massachusetts. One of the bluest states in the Union. About to celebrate the fifth anniversary of equal marriage. Home to an African-American governor whose daughter is lesbian and who embraces the gay and lesbian community. One month away from a huge GLBT pride celebration, embraced by the larger community. A state filled with resources for gay and lesbian youth, including programs in schools and organizations dedicated to those populations (not all states have that, by any stretch of the imagination). And in this state, a child killed himself for being called gay.
How could we have let that happen? Are we so busy living our own now-legally protected lives to remember that the hatred is still rampant? Have we forgotten the children?
You may be wondering what set this all off. I mean, I knew about these stories before today, as you likely did as well. Well, I'm gonna tell you.
This morning, I was doing a little snooping around online. In particular, I was looking at the official "blogs" of the Boston Globe, to see who was writing about children and parenting (since that's what I do professionally), and what they were saying. And I came across this question and answer. The columnist is a well respected speaker on child and family and winner of an American Psychological Association Print Excellence award for her writing.
Now, I don't know the family that wrote to her, under the pseudonym of SadBoyDad (though that name has already got me by the throat). And I don't know the particulars of their son's distress, which is clearly notable. I only know that he is described as a 9-year-old who is "creative and introspective", hardly traits that are highly prized in boys of that age group (my daughter is 9, and I can tell you that that middle school "pressure" in relation to gender norms has definitely already begun). And he is talking about life not being "worth it". His caring parents are asking for support in their inclination to get him professional help. And what does the answer say?
Kids talk like this. He might not mean what we think he means. Yes, there is a way to talk with him about getting some help (that one wasn't bad). A suggestion to talk with the boy's pediatrician (that's another post altogether, but suffice it to say that most pediatricians are not sufficiently trained in psychosocial issues). And a brief mention of how the parents' concern could have been exacerbated by the suicides of the two children mentioned above, all of this under the heading of who these cases have caused "hypervigilance" in parents. Maybe. All of it. Maybe.
Not a single word about the suicides being related to suspicions of being gay. No attentiveness to the fact that the parent has identified this child by what some might call "code words".
Not a question about whether the child might have exprienced any taunting, or even a suggestion for how to gently explore that with him in a nonjudgmental way.
I know. It's an online column. It's not a place for psychotherapy. But this was an opportunity. And from my perspective, it was an opportunity missed, especially in the wake of recent events.
I am not one to fold to stereotype, but it cannot be denied there are code words at work here. We in the gay and lesbian community know them. Apparently other people don't. Time for a lesson. When parents (or friends or teachers) express concern about a "sensitive, creative" boy or a girl who doesn't seem to want to do "girl things" (which at the moment is discussing High School Musical ad nauseum) with the other girls, it's time to look, even if gently and subtly and sneakily for how those people might respond if (and I mean "if"--this is about correlation, not causality) that boy or girl should turn out to be gay. Time to explore--tentatively and with respect--whether the parent's concern is not as much about protecting their son as it is anxiety over whether he might be gay (again, it may not be, just worthy of an exploration). Time to examine what programs are in place in the community where children might find like-minded peers, for a respite from the conformist mentality of school, if for nothing else. Time to subtly invite them over for a group picnic in the summer, one to which you've invited a family with one or more gay or lesbian members. Time to stop pretending this stuff doesn't exist until we all get to "tsk" about it when another child hangs himself.
Until we are attentive to these things, not only as schools, but as parents and as larger communities, these sorts of tragic events will continue to happen. And we will have not done enough to stop them.
Even in Massachusetts.