Bullying and Gender Conformity
I was heartened to see Claire Walla’s article discussing one parent’s laudable efforts to confront bullying around gender non-conformity at the Sag Harbor schools. This is a complex and timely issue that the schools must address. The article might have given the false impression that this concerns only one or a few students, especially given the dismissive comments by Dr. Gratto. This is absolutely not the case.
The Southampton 2009 report of the Teen Assessment Project (TAP) revealed some sobering statistics on youth at risk in our districts. Eleven percent of all teens in Southampton, and 13% of high school seniors, identify as something other than heterosexual (gay, bisexual, etc.). Such teens make up the largest risk group, along with immigrants. The report singles out this group as facing “extremely high risk” of poor outcomes. Teens in Southampton who self identify as non-heterosexual are:
• Two and a half times as likely to have been hurt by another student;
• More than twice as likely to have suffered depression; and
• Four times as likely to have considered suicide.
Not surprisingly, they are also considerably less likely than their peers to have an adult to talk to and are far more likely to indulge in risky behaviors such as drug or alcohol use. The TAP report concludes that adults in Southampton must examine how we can provide such youth “with additional support and alternative means of coping” to prevent risky behavior.
Our local statistics reflect national figures on the crisis among gay and lesbian teens. The National Center for Educational Statistics reports that 40 percent of all sixth graders report being bullied. This drops to 20 percent by senior year, except for gay and lesbian youth: 90 percent report bullying throughout their school career. The Center for Disease Control reports that the rate of suicide attempts among gay and lesbian teens is up to six times that of other students. Just this week, a relentlessly teased gay fourteen-year-old in Buffalo killed himself on the eve of the national bullying summit. We are no longer surprised by such news.
It is very possible that some adults may not hear the mean-spirited remarks aimed at gender non-conforming youth. As we all recall, kids save the meanest bullying for when no grown-up is around. Plus, much bullying now occurs on line away from adult ears. Even so, I can’t count the times I’ve heard the term ‘that’s so gay’ in Sag Harbor, including among elementary students, as well as words such as faggot and fairy hurled by older teens at their peers. Three different moms confided in me in the past few years that their son or daughter had come out of the closet after graduating, not feeling safe to do so while at Pierson. I have also spoken to several older Pierson grads who said coming out would have been a nightmare in their day.
Although kids who are unusually tall or overweight may indeed suffer slings and arrows, lesbian and gay teens suffer in different ways:
• Their parents may not know of their plight and, if they do, may not be supportive. Jewish kids typically have Jewish parents to guide them, and so on. Not so gay kids.
• Gender non-conformity is particularly vexing since it threatens the deepest piece of identify we each hold. Teens assail anything or anyone that breaks gender rules to affirm their own desperate sense of belonging. The variety of epithets used for non-conforming gay men and boys points to the special intensity of male gender conformity in our culture.
• Some kids who are gay can stay hidden to protect themselves, lying about their feelings or orientation — as I did in high school. This has its own costs in integrity formation.
• Evidence is overwhelming that being gay or lesbian is as innate as being left-handed (Born This Way) yet much of the culture still derides homosexuality as a moral choice. This causes pain, confusion, and self-hatred in kids from non-supportive environments.
Gay kids also figure out that the broader society still denigrates their existence. Gays and lesbians are targeted far more in hate crimes per capita than any other group. In most of the United States it is still perfectly legal to fire or evict someone simply for being gay. Until this past week, revealing sexual orientation was grounds for dismissal from our armed forces. Ever since the Mormons began replacing corporations as a leading donor to the Boy Scouts of America in the 1990’s, the BSA has kicked out gay teens if they reveal their identity, sending a powerful negative message to all teens (this is only in the USA, by the way, not in Boy Scouts elsewhere or in Girl Scouts). Imagine doing this to a group with six-fold suicide risk. Our own family was told we were not welcome at the Sag Harbor Cub Scouts because, according to BSA headquarters in Texas, gay people are immoral (unlike, say, Hummer drivers). How do you think it feels for gay kids or children of gay parents when the principal announces Scouting events at morning program?
It is true that things are getting better, as Dan Savage’s wonderful videos affirm. And Sag Harbor is surely a kinder place than most. I can attest from our own kids’ experience that Sag Harbor Elementary tries hard to create an atmosphere of tolerance and community. I am sure that Pierson does the same. Nonetheless, there has been very little effort to explicitly name who we are to be tolerant of since many grown-ups feel that we should tiptoe around homosexuality. Yet simply naming the fact that some kids have two moms or two dads, which has now been true in every grade at the elementary school, is wholly non-threatening to younger children. They can see this anyway with their own eyes. Explicitly including non-traditional families (of all kinds) would go a long way towards making all kids feel safer and welcome.
At the middle and high school level, where issues of gender and sexuality are so keenly felt, it is critical that gender variant kids feel supported. Gay/straight alliances (GSAs) now exist at every East End high school except Sag Harbor and are popping up in places like Pellissippi, Tennessee and Flour Bluff, Texas. Their very name implies they are safe places for everyone.
By all means teachers and administrators should use tools such as It’s Elementary. I applaud the Sag Harbor parent for introducing this thoughtful video. GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, is an excellent resource and offers ‘safe space kits’ to schools as well as pointers on setting up GSAs. Our administrators must also read Just the Facts, a primer about sexual orientation and youth endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the National Education Association, among others. Along with current professional views on sexual orientation in youth, the primer lays out schools’ legal responsibilities and cites examples where schools were sued major sums for ignoring harassment or for unequal treatment.
In the end, all kids need to feel safe. The schools should encourage openness and tolerance, focusing on identified high-risk groups such as immigrants and gay teens to proactively ensure that support exists before problems arise. A Gay-Straight alliance is a good first step to create a welcoming atmosphere and to reach out to those who may feel scared and alone.
I have a deep personal interest in this. When I was 15, my best friend Bob Krisberg shot himself in the head during spring break. In the midst of my grief and despair my English teacher, Lou Rappaport, offered me safe haven and a place to talk. He was the first person I ever told that I was gay. I will be forever grateful for his solace.
I only wish that any kid struggling in Sag Harbor will know that love and support is out there, from peers and teachers, if they ever face the same despair that my friend once did.
PS: I write this from Baghdad, a city where dozens of gay men have been tortured and killed by religious fundamentalists since the US invasion. More than most, I am keenly aware of the progress our nation has made and I am very grateful.
Long Islanders do not like LIPA for numerous reasons, electric costs being number one. The bi-monthly bill is a budget buster for households and businesses alike.
I want to make a connection between the cost of electricity for us and Medicaid. In a similar fashion to LIPA rates, Medicaid is a budget buster for state and local governments. The massive increases in Medicaid costs have nearly bankrupted every county in our state. In fact, the same is true for many states, as both Republican and Democrat governors are decrying their inability to sustain such a massive cost center.
As much as every Long Islander recognizes that something must be done about electric rates, the same is true for the necessity to reduce Medicaid spending. Reforming Medicaid is not a ‘mean” thing to do; it is common sense once you look at the numbers. Remember, in the end, we pay both of these bills. And both, fair reader, are budget busters.