By Claire Walla
For one mother in the Sag Harbor School District, her son’s taunting started back in third grade. He was aware of his sexuality early on, she said, and was regularly made fun of for being different. (For privacy’s sake, she has asked not to be named.)
Her son — who’s now at Pierson—doesn’t talk about being bullied much anymore, which led her to believe he was finally being left alone.
“I said, ‘You’re so popular and you seem so happy,’” she recalled telling him at the end of last year. But that wasn’t the case. “He told me, ‘They bully me every day now. I just let it roll off of me.’”
While she said her son now has the tools to deal with the name-calling and he doesn’t blame anyone for not stepping in to defend him, the fact that kids are still using the word “gay” is a problem.
In her son’s experience, she said the taunting has varied from students flippantly using the word “gay” in a derogatory way mid-conversation, to more “vicious,” targeted remarks. One of the difficulties in addressing the issue, she continued, is that there aren’t many students who are out, which means the school district has not had to confront many issues of homosexuality.
“Maybe students are just comfortable and accepted,” she offered. “But, we [she and her husband] feel the need for some action to be taken.”
The mother is spearheading two efforts to address the bullying of what she termed “gender non-conforming” students within the Sag Harbor School District. At the elementary school, where she said kids might not be aware that using the term “gay” can be offensive, she has purchased an educational video for teachers called “It’s Elementary.” The video gives teachers practical tools to address any anti-gay prejudice they may encounter. So far, she said a couple of teachers have expressed interest in seeing the video and have also lent their support in trying to show it to the rest of the faculty.
“If kids knew that that word was hurtful, my hope is that they wouldn’t use it,” the mother explained.
At the high school, where kids are more apt to have already discovered their sexuality, she hopes the district will implement a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). The club will need at least 10 members before it can officially be formed.
In the past, School Superintendent Dr. John Gratto said the school has never specifically addressed bullying based on sexual orientation.
“I’m not sure there’s been a need to, because we try to treat all kids with dignity,” he explained in an interview. “Is that any different than a girl who’s overweight? Or a boy who’s skinnier than his peers?”
What’s more, Dr. Gratto said he has not observed more students being bullied for being gay than for any other issue.
Similarly, Debbie Skinner, Director of the Youth Advocacy and Resource Development (YARD) Program, added she hasn’t noticed much bullying at all after school.
“I see a lot of little dramas,” Skinner explained. “But I just try to nip it in the bud and diffuse the situation immediately.”
Pierson Middle School Assistant Principal Barbara Bekermus said she is constantly reevaluating the school’s efforts to prevent bullying, and implementing new ways of addressing these issues when they arise.
In fact, this year she said she hopes to run anti-bullying workshops during students’ academic support sessions at the end of the school day. In this setting, students will have the opportunity to talk in smaller groups, which she hopes will encourage them to open-up more easily. She has already worked with some teachers and administrators on workshops to address specific topics, including racism and body type.
“I haven’t done a workshop just on the word ‘gay,’” she continued. But Bekermus said she understands parents’ desires to shed light on the issue. “Personally, I think it’s an important thing to address.”
However, she added that homosexuality and bullying have never fully been discussed under the same umbrella within the district because it’s never really been brought up before. She speculated this might be because the topic is sensitive for some parents.
“With homosexuality, it crosses into religion,” she explained, which makes things tricky. “Bullying someone for being fat or skinny is not about religion.”
School Board President Mary Anne Miller recognizes that there are some families in the school district who may be homophobic. But overall, she said families in the Sag Harbor School District are lucky to be living in a relatively liberal area where there are students in the school district who do have gay parents, and it’s accepted.
“Our district has a lot of gay families and bi-racial families, and because we’re so small, more of us get to experience that more often,” Miller said. “But, do we need to educate kids more, and create more awareness [of these issues]?” she asked rhetorically, stepping back to look at the bigger picture. “Obviously we do, because look at our society. We’re still not doing a good job of creating that acceptance.”
The mother echoed Miller’s remarks, explaining how difficult it can be to address these issues as a parent.
“So many people think that when you support your gender non-conforming child that you’re trying to make them gay,” she said. “People have such misconstrued ideas. It’s just about support. And that’s what the GSA is all about.”
After a meeting with Dr. Gratto last week, the mother said the district seems to back her effort to bring a GSA club to the school. She doesn’t expect it to happen overnight, but she’s happy to know the school is willing to open the door for her son.
“He thinks he’s the only one at the school that’s like him,” she said. She knows there are more students at Pierson who are gay, but some aren’t open with their sexuality.
“A lot of kids wait until college to come out, which is fine,” she said. “But we want our son to be able to be who he is now.”