31 October, 2010

It gets better - but it needs help

There's two things going on at the moment, mostly in the US, but it's also spilling over here too. The first is that there have been a string of young, queer people who have killed themselves due to the constant bullying that they receive for their particular shade of different. Whether this is something that has recently reached a crescendo or that it's rather that the mainstream is just starting to pay attention, doesn't matter - it's starting to get the attention it requires.

The second is the response. Celebrities across the US are posting videos online and giving speeches on their talk shows telling same-sex attracted youth that it gets better, that life is worth living, and pleading with the everyone to end the homophobic and transphobic bullying. The latest trend started when Dan Savage posted a video titled It Gets Better, with a number of celebrities, including Ellen DeGeneres contributing to the project. I must say that I am impressed by this - usually the mainstream media don't like talking so frankly about queer issues, preferring to sit on the "balanced" sidelines.

I am absolutely thrilled that this is happening, but I'm worried that as soon as the novelty wears off, we'll find something else to worry about, and the abuse and the suicides will continue to happen.

In New Zealand, gay, lesbian and bi youth are three times more likely than their straight counterparts to be bullied for being gay, or being thought of as gay. I'm not sure what the stats are like in other countries, but from what I understand that it doesn't get much better.

There is a reason that young queer people are being singled out and bullied, and it goes quite a bit beyond general schoolyard meanness. As a teenager at school, you're pretty much guaranteed to be bullied if they don't fit into whichever clique is supposed to be popular. Nerds and geeks are classical fare, as are the fat kids, and those who are just arbitrarily deemed unpopular. But if you're labelled 'gay' - even if you're really not - then life can become a living hell. At school, I fell into all those categories.

There needs to be a lot more done to curb bullying in schools. A lot of the abuse is often just passed off as childhood and teenage meanness; we certainly wouldn't expect adults to act like that. But when homophobia and queerphobia gets involved it becomes much worse - who you love and who you find attractive become one of the most things in a teenagers life once puberty strikes, and coupled with the overwhelming desire to fit in and do and like the 'right' things, things can get very stressful for a young queer person even before you add bullying into the mix. Children and teenagers can be very cruel - I should know: I spent years being bullied and taunted everyday, including two years at a boarding school I couldn't escape, for having the audacity of being different in a way that was outside my control, and for not following the rules of that society which, to this day, I can't totally comprehend.

I think that there is a dangerous myth present here that knocks back efforts to curb school-yard bullying - that children are cruel, purely because children are cruel. I really don't think that is the case. Yes they can be blunt, yes they take time to learn about things like compassion and empathy. Male children are learning how to establish hierarchies and pecking orders, in which they put others down. But I don't think that's enough to explain it all. Where do they get their ideas of how to be at the top of that pecking order? How do they know who to pick on; who's 'different'?


Quite simple, really. No prizes for me. Some children might not have developed their empathy, but that doesn't mean that they're incapable of understanding it (children are capable of understanding anything if you explain it to them) and it is the duty of adults, especially parents and educators, to explain it to them. And it is also adults who spread most of the lies, misunderstandings and stereotypes about homosexuals and queer people.

“Being a fag doesnt [sic] give you the right to ruin the rest of our lives. If you get easily offended by being called a fag then dont tell anyone you are a fag. Keep that shit to yourself [...]  I like that fags cant procreate. I also enjoy the fact that they often give each other aids and die. If you arent against it, you might as well be for it.”
That from Clint McCance, a school board member in Arkansas in responce to students wearing purple in memory of - and to protest the homophobia that led to - the recent, high-profile cases of gay teenage suicide. Read that again: a school board member, i.e. a person who influences teenagers' education. There's currently a Facebook campaign calling for him to be fired. Thanks to the fallout, McChance has since announced that he will resign from the school board. (Just as well, too - do we really want someone in charge of people's education when he can't seem to comprehend an apostrophy's role in contractions?)

Another person to not like It Gets Better, is a strange person called Mike Adams. In the interest of one-upping those annoying gay suicides, he decided to write about the suicides of eight straight people due to "harassment" by homosexuals. The cases he cites are all real except for two subtle points. The first is that they couldn't really be counted as "harassment." One of his 'victims' had recommended a homophobic book for a freshman reading course as a library committee member, and another member filed a harassment complaint against him. Because of that complaint, the librarian took his own life. Except, as he admits at the end of his rant, he didn't. And that's the other point. None of his 'victims' took their own lives. Instead, they're mostly sueing the people who "harassed" them.

So, Adams - a college professor - tried to out do a spate of teen suicides caused by horrific homophobic bullying by equating that abuse (which has included kidnapping and torture) with what mostly amounts to being called out for their bullshit, and then not committing suicide. Harassment is not being told you can't be a bigot. Harassment is being called a fag every other day. It is being spat on on the street. It's being told that you shouldn't be allowed to marry your partner. It's being accused of paedophilia and bestiality. It's being called a disease ridden whore. And not just being picked on by high-schoolers, but by entire churches and religious leaders, celebrities and politicians - all of these people demanding freedom of speech and religion to deny the rights of others, apparently without noticing the irony of their actions.

Fun fact: Adams is also a misogynist.

So, what to do? First of all, we must remember that there is no arguable defence of homophobia and queerphobia. None. Is it a 'sin?' Nope. Does it lead to paedophilia, rape and incest, or be kept away from children? Nope. Is it 'unnatural' (however you qualify or measure that)? Nope. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, or any other shade of queer is no more wrong than being left-handed, or blond, or female, or black.

Next: be visible. Show people that it's not shameful to be queer. Be visible in your sexuality, or your acceptance of the differing sexualities. I know a lot of people don't want to do this for fear of precisely the things we are trying to fight, but we need to make ubiquitus the idea that being gay or lesbian or bisexual or trans or queer - being different - is completely normal* and acceptable.

* Normal, as in an everyday, natural occurance, not as in statistically average. I am aware of how stupid that word it.

And finally, we need to discourage homophobia and queerphobia wherever we see it. When people say "that's so gay" or call someone they don't like a "homo," tell them that that's not alright. When someone says that gays can't raise children, ask for proof, and let them know that, according to research, children raised by lesbians fare better than those raised in heterosexual households. If they say that it's a 'sin' or that God forbids it, point out leviticus, along with prohibiting male homosexual acts, also forbids the eating of shellfish (which also uses the term abomination), shaving, vegetable gardens, doing anything on a Saturday, and mensturating women from sitting on chairs - furthermore, there are stories of a lesbian couple and two gay couples.

Everyone needs to own this problem; both queer people and 'straight', but especially adults. It's time we got rid of homophobia and queerphobia, and all other forms of bigotry, once and for all. Oppose it whenever you witness it, and tell people that it's not OK.

To all those teachers, parents and caregivers, you need to go out of your way to loof for and discourage homophobic and queerphobic bullying. Yes, all bullying is bad and needs to be stopped, but for too long, bullying of young queer people has been largely ignored. It's your job to ensure that children and teenagers are raised in an environment free from persecution and harassment, and that they understand that they live in a diverse world with many different types of people, just trying to live as who and what they are, and that bigotry is unacceptable.

And to all those people, young people especially, who are being bullied and abused for being gay or being perceived as gay; for all those who are caught in a spiral of depression and are comtemplating suicide, know this: It gets better. You grow up. The arseholes go away. You can get away from it. You can do something about it. I've been there - I've been bullied, yelled at, called a 'faggot' and been tormented. When I was at Timaru Boys High School, as a boarder, I was in an inescapable cuccoon of hypermasculine homophobia. The prefects egged it on, and the housemasters cared more about not letting my parents think there was anything wrong with the hostel than whether I was alright. (It was at the boarding school, that I developed my keen disdain for hegemony, authoritarinism and also militarianism)

But I grew up. I was able to leave Timaru Boys† and, although Ashburton College (shut up) didn't fare much better in the homophobia department, I eventually left that too. I went to university - the bullies dropped out. Now, I'm the happiest I've ever been.

 † I have nothing against the school itself, except the rigid, Christian, superiority complex that I remember. It's the boarding hostel, Thomas House, or rather those that ran it at the time, that draws the attention of my ire.

Life gets better. Even if you're being dragged throught the shit, don't give up. Depression can cloud your judgement and make you unable to see through the storm. It may even make you just want to give up and kill yourself. But that's never the answer. Once you're dead, you're dead forever. You can't go back and fix it. Instead of killing yourself, hold on. I know it may seem futile, but grab onto whatever gives you strength and keep going. Just remember that it does get better.

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