Bullying: America’s National Pastime
Queer Youth Victims of a Homo-Hating Culture
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN, Editor
Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
I was probably lucky that I didn’t really know I was Gay until I was 24. I was coming out of the bookstore at San Francisco State University and another man was going in when he decided to cruise me. “I’d like to blow you away,” he said, and gave me his phone number. I got very little sleep that night: I tossed, turned, got up, opened the book in which I’d stuck his phone number, and finally realized, “You’re going to call this guy, and you’re going to meet him.” I did, and I did, and I ended up having sex for only the second time in my life and the first time with a man.
So I didn’t actually live the tortures Queer kids have reported going through in middle school and high school, the ones that led kids like 13-year-old Seth Walsh of Fresno, California; 13-year-old Asher Brown from Houston’s suburbs; and 15-year-old Billy Lucas of Greensburg, Indiana to kill themselves in the last month. And since the Internet didn’t exist yet, my first Queer tryst with a fellow college student wasn’t filmed and put up on the Web by my roommates, as happened to Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, shaming him into suicide.
But I certainly got bullied, and maybe on some weird subliminal wavelength the people who did tease and bully me — worse in the seventh grade than at any other point in my life — were on to something about me before I was. After all, I was a virtual walking stereotype of the sort of boy who grows up to be Gay: small, weak, petrified of getting into a fight, lousy at sports, great at schoolwork and inclined to react to traumas by locking myself in my room at home and playing records of classical, opera or show tunes. Ironically, things started looking up for me when I made it to high school, if only because high school was large enough and the era in which I went there — the late 1960’s — sufficiently Bohemian and counter-cultural I found enough fellow misfits, whatever their sexuality, to make friends and feel that I wasn’t alone.
The suicides of Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, Billy Lucas and Tyler Clementi have become a news story even though I suspect at least as many Queer kids kill themselves at the beginning of a new school year every year and this time it just happens to have become a mainstream media event. They’ve become an excuse for the usual cant, the usual hand-wringing, the usual frantic mobilizations by Queer activists who think if they can just set up enough organizations, put up enough Queer-positive Web sites, build enough support from the non-Queer public, somehow we can reach future Queer youth and persuade them that life is worth living — that, as Seattle Stranger columnist Dan Savage put it in a video he and his husband Terry posted to a YouTube page they call “It Gets Better” [www.youtube.com/itgetsbetterproject], “Your life can be amazing, but you have to tough this period of it out. And you have to live your life so you’re around for it to get amazing.”
But in persuading the Queer or so-called “questioning” youth that his or her life is worth living and worth sticking out this misery and pain in order to get to the good parts later on, Dan Savage, the people behind the Trevor Project [www.thetrevorproject.org; 1-(800) 488-7386] and all the other activists bearing the “it gets better” message are up against a level of social revulsion against Queer people that remains astonishingly forbidding and impermeable. One would think the progress we’ve made over the years — thanks largely to our own activism, we’ve ended the laws criminalizing our sexual expression, about half the states make it illegal for employers to discriminate against us, a handful of states even allow us to marry our partners; and we’ve made inroads as both personalities and characters in movies and on TV — would have started to eat away at the prejudices and eased the horror many teenagers feel when they start to realize that their emotional and erotic impulses are directed at members of their own, not the opposite, gender.
But no-o-o-o-o: whatever progress we’ve made has been little more than window-dressing on what remains a pretty relentlessly homophobic society. Can it be coincidence that this spate of Queer teen suicides occurred just after a solid Republican minority in the U.S. Senate used the filibuster to block repeal of the hateful “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prohibits Queers from serving openly in the U.S. military? What kind of a message does that send to Queer or “questioning” youth — that because you’re a man-loving-man or a woman-loving woman, your country doesn’t even consider you morally fit to lay down your life for it? Thanks to the never-ending demand for cannon fodder for Afghanistan, Iraq and the U.S.’s other military commitments around the world, the military has relaxed its standards enough that you can get in if you’re a convicted felon, a drug user or actively autistic — but not if you’re Queer and you refuse to lie about it.
America’s majority religion, Christianity, endlessly repeats the message that we’re sinners, we’re evil, we’re hated by God, we’re doomed to Hell. (Not all Christian churches say those things, but the biggest ones and the ones that get the most publicity do.) The Right-wing media ceaselessly attack us and ridicule the very idea that we should expect to have our sexuality and our relationships respected. And the American electorate has proven, over and over again, that it hates us: in every state where our marriage rights have been on the ballot, we have lost: majorities ranging from 52 percent in California and Maine to 90 percent in Kentucky have told us we are at best second-class citizens and at worst scum of the earth. It’s particularly relevant to the question of why Queer teens kill themselves that one of the most effective arguments for the anti-marriage initiatives has been that if you allow same-sex marriage, kids will be taught about it in schools. God forbid that schoolchildren actually hear a Queer-positive message from their teachers as part of the official curriculum!
What’s more, we live in an America that has made bullying not only a national pastime but has made heroes and superstars of the bullies themselves. Look at Rush Limbaugh and listen to his hectoring voice: what is he if not a schoolyard bully writ large, with his puffy body and his smirking self-righteousness? Talk radio and Fox News have hired bullies and made them not only well-paid entertainers but arbiters of American politics; listen to the snide laugh every Right-wing talk-show host brings to bear in discussing the opposition, and the crude, malicious “jokes” they tell (like Mark Levin referring to rival media outlets as the “Associated Depress” and the “Los Angeles Slimes”), and see if you don’t agree with me that the popularity of talk radio is the exaltation of the bully and the bullying spirit.
And it’s gotten even nastier with the Internet, and in particular with the cult of anonymity that surrounds it. The classmates who bullied Billy Lucas into suicide didn’t even stop tormenting him with his death; they hacked into the memorial Facebook page and vandalized it with further anti-Queer insults. The roommates who put Tyler Clementi’s sex life online responded to his protests by posting more clips of him and spreading them to more sites. The Internet has cultivated a culture where nobody feels compelled to accept responsibility for anything they say or write — and where instead of the face-to-face insults of old, where you could at least confront your accusers even if you couldn’t stop them, the new bullies use the responsibility-free anonymity of cyberspace to render their insults untraceable and therefore make them sting even harder.
Richard Swanson, the superintendent of the district where Seth Walsh went to school, did at least some of the right things. He had his staff conduct quarterly assemblies on behavior, taught tolerance in the classroom and had, he told the New York Times, “definite discipline procedures that respond to bullying.” But they weren’t enough to prevent Seth from killing himself, and Swanson sadly told the Times, “Maybe they couldn’t have.” As long as you have a society that hates Queers — that hates weakness in general and sees same-sex affections as a sign of weakness — that exalts bullies and rewards them with power, money and fame, and that is so relentlessly hypercompetitive that even its entertainment (the so-called “reality” shows on TV that broadcast the message, over and over, that there can be only one winner and everyone else doesn’t matter) exalts a definition of “strength” that means destroying the other guy — we’re going to be seen as weak, vulnerable, unworthy to live. And all too many of us are going to internalize that message and take ourselves out — meaning, as Dan Savage said in his YouTube video, “that the bullies have won.”