by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
L to R: Walter C. Meyer, Brandon Primus, Shirlynn
“We have a pretty safe space at Carlsbad High School, because we’ve had our GSA [Gay-Straight Alliance] for 10 years,” said the Carlsbad High GSA president, a student identified only as Shirlynn, at a special showing of the 2011 documentary Bully at Canvass for a Cause (CFAC) in Hillcrest February 26. “But when it started, people were so against it they would say that Mr. Dearie [the group’s faculty advisor] was a child molester and was Gay. My sister, who’s Lesbian like me, went to the same school and a teacher, Mr. Asher, scheduled an oral on the ‘Day of Silence’ [a nationwide day of action in which students agree not to speak for a day as a protest against anti-Queer bullying and bigotry], and the oral was referred to on the final exam. So people participating in the Day of Silence couldn’t get credit for the final.”
The film Bully, made in 2009-2011 by Jay Hirsch and Cynthia Lowen, is a stark documentary about the terrors certain students face in schools because, for whatever quirky reasons, they’re picked on by their peers and subjected to relentless harassment and, all too often, physical violence. It focuses on five cases — three living students and two, Tyler Long, 17, of Chatsworth, Georgia and Ty Smalley, 11, of Perkins, Oklahoma, who were driven to suicide by the constant bullying and assaults against them by fellow students. The three who survived the bullying were Alex Hopkins, 14, of Sioux City, Iowa; Ja’Meya Jackson, 14, of Yazoo County, Mississippi; and Kelby Johnson, 16, of Tuttle, Oklahoma.
The CFAC screening of Bully was followed by a dynamic and often surprising post-film discussion featuring three invited panelists. Shirlynn was one of them. The other two were Walter C. Meyer, author of the provocative 2009 novel Rounding Third — a searing portrayal of high-school bullying and homophobia that made him an in-demand speaker when a succession of suicides by Queer teens put the issue front and center in the U.S. media a year later — and Brandon Primus from Congressmember Susan Davis’s office. Primus was there to pitch the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA), which Congressmember Davis is co-sponsoring, which would make it the law that “No student shall, on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of such individual or of a person with whom the student associates or has associated, be excluded from participation in, or be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
The fact that all five students profiled in Bully are from the American heartland rather than the relatively cosmopolitan cities on both coasts might make you think that student bullying is merely a rural problem. Think again. According to the Bullying Prevention Institute (http://www.bullyingpreventioninstitute.org/Outreach/MythsAboutBullying.aspx), “Bullying occurs in rural, suburban and urban communities in all geographic regions and among children of every race and income level.” What’s more, much of the torture bullied children go through comes not only from the bullies themselves but the supposedly responsible adults who either refuse to do anything about it at all or effectively encourage it with the idea that the kids being bullied will somehow be toughened by the experience and thereby be better able to handle the stresses of the world they’ll grow up into as adults.
That attitude was reflected in a message board on the www.imdb.com Web page for Bully by Justin Truax, who started a thread called, “I’m Glad I Was Bullied — Here’s Why!” After enduring four years of bullying from fifth to ninth grade and complaining to his parents — “who went to the school, which ultimately did nothing,” Truax said — he joined a wrestling club and learned to fight back. “I said, ‘I'm done taking your **** and I'm not playing games anymore, leave me the **** alone and go masturbate or something.’ I remember saying those exact words. They laughed and went to throw the first punch, then all the training had paid off. I bobbed my head back and came back around with a right hook, square on the jaw. He dropped instantly. The other two were coming after me, so I kicked one of them in the nuts. He went down also. Finally, my bully was standing in front of me. He looked shocked. All the days where I just took it and did nothing in return, it was like he was seeing the second coming of Christ. It was now time for David to nail Goliath in the head with that little rock. Instead of that little rock, it was a nice kick to the liver and a nice knee to the head.”
Truax said the lesson of being bullied and learning to respond in kind prepared him for the adult world and its relentless competition and conflict. “In the real world, there are tons of ‘bullies’ out there and if I went through my life without any enemies or problems, the real world would eat me alive,” Truax wrote. “It’s only because of my bully that I went to those classes to get stronger and more confident. He was the catalyst. If I let my parents, my school, my teachers or my friends fight my battles for me during my life, then ultimately that would get me nowhere. It would get me a lot of pity, but it wouldn’t get me further in life. It wouldn’t get me the confidence that I needed to become a shark in this world instead of a tiny little fish.”
That’s just the problem, said Karl Ericsson of Sweden, who posted a review of Bully to imdb.com. “In a world of competition, one less competitor is a victory for the survivor,” Ericsson wrote. “We know today that it is cooperation that brlngs about development amongst humans and not competition, which only brings about degeneration and death. The American society that allows rich men to bully poor men to death is a society of apes, more or less. Actually it’s worse than a society of apes. Competition is hailed because, like this film and other occurrences show, it keeps the poor fighting each other for the crumbs from the rich’s table and keeps them from cooperating to get rid of the rich bullies. The American way of life is an abomination — get rid of it.”
Some of the participants in the discussion at the CFAC screening had similar points of view. “What’s turning our kids into monsters?” said CFAC staff member Gabe Conaway. “The system is left outside the conversation.” Conaway said that too often the class background of the bullies themselves isn’t considered. When he came out as Queer at 16, he said, “All the kids who picked on me were from poor families.”
Oftentimes, in fact, student-on-student violence begins with a bullying victim who tries to fight back and reaches a point of desperation. The massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in April 1999 is often described as the desperate fight-back of two misfit kids who got tired of being bullied — though a Slate.com article from 2004 (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/assessment/2004/04/the_depressive_and_the_psychopath.single.html) based on a report by an FBI investigator and a psychologist suggested that Columbine shooter Eric Harris was simply a psychopath and his partner in crime, Dylan Klebold, a troubled youth Harris recruited to help him.
Bully itself shows what can happen to a student who tries to fight back against the bullies at their own level. Fourteen-year-old African-American honor student Ja’Meya Jackson of Yazoo County, Mississippi was picked on every day during her hour-long bus ride between home and school. “It all started back when school first began, and there were a lot of kids on the bus saying things about me,” Jackson said in the film. “I tried my best to tell an adult, but it got worse.” So one morning she stole her mother’s gun and took it out on the bus. Though she never actually shot anybody, she was arrested, charged with 45 felony counts including kidnapping and attempted assault, and threatened with multiple life sentences.
“At the point she takes out the gun, that’s 22 counts of kidnapping,” one of the prosecutors explained in the film. “She has 22 counts of attempted aggravated assault. She’s got 45 total felony charges facing her. And for me, there’s nothing, no amount of bullying, or teasing, or picking on, or whatever, there’s nothing, unless someone was actually whipping on this girl every day, unless someone was hitting this young lady in the head and being physically brutal to her, there’s nothing to me that justifies her taking her gun on that bus, I don’t care what it is. … Even though things came out as best they possibly could have, if you added up all the years that she could get it, it would be hundreds of years.” Eventually prosecutors backed off and dropped the charges in exchange for a three-month stint in a psychiatric hospital, but Jackson was bitter that it was she, not the people who bullied her, who was punished.
The Queer Connection
One of the things Bully documents is how overwhelmingly the problem of bullying on school campuses is linked to prejudice and hatred against Queer students and the Queer community in general. According to a report on the Bullying Statistics Web site (http://www.bullyingstatistics.org/content/Gay-bullying-statistics.html), “Gay and Lesbian teens are two to three times as more likely to commit teen suicide than other youths. About 30 percent of all completed suicides have been related to sexual identity crisis. Students who also fall into the Gay, Bisexual, Lesbian or Transgender identity groups report being five times as more likely to miss school because they feel unsafe after being bullied due to their sexual orientation. About 28 percent out of those groups feel forced to drop out of school altogether. Although more and more schools are working to crack down on problems with bullying, teens are still continuing to bully each other due to sexual orientation and other factors.”
“The bullying of kids who are LGBT [Queer] is probably the largest growth area in our docket,” said John Perez, head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division at a hearing on the U.S. Senate version of the Student Non-Discrimination Act in September 2011. ”This is about safety — whether it’s kids who are Gay, whether it’s kids who are Muslim, whether it’s kids who speak English with an accent, whether it’s kids with disabilities, and we have in Tennessee a case involving bullying of kids with disabilities — this is an emerging growth area, I regret to say.”
Two of the bullying victims profiled in the film, Kelby Johnson and the late Tyler Long, were openly Queer. Tyler was repeatedly called “fag,” “geek” and other epithets by his classmates. “It took a toll on him early in middle school to where he cried, and then it got to the point where he didn’t cry anymore,” his father, David Long, said in the film. “And that’s when it became difficult to truly understand what he was going through.”
Kelby Johnson is identified as a Lesbian in the film, but since then has come out as Transgender and accepted a position as an intern in the Washington, D.C. office of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). GLSEN’s Web site and the Dallas Voice, a Queer paper that covered Kelby’s first public appearance as a Transgender teen, variously identify Kelby as “they” and “he.”
Ironically, of the five victims portrayed in Bully, Kelby seemed to have done the best job of “toughing it out,” maintaining their belief in themselves despite the bullying — even though the film tells us they’ve tried suicide three times and cut themselves. Kelby also vividly describes the guilt by association that leads any student who dares stand up for a victim to be bullied themselves: “I’m not welcome at church. I’m not welcome in a lot of people’s homes. I know [my friends] get called Gay just for hanging out with me.”
One of the cruelest aspects of bullying is that the same anti-Queer epithets get hauled out by virtually all bullies against their victims, whether they’re Queer or not. Alex Hopkins, whose story in the movie became the most famous one because the bullies went farther against him than anyone else — so much so that the filmmakers shared their footage of him being beaten and abused on the school bus to his parents and the school authorities — is a young man with Asperger’s syndrome, a relatively mild form of autism.
It’s only at the very end, when the filmmakers show Alex going through his school yearbook and pointing out all the girls who turn him on, that they acknowledge that he’s straight. It’s almost as if Hirsch and Lowen were leading us up the garden path, letting us assume that Alex was Queer because that’s what his bullies were calling him and then springing the trap on us in the final reel: “Ya got it? He’s straight! And you bought into what the bullies were calling him! You saw him just like they did!”
“We still have bullying,” said Shirlynn at the CFAC showing of Bully. “I haven’t put up with it since elementary school, but last year one of our students was being bullied and it was so bad — she was in P.E. and got basketballs thrown at her — a straight male had to be with her wherever she was.”
“I’ve been waiting to see this movie for a while,” said Meyer, who told Zenger’s (which interviewed him shortly after Rounding Third was published: see http://zengersmag.blogspot.com/search?q=rounding+third) that he’s been kept so busy delivering speeches about anti-Queer bullying he hasn’t had time to finish the long-planned sequel to his novel. “I wrote a novel, but I never knew it would become what it has,” Meyer said. “It came out just before the bullying crisis hit the news, and I got all these calls to speak about it.” Meyer said that some of Rounding Third came from his own experiences in high school, other parts from stories he’d heard, and it rang so true with many readers that “I got calls from people saying, ‘Did you follow me in school?’”
Along with laws making bullying a civil-rights issue, Meyer said, we also need laws like SB 48, passed last year in the California legislature, which mandated that this state’s public schools give students age-appropriate instruction about the contributions made by Queer people to U.S. and California history, politics and culture. According to a fact sheet prepared by the staff of openly Queer State Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who sponsored the law, “Only 11 percent of [Queer] students [in California] report being bullied, but that number more than doubles to 24 percent if the majority of students in a school say they haven’t learned about LGBT people.”
“If teachers teach about Gay history and culture, the rate of bullying goes down,” Meyer said. “If you have a Gay-Straight Alliance in school, bullying goes down because it completely changes the atmosphere.” Though he admires the efforts of David Long and his wife Tina depicted in the film — they channeled their grief over their son’s suicide and started a nationwide grass-roots network that holds anti-bullying rallies and tries to build awareness one school at a time — Meyer said, “It’s not the bullies or the parents going to the rallies. It’s going to take laws to stop this.”