Gender and Schooling

Ending bullying and harassment, and promoting sexual diversity in schools.

Homophobia & Suicide: A Wake Up Call for Parents and Educators

How many deaths will it take for our school leaders to make this a priority?

This blog post is hard to write because of the wave of recent tragedies resulting from homophobic harassment. I have been writing this blog for over a year (see my first post on this topic), conducting research on this topic for over seven years, and have been working against homophobia and related forms of gendered harassment in schools since I first started teaching at a high school in New York in 1993. It's hard to write because I am so upset that these tragedies are still occurring with such frequency and most adults responsible for the care, support and education of our youth still refuse to take action against this systemic problem. The range of ages, towns, states of these young men show that this is a widespread issue that requires immediate attention from parents and educators at all levels. I am so sad for these young men and their families and so angry at their tormentors and teachers for allowing this abuse to continue.

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In the past month, the following young men have committed suicide:
Tyler Clementi September 29, 2010: Tyler Clementi, 18 years old, Rutgers University Freshman

 September 28, 2010: Seth Walsh, 13 years old, Tehachapi, CA

Asher Brown September 23, 2010: Asher Brown, 13 years old, Houston, TX

Billy Lucas September 9, 2010: Billy Lucas, 15 years old, Greensburg, IN

These tragedies are helping bring this crisis to the attention of the national media so now is the perfect moment to demand that our schools do a better job handling the issue of homophobia and gendered harassment. What can be done?

  1. Teachers need to educate themselves and intervene in all incidents of homophobia in the school community.
  2. School leaders need to revise their bullying and harassment policies to explicitly include ALL forms of gendered harassment (sexual, sexual orientation, and gender identity/expression) and to reduce the prevalence of homophobic and transphobic behaviors.
  3. Principals need to communicate clear expectations to their staff about how to implement these inclusive bullying, harassment, and non-discrimination policies.
  4. School districts need to allocate funds for ongoing education and institute effective reporting and tracking mechanisms to better understand bullying, harassment and specifically address homophobia, transphobia and gendered harassment.
  5. Schools need to develop partnerships with knowledgeable local and national community groups that can support their efforts (see link below to find websites for such organizations).
  6. Parents need to unconditionally support their children and document each incident and each interaction with school personnel. If the teachers and principals are not taking appropriate action, you need to take your complaints to the next level: the school district, the local Office for Civil Rights, the ACLU, or even the local media.
  7. Students need to stand up to their peers and let them know that homophobic jokes, gender-based slurs, and other forms of bullying and harassment are not "cool", funny, or okay.

Journalist Dan Savage has started a YouTube channel  to reach out to youth who may be targeted for these forms of harassment in order to help them know that "it gets better." Savage and his partner posted an 8 minute video that describes the harassment they experienced growing up, but also emphasizes the full and joyful life that they are now living. Many others have followed this example and this channel is now full of personal stories of people who survived painful and persistent exclusion, harassment, and violence - but now are living full and satisfying lives. These stories may offer valuable support to youth in crisis and are in a format that is easily and freely accessible to anyone with internet access. I encourage you to share these stories with your children, your students, and use them as a starting point for important conversations about the harmful impacts of homophobia and other forms of bias and systemic discrimination.

I just gave birth to a son 3 weeks ago and I already fear the challenges he will face growing up in a culture that only values one type of guy; that only celebrates a very narrow kind of macho-masculinity. He is going to grow up in a family headed by two moms and will most likely face bullying, harassment, and exclusion at school as a result of this fact. I hope to raise him to be strong and caring, athletic and creative, and willing to stand up in the face of injustice. As parents we must be willing to see and love our children for who they are and not who we want them to be. The fear of rejection at home is often what keeps youth silent and suffering alone when subjected to anti-gay harassment.

The time for action is now. How many more deaths will it take for our schools and our educational leaders to make this a priority? One policy measure that is working its way through Congress that could help is the Safe Schools Improvement Act, GLSEN has posted a helpful summary. Please call your Senator and ask him/her to co-sponsor this act that would require schools to implement comprehensive anti-bullying policies that will specifically address homophobia and other forms of bias. Do it for your child, your students, and do it for Tyler, Seth, Asher, and Billy.

For more information and resources, you can visit my social bookmarking page: www.delicious.com/lizjmeyer - if you click on the "bgltq" tag you will find a long list of websites that offer information about community groups that offer education and advocacy around these issues. My webpage also offers some helpful publications and information. I have also written two books to help parents and educators better understand these issues:

Elizabeth Meyer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California.

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