Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Inadvertent Bully

Lately, a lot of people have been talking about bullying, in particular about the gay high school/college kids who have committed suicide.  I, being an indescribably passionate fan of the intelligent, hilarious, fearless and occasionally slightly vulgar Dan Savage, was excited by his It Gets Better project from the day he first announced it on his podcast (called Savage Love, his super awesome weekly love/sex advice podcast, check it out).  It started out as a channel on YouTube, he and his spotlight-shy boyfriend recorded the first video aimed at young people in crisis with the message that It Gets Better.  He invited anyone to contribute their own videos, with the goal of communicating to gay kids that, regardless of how oppressive things get if surrounded by narrow-minded jerks during school, as adults they can choose their own friends, their own partners, and have a happy successful life.

The It Gets Better project took off quickly, with thousands of people posting videos, including celebrities and politicians (even President Obama).  Some are sweet, some are kind of cute, and some poignant - like the one from Tim Gunn, who shared that he attempted suicide when he was bullied as a teenager.

A lot of people on tv have been talking about bullying, as well.  I saw Madonna on Ellen's show, discussing the problem.  It is obviously a good thing when people talk about how to make things better for suffering young people, and how to prevent suicides.  However, listening to them go around and around with vague platitudes about raising awareness and stopping bullying, I couldn't help but feel like they were missing the point.

Now, I am not a parent, I am not a teenager; but I used to be a teenager, I saw bullying, and I try to be a thoughtful and empathetic human being.  Something Dan Savage said recently on a podcast rang true to me, and I feel like it's at least part of the point people are missing, so I wanted to share it.

A caller accused Dan of being negative about Christians, of assuming Christians are, in some way or another, behind the bullying.  With his typical brilliant bluntness, Dan said that a parent who speaks about homosexuality in any way other than with respect and acceptance is contributing.  (I am recalling this to the best of my ability, I'm certainly not quoting here.)  He said that when a child hears their parents talk about how gay people shouldn't adopt, shouldn't get married, shouldn't have the exact same rights that everyone else has, they get the message that there is something wrong with gay people.  Any parent who says that God teaches that homosexuality is wrong is telling their children that gay people are wrong.

It's hard to be a teenager. Virtually everyone is bullied or is a bully, to some degree, during school years.  I think judging people, looking for weaknesses, and stereotyping is an inevitable part of figuring out who you are, and finding your place in society.  I know I was a total dumbass a lot of the time, and even though I was too quiet and shy to be much of a bully to anyone, I do remember thinking less of people because of absolutely insignificant differences.

So what happens when kids, struggling with issues and insecurities of their own, hear their parents say that gay people shouldn't have equal rights?  In at least some cases, they go to school and target the gay kids.

Sure, there are probably some parents who are actual raging homophobes who actively encourage their kids to go be violent and cruel to classmates, but honestly, that has to be a small minority, right?  Probably the vast majority are parents who think of themselves as fair, open-minded people, who are fine with gay people in theory, but not in actual fact.

And to be completely honest, I am most irritated by the people attempting to hide in the middle of the gray area, not willing to take a firm stance either way.  People who believe that God literally spoke out against gay people in the Bible, who believe that gays are doomed to hell (and therefore, it would follow, evil) are, in my opinion, sadly hateful; but at least they are sincere in their belief.  The people who really piss me off are those who say they have no agenda against gays but consistently vote against equal rights.  The people who say they are not homophobic, they even know a gay person or two; but they don't think gay people should marry or adopt.  The people who say they are fine with gay people doing whatever they want, but behind closed doors. And I bet it's those people who are indirectly and inadvertently encouraging their children to bully gay teens.

Whether or not it was deliberate on the part of the parents doesn't matter at all to a tormented gay teen who is considering suicide.