Giving Bullies a Pass

The recent spate of gay-teen suicides has triggered a nationwide response -- a national anti-bullying conference including representatives from the Education, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Interior, and Justice departments; new guidelines from the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights; and countless submissions to Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" campaign, including videos from straight, high-profile public figures like President Barack Obama.

Indeed, the wave of B-list celebrities and straight liberals making "It Gets Better" videos just keeps growing. But there's a problem: As the discussion about gay-teen suicide has radiated outward, it's stopped being about gay teens. Kim Kardashian has a video relaying how hurt she was at online comments calling her fat. Ezra Klein's video discusses how he was called a nerd in high school. Even Obama's video steers clear of too much talk about gay people, safely focusing on the hurt that comes with "being different or ... not fitting in with everybody else." The public conversation and the policy response have shifted from stopping anti-gay harassment to preventing bullying in general.

As Ann Friedman writes in her column for the Prospect's December issue, by sidestepping the issue, we've squandered a valuable opportunity to talk about what would actually "make things better" for gay people -- both as kids and as adults. That conversation should begin by acknowledging that general "bullying" is different from the sort of prejudice gay kids are up against. It's one thing to be told you're stupid, a dork, or ugly during high school and another to be a permanent member of a stigmatized group.

In this respect, anti-gay harassment is more akin to racial discrimination than the everyday schoolyard taunt. As comedian Margaret Cho says in one of her stand-up acts, "If you call me a slut or a ho, if you tell me I'm ugly, I can argue that; but if you attack me for my race or sexuality, you're attacking who I am." Calling someone a slut is a value judgment, not an attack on who he or she is intrinsically. This is not to say that it's not painful for vulnerable kids to be called names, but it's much easier for a teen to say, "I'm not a slut" than it is to say "I'm not gay" or "I'm not black" if he or she is. And despite the assurance of some commentators that things get better once you have autonomy, anti-gay prejudice doesn't disappear on graduation day.

When kids bandy about the term "gay" as a slur -- or its more derogatory counterparts, "fag" and "queer" -- it bears the force of society's homophobia. It's not just the schoolyard jerk who picks on you. It's the pastor who rails against the "gay agenda" on Sunday, the parent who stands up at a city council meeting and says he moved to your city because it's "the kind of place that would never accept the GLBT community with open arms," and politicians like New York's would-be governor Carl Paladino, who on the campaign trail said things like "there is nothing to be proud of in being a dysfunctional homosexual." Even once you get past high school, you still can't get married or serve in the military, and in most states, your employer can fire you just for being gay. This is the kind of "bullying" gay kids face, and it's the kind no one's standing up to.

If anything, the responses of educators and policy-makers seem designed to illustrate that, for gay teens, it often doesn't get better.

This weekend, The New York Times ran a story about the outcry over anti-bullying campaigns from conservative Christian organizations, which fear these programs will promote acceptance of homosexuality. Kowtowing to these groups, some school boards that initially adopted strong policies to protect gay teens from harassment have scaled back language that refers to sexual orientation. One Minnesota city changed its policy to require that teachers be "neutral" when it comes to discussing sexual orientation (so a teacher can tell kids not to call the gay kid "gay," but she can't tell the class that there's nothing wrong with being gay).

The federal response has been similarly spineless. Not only have Republican legislators in Congress stood in the way of legislation that would protect gay kids from harassment, those who should support such legislation have failed to do so. In October, the Department of Education sent a missive to the nation's school boards reminding them it's against federal law to discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, or disability. Unfortunately, the memo notes, federal law "does not prohibit discrimination solely on the basis of sexual orientation." But neither Education Secretary Arne Duncan nor the president has taken the opportunity to argue that it should or to speak frankly about discrimination against gay kids. Instead, Duncan speaks in broad strokes about how "a positive school environment is foundational to start academic achievement." If powerful public figures and school boards won't stand up for gay teens, who will?

The "It Gets Better" project started off as a community response to growing up gay in a society where that's not accepted. The gay teen in me -- exiled to some remote corner of my consciousness -- feels a little less isolated when I see Fort Worth City Council Member Joel Burns talk about his fear of being rejected by his father and his happiness the day he got engaged. It would have been nice for the public at large to join the conversation, but instead, they changed the subject.

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