Friday, October 8, 2010

"It Gets Better," Part Five -- Taking Action in Our Schools

So after all the time I spent writing four posts related to Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project, I was fired up, and I decided I should take action.  Enough writing about it, how about doing something about it.  But what could I do?

I thought for a few moments.  Then it came to me.  A few blocks from where I live is a secondary school, grades 8 thru 12, about 1,000 students in total according to current information on school's website.  What if I contacted the principal of the school, asked him if he was aware of the recent crisis involving numerous LGBTQ teens in the United States killing themselves because of all the bullying they were subjected to?

What if I made him aware I'm a gay man who lives in the area, and I want to help.  I want to be a part of the solution and not passively allow myself to remain part of the problem?  I'm willing to put myself out there, to get involved.  It's not someone else's problem, it's my problem, it's our problem, and I don't know what I can do but, if he has any suggestions, I'm willing to do them.  What if...?

I was all ready to do it.  Then I read this, from Dan Savage's column on the recent suicide death of Billy Lucas:

"But gay adults aren't allowed to talk to these kids. Schools and churches don't bring us in to talk to teenagers who are being bullied. Many of these kids have homophobic parents who believe that they can prevent their gay children from growing up to be gay—or from ever coming out—by depriving them of information, resources, and positive role models.

(Taken from YouTube, "It Gets Better," by Dan Savage.)

Well.  There went my excitement.  Silly me.  I thought perhaps I knew a thing or two about being gay--I've been gay all my life--and about bullying--went through seven or more years of it in public schools--that I could be helpful to kids questioning their own sexuality and dealing with their own instances of bullying.  But how could I forget, it wouldn't be like I was going into the schools to teach English or Wood Work or Math.

I'm gay, for heaven's sake.  There's no value placed on that, even if I could say something that would be helpful to youth at risk of killing themselves.

My imagination went a little crazy.  I thought about fifteen-year-old Johnny, a grade 9 student, telling his parents at the dinner table about the 51-year-old man who talked to his class about what it's like to be gay, and the damage bullying does, and how being gay is all right, and it's just another way people are different from each other, and we need to support rather than put each other down because we're all different in one way or another.  

Do you have a picture yet of how Johnny's parents would react?  Can you imagine the phone calls the school would receive the next day, after all the children in Johnny's class told their parents what the gay man said.

"What were you thinking?" the angry parents would yell into the phone, or in the principal's face, the line-up outside his office extending down the hallway.  "Where the hell was your head?  How could you think I'd want my son [or daughter] exposed to that?  I don't need anyone telling Johnny it's okay to be gay.  It's not okay to be gay.  He knows that.  I've already told him.  And the last thing I need is someone coming in here and contradicting what I've said.  He's my son, and I'm responsible for raising him, and filling his head with what should be there.  If you pull an asinine stunt like this again, I'll pull him out of this school and enrol him elsewhere, even if it means I have to drive out of my way to get him there.  Exposing young impressionable children to gay people--  I should have your job for that."

Well, you get the idea.  Perhaps the supposed reaction from my hypothetical upset parent is exaggerated, but I can't imagine any school principal or school district would allow a gay man into a school to talk to students without first clearing it with the parents whose children attend the school.  In fact, I'd say probably long before that, someone in authority at the school district would refuse the gay man's offer to help.  Thanks, but no thanks.  Our students's parents would never approve.

The irony here is, perhaps Johnny is among the several dozen kids questioning his sexuality.  Perhaps some of the other kids at school bully him as a result, but he's too scared of his bullies to tell anyone in authority.  And God knows he's too scared to tell his parents because they've already made clear to him what they think about homosexuality and gay people.  So Johnny puts up with the bullying.  What choice does he have?

At fifteen years of age, Johnny is only in grade 9.  Potentially, he'll attend the same school for another three years until he graduates.  The bullying will continue because it never stops over something as sensational as someone being gay.  In fact, as his classmates become older, the bullying will likely intensify.  The epithets will cut deeper, the physical abuse will become more severe.  And all of it will happen when no teacher is around to see it, assuming teachers would do something about it if they saw it anyway.

So instead of school being an inspiring place for Johnny to learn, it becomes a place to fear.  He dreads going to school every morning.  His mind isn't on his studies, it's on how to avoid his bullies walking down the hallway, to get from one classroom to another without getting spit on or tripped or punched.  And how he'll get home safely without being beaten up in the field across from the school.  The bullying could become so intense and so intolerable, he avoids going to school altogether, cutting classes, getting into trouble in the neighborhood, or worse....

All the while, Johnny knows he's different from the other kids.  He doesn't understand all the ways he's different, but he knows he is, and some of the other kids have picked up on it.  He used to have one or two friends, but he doesn't anymore because his friends don't want to get picked on either.  They're scared if they associate with Johnny, people will think they're different, too.  And the last thing they want is anyone to think they're gay, just because they associate with Johnny.    

I'm not saying having a gay man come into the school to talk to kids would solve all of the potential problems.  What I am saying is it would put a face to the daily reality of being gay in the world.  Kids would see someone older, someone respectable from the community.  Kids would see a positive role model for being gay.  Kids would know being gay really is all right.

I know the world's not perfect.  I understand that.  But I imagine how, at Johnny's age, I would have appreciated a gay man coming into my class to talk about what it's like to be gay.  How I would have seen myself in him, in the greater context of the community and the world, and I would have known I wasn't alone after all.  And as I heard that gay man talk about how difficult being gay and bullied was for him, I would have had an example in front of me, showing me I can and will get through this, despite the isolation and the pain and the loneliness.  I would have known I'd survive, and I'd go on to do great things some day.  


  1. Hi Rick,

    The first time I wrote this comment it got rejected because it has more than 4096 characters! LOL So I am going to split it into half if I can, over 2 comments.

    Here's Part 1:
    This post really wrenches my heart as a parent. I have 3 young boys and I find myself imagining how I would feel and what I would do if I were Johnny's mother. The thing that is most important to me as a parent is that my children know that I love them unconditionally. I want them to know as they grow up that they have a safe haven in me. That even if they get involved in things I disagree with like drugs or a promiscuous lifestyle, that I would never disown or reject them. So I think Johnny's parents have a lot to answer for if he feels he has to hide his true self from them. It is THEIR responsibility to know their son inside out, to be aware of how he feels at school, and to love him regardless.

    How can any really diligent parent not be aware when their child is getting bullied? I don't understand that. The child's behaviour changes. They go from being a happy, carefree soul to being subdued and fearful of school, and their school work suffers. Parents should be keeping track of their children's emotional state every single day!

    So what would I do if I noticed my little boy was 'different' from other little boys, that he may possibly be gay? Well for a start I wouldn't ignore his behaviour or feelings or pretend they didn't exist. If he was getting bullied I would try to get that resolved through the school system but if that didn't work (and I don't expect it would) then I would pull him out of that school and either find another one, or homeschool him. The homeschooling community (here where I live anyway) is very diverse and much more accepting of people who are a bit different from society's norms.

    I would be searching for positive role models for him, and if it turned out as the years went by that he was definitely heading in the direction of being gay then I would be grateful to have him speak to someone like you, Rick. I would be trying to instill in him a sense of self-worth because my worst fear would be him getting addicted to drugs or sex and wasting his life. I would want him to find the sort of companionship that you and Chris have.

  2. Here's Part 2:

    As far as schools having a gay man come talk to all the students - you are right, only the most progressive schools would go for it. I think some have. You are right about the general reaction of most of the parents. Actually I don't think you have exaggerated much at all. In my estimation for the society and demographic I live in, I think maybe 80-90% of families would reject the idea of a gay man coming to speak to the kids at school - even if they are not anti-gay. I imagine I would feel a lot of trepidation myself. You see, it's fear of the unknown. I know YOU and your values, so I wouldn't mind him talking to you. But you are not representative of the gay stereotype - in fact you're kind of the opposite - and how do I know what sort of man the school has chosen?

    I think your idea is noble and your heart is definitely in the right place. Unfortunately so many people teach their children, consciously or sub consciously, to look down on gay people, to treat them as freaks, that it's OK to insult them and disregard their feelings. As your friend, I would worry about you! That the enlightening school experience you imagine might turn into a depressing fiasco of kids disrespecting or making fun of you.

    I read in one of your previous posts that you suspect more than 10% of the population is gay, lesbian or otherwise. I don't know about that, I can't find any statistics that put the figure above 2-3%. I would be interested if you have more information on that subject. But if only 10% of students are actually gay then you'd have 90% of your audience possibly unable to relate to anything you say. Not good odds for a successful speaking engagement!

    Hmmm now I realise that you wrote this post a year and a half ago and I don't know yet whether since then you actually have had the opportunity to speak at a school! Apologies if I've spoken out of turn!


  3. First, Melanie, I have to say a couple of thank-yous: 1). For taking the time to leave such a detailed, thoughtful, and heartfelt comment; and 2). For prompting me to reread this post, and giving me the opportunity to complete some much needed revisions, including finishing the last sentence. How I published this post without realizing I left my final thought hanging, I have no clue. Thanks again.

    Through this comment and others you've been kind enough to contribute, I'm struck by how I've gotten you, a straight mother of three, to consider what it would mean in your life if one of your children was gay. That is something every parent should think about, because it is a definite possibility; no parent should ever automatically assume his or her child is straight. That my blog has been able to help you think about this means a lot to me. I only wish I'd hear from more concerned parents, who are genuinely interested in their children's well-being and happiness.

    Parenting is different these days, Melanie. So many mothers and fathers are more in tune with what their kids are going through, and are aware of the signals that something could be off. In short, I think many of them care a lot more than parents did when I was younger. I say that only because, despite everything I was going through, I don't recall my parents even once asking me why I kept to myself so much, why I was fearful of going to school, and why I had so few friends. Frankly, back in the 1960s, I think parents were learning to be parents. I don't think they had the support and resources they do today.

    It goes without saying how impressed I am by your conscientiousness as a parent, and how you put your children first. That such things as self-esteem and unconditional love are a ready part of your vocabulary and sensibility as they relate to your children. Unfortunately, not every parent is like that. In most cases, parents consider themselves to be right, no matter what. Thus, if they've been raised to believe, usually through religious teaching, that homosexuality is wrong, then, by God, that's exactly what their children will be raised to believe too. Never mind that their children may well be gay--a fact, I might add, that's impossible to change--and that their home, supposedly a safe haven, might be one of the hardest places for them to be. Otherwise, why would so many young people find coming out to their parents and siblings the toughest thing they will ever have to do?

    As far as the statistic you refer to, traditionally, it's been reported that 10% of the general population is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. I don't know where this comes from, and, frankly, I don't think it matters. To me, the focus should be on two things: 1). A good many people don't readily and comfortably identify themselves as LBGT, and we need to do a lot more to change that; and 2). Even if just one percent of the population is LGBT, that's a significant number of people. The estimated 2012 population of your country is approximately 23 million. One percent of that is 230,000. That's a lot of LGBT people to go through all of the things I write about in this blog. That's a lot of loneliness, and a lot of pain, and a lot of suffering. Imagine how much better their lives would be if they were simply accepted for who and what they are? Imagine...

    Thanks so much for your wonderful comment. It's a little early here--I had trouble sleeping last night--but you've gotten me thinking, and I welcome the opportunity to have this "discussion" with you.