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.