Take a little thought detour with me for a moment if you will. Last week in the news I saw a prime example of a fairly standard anti-gay practice among teachers. As a tool to manage kids behavior teachers are known to prime students with homophobia all day long. In the recent incident cited below a teacher suggested that a pair of boys were acting gay in order to stop their off task behaviors. The teacher went on to single out one of the boys and mark him as ‘that way.’
In that school incident an eighth grader named Ben Smith was violently homophobic bullied over and over again while teachers looked on and considered this activity horseplay.
“He (Ben’s teacher) said ‘Do you want me to write you up for PDA (a public display of affection)?’ I said what do you mean?” Smith said.
“He walks up to me and says, ‘Well it’s OK if you’re that way.’ I felt embarrassed and sad because, especially coming from a teacher.”
Now that is what I think of as a prime example of business as usual among educators. Ben was repeatedly bullied, with violent episodes that only ended when his parents withdrew him from school, and his teachers suggested it was horseplay or perhaps gay flirtation.
And study after study illustrates that Ben’s experience is precisely what school is like hour after hour, day after day for students marked by their peers or self identifying as gay. Teachers and administrators are silent bystanders or they actually participate in the anti-gay harassment of students like Brandon and Ben.
Kids like Ben and Brandon are targeted and report and get no help whatsoever. Or these students try to report the targeting and the situation worsens. These kids are assaulted and it is treated as a ‘fight.’ They are held down by peers and have things done to their bodies and spirits and it is called horseplay. And the teachers are absolutely known to suggest to everyone involved that everything that is happening is pretty normal interaction, “if you’re that way.”
Because hey, maybe you want it. Or hey, those boys can’t help it you’re making them uncomfortable. Or hey, this is the pecking order and there is nothing to be done about it.
But once in a great while professionals break that normal silence to say something. Something whole-hearted or half-hearted or perhaps even against their will about LGBTQ bullying.
Once in a great while they actually say it should stop. They hold an assembly, or they put up some posters, or they ‘allow’ a GSA to form in the school, or enact some other momentary low cost gesture to say stop it kids. Play nice.
And at Brandon’s school last week there was an assembly to say “stop it.”
Whatever ‘it’ is because it’s kinda hard for teachers and administrators to get too specific about what LGBTQ bullying looks like in its many forms. Since they don’t really track it, they don’t generally stop it in the hallways, in fact many teachers are known to do ‘it’ themselves.
But hey kids, Stop it!
And that message is quickly followed by a near immediate change of topic, ‘o.k. shows over lets move along.’ And the next topic is generally something along the lines of ‘Hey, let’s have a big celebration for the football players led by the cheerleading squad. God bless ’em they are really the heart and soul of this student body. And don’t they make the cutest couples by the way. Let’s pick a king and queen out of them why don’t we.’
Well, it seems from Brandon’s suicide note that the one time assembly and the subsequent mocking of the assembly and it’s topic (kids like Brandon) let him know more clearly then ever that the world is not a safe place for him.
Not unlike Zach Harrington who had his spirit broken following a hate filled anti-gay city council meeting, Brandon took away the message that the hate and violence would go on and that those in charge could not or would not do anything substantial to manage or oversee even a modestly safe world he could live in.
Brandon referred to events that happened the day of that assembly as, “the straw that broke the camels back.”
And he left us.
At 14 years old.
And now I suppose a school assembly will be held somewhere.
And the teachers will say, “Stop it! Play nice.”
And then it will be time for the winter formal.
And life will move on again.
Business as usual.
*When I first saw Brandon’s death posted at Thinking Queerly it literally took my breath away. I didn’t think I could learn more about it, let alone talk about it. Because to me Brandon is one of millions of children who don’t sleep at night, walk to school in terror, hold their breath during passing periods, and just try to make it to the end of the day. Brandon’s despair isn’t rare. It is how many many many children are living out their school day, right now, as I type these words.
And looking that ocean of despair and terror in the eye, well that takes a bite out of my heart every time I do it with intention.
I hope it does the same thing to you.