Who’s the Bully?

In recent weeks the news has been filled with reports of gay teens and young adults committing suicide.  In all cases, bullying was involved.

The response has been strong.  Columnist Dan Savage has started a youtube phenomenon called “It Gets Better.”   Thousands of self-identified gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons have made videos talking about their experience of bullying and how much better their lives became as adults.  The hope is that we can give these youth a glimmer that something exists outside the hell they find themselves in.

These videos have been posted on youtube.   You should have a look.  It’s really quite something.  Here’s a link to get you started: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7IcVyvg2Qlo

Last week, three young gay men were brutally tortured in the Bronx by a group of ten young men.  We have been treated to spine chilling accounts of the torture.  All of this is providing a big reality check.   Despite the growing wealth of positive role models in the media, despite growing numbers of politicians and clergy who publicly support equal rights for sexual minorities, including marriage, these horrific reminders tell us that we’re not there yet.  The damage is still being done.

Public condemnation for these acts is coming from all corners, including pro- and anti-gay forces.  Gay voices are saying quite strongly that this is nothing new.  This has been going on for a long time.  Most people who could be identified as sexual minorities experienced it from a young age, and the impact is lasting and damaging.  These voices focus both on the individual perpetrators of bullying, and on society as a whole.  This violence isn’t just about a few kids getting carried away.  This violence is systemic and is supported in many ways – by the outright condemnation of gays that is still permissible in many quarters, and by the silence of those in authority who could have identified the bullying and stopped it – parents, teachers, administrators, social workers, clergy.  You can see this kind of permission in the comments from the parents of some of the gang members.  “My kid is a good kid.  He would never do something like this.”  This is exactly how bullies continue to bully.  Those who could hold them accountable turn a blind eye.

What’s surprising is the condemnation that is coming from traditionally anti-gay forces.   That they feel compelled to express any kind of condemnation at all means things have changed.  The public culture no longer supports their silence.  However, it is important to recognize what kind of condemnation they offer.  They are condemning the individuals specifically connected to the particular instances that are getting all the headlines.   The violence is individualized and decontextualized.   This form of condemnation allows them to distance themselves from any responsibility for the violence.  It allows them to deny that the messages constantly emanating from their spokespersons, their organizations, their politicians, their ministers, and their media, messages that present homosexuality as immoral and inferior to heterosexuality, condone the violence and support it.  This violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Truth be told, no one wants to be responsible, so we blame the bullies in the school hallways, the gang in the Bronx, and the guy who livefeeds his roommate’s date on the internet.  All of these individuals need to be held accountable.  So do those responsible for creating a society that supports these invasions of human dignity.  So do those who support lgbtq equality but remain silent for fear of being ridiculed and being labeled gay themselves.  So do legislators who stay silent on issues like anti-bullying legislation because they don’t want to lose votes.

Here at Emerson UU Chapel, we are approaching the fourth week of our Welcoming Congregation Process.  Every week during the Adult Education Hour, our social action group, Love First, is holding sessions on various aspects of the lgbtq experience.  These sessions are both informative and transformative.

In light of the public attention on bullying, there’s been a significant conversation among the Love First members about how best to respond to the violence we have witnessed.  Many in our group, gay and straight, suffered bullying themselves, and we’ve been sharing some of our stories.  It is clear that many in our closest circles have been wounded.

What can we do as allies for equality?  One of our members is a middle school teacher and she’s spoken to her class about bullying.  Parents have spoken to their kids, perhaps for the first time, about bullying.  Here are some more suggestions that have come out of our conversation:

We can:

– bear solemn witness to the crimes committed against sexual and gender minorities

– create visible shelter for those who survive

– nurse to as much health as possible those survivors

– visibly honor the survivors’ struggles, including the lifelong struggle to recover and heal

– visibly mourn those who do not survive

– challenge those who victimize, including those who remain silent in the face of bullying

– demand compensation from the abusers

– offer love and care for those among us who are victims and survivors of bullying

– enlist allies from among people of conscience who are neither victims nor victimizers

– speak to our children about bullying.  Listen to their stories.  Support them in making moral choices when they are bullied or when they have the opportunity to bully

– make sure that our congregation is a safe place for our children, teens, and young adults to speak about their lives and the challenges they face

– insist that our children’s educators take this seriously and take intentional steps to stop bullying.  Adults model what is appropriate behavior.

Something that I think is important to remember is that these acts of violence not only brutalize the person receiving the brunt of the attack. It is also an act of violence on the attacker.  Homophobia and the violence that supports it do violence to us all.  Those attackers have had to kill something in themselves to do this violence.  They have dehumanized themselves.  If we demonize them, we continue the violence.  How can we hold them accountable, but also hold out the possibility of change and redemption?

So many questions. May we live into the answers.

About kristataves

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister serving the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL. St. Louis is my residence. I am a dual American and Canadian citizen living in the great state of Missouri and building my life in this wonderful and sometimes very frustrating state.
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