Dignity For All Students

I have been asked repeatedly why I am a straight ally of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) sisters and brothers. Whether it is because of things I write, things I say (for instance on the floor of my presbytery) or where I choose to be activist, the fact that I am straight and a minister seem to stand out significantly. There is, at the same time, suspicion and excitement that a straight minister would care enough to be visible in support of LGBT.

Jenna and I ran directly into this while present and active at the Equality and Justice Day put on by Empire State Pride Agenda. No less that a dozen times we were asked if we would allow our picture to be taken and placed on websites or blogs. We also entered into numerous conversations, all concerning the role of the church in oppression and anti-GLBT equality.

One specific effort of Pride Agenda is Dignity For All Students, a bill in New York that seeks to address bullying for any reason including sexuality and gender expression. When asked, I responded that my interest in this is very personal. I was on the receiving end of homophobic bullying in grade and high school simply because I was slightly built (hard to imagine now) and a little effeminate. My young life in school, along with some friends, was hell that left me contemplating suicide many times during my high school years.

While meeting with an aide of Senator Farley to make the case for Dignity, I stated the reasons for my interest and followed up by saying, “We have a moral obligation to protect the most vulnerable, and no-one is more vulnerable than our children.” As an expression of our concern in this issue and the dangers faced by those deemed by peers to be different, Jenna and I will be attending “train the trainers” classes for the Trevor Project, a nationwide hot-line for children and youth at risk and contenplating suicide.

To end of bringing as much attention to the issue as I can, I am reprinting the NY Times commentary by Charles Blow. It is a little long, but succinctly sums up the need for these protections based on young lives lost. It is, in my estimation one of the most cogent articles about Dignity I have ever read. I would like to thank Lawrence from FirstLight for bringing it to my attention.

New York Times, April 24, 2009
http://tinyurl.com/c7p7u2  [Photos, video clip, statistical charts at this link]

Commentary and Analysis by Charles M. Blow

On April 6, just before dinner, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, a Massachusetts boy who had endured relentless homophobic taunts at school, wrapped an extension cord around his tiny neck and hanged himself. He was only 11 years old. His mother had to cut him down.

On April 16, just after school, Jaheem Herrera, a Georgia boy who had also endured relentless homophobic taunts at school, wrapped a fabric belt around his tiny neck and hanged himself as well. He too was only 11 years old. His 10-year-old sister found him.

Two beaming little boys, lost. To intolerance? Too tragic. The sad ends to their short lives shine a harsh light on the insidious scourge of the homophobic bullying of children. Children can’t see their budding lives through the long lens of wisdom — the wisdom that benefits from years passed, hurdles overcome, strength summoned, resilience realized, selves discovered and accepted, hearts broken but mended and love experienced in the fullest, truest majesty that the word deserves.

For them, the weight of ridicule and ostracism can feel crushing and without the possibility of reprieve. And in that dark and lonely place, desperate and confused, they can make horrible decisions that can’t be undone.

For as much progress that’s been made on the front of acceptance and tolerance of all people, regardless of our differences, enough hatred remains — tucked in the crags and spread about the surface — to force Carl and Jaheem into the abyss. We should commit ourselves to ensuring that their deaths are not in vain, that their lives are the last page in this sorry chapter of our development as a people. And the first step in that direction is to fully understand the scope of the problem.

In short, homophobic bullying is pervasive. It disproportionately affects black and Hispanic kids. A new study suggests an apparent link between bullying and suicide. To wit, black and Hispanic adults who are gay reported higher “serious suicide attempts” than their white counterparts, most of those attempts taking place when they were young.

Let’s look at the data: According to a 2005 report entitled “From Teasing to Torment: School Climate in America” that was commissioned by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, students are more likely to be subjected to homophobic bullying than bullying for most other reasons. That same report found that black and Hispanic children are even more likely to hear this bullying than whites.

(At least in the case of blacks, this may be due to the fact that substantially more black adults see homosexuality as morally degenerate than whites. According to Gallup Polls 65 percent of blacks view homosexuality as morally unacceptable compared to just 48% of whites. The Hispanic numbers on this measure are comparable to whites. I say, seeking to diminish the human dignity of another whose only crime is not loving whom you would have him or her love is immoral and an offense to the indomitable determination of the heart.)

Now to the suicide connection. A July study conducted by researchers at Yale School of Medicine that was published in the International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health reviewed 37 other studies from 13 countries and found “signs of an apparent connection” between bullying and suicide. From a statement issued about the report: “Almost all of the studies found connections between being bullied and suicidal thoughts among children. Five reported that bullying victims were two to nine times more likely to report suicidal thoughts than other children were.”

Interestingly, the study also found that “the perpetrators who are the bullies also have an increased risk for suicidal behaviors.” Many bullies are victims too – wounded souls stumbling through life, knocking things over, crying out for help, trying to fill a void. And according to a 2007 study entitled “Lifetime Prevalence of Mental Disorders and Suicide Attempts in Diverse Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Populations,” which was conducted by researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and published in the American Journal of Public Health:
“By contrast, compared with Whites, more Black and, especially, Latino gay men, lesbians, and bisexual individuals reported a history of a serious suicide attempt. Because suicide attempts occurred at an early age, we speculate that they coincided with a coming-out period and were related to the social disapprobation afforded to a lesbian, gay, and bisexual identity.”

We, as a society, should be ashamed. The bodies of these children lie at our feet. The toxic intolerance of homophobic adults has spilled over into the minds of pre-sexual children, placing undue pressure on the frailest of shoulders. This pressure is particularly acute among young boys who are forced to conform to a perilously narrow concept of masculinity. Or else. My colleague Judith Warner put it best in an online column that she posted after Carl’s death:
“The message to the most vulnerable, the victims of today’s poisonous boy culture, is being heard loud and clear: to be something other than the narrowest, stupidest sort of guy’s guy, is to be unworthy of even being alive.”

Well, no more. All people are worthy just the way they are, the way God and nature made them, the way they see themselves through the truest eye of the soul. We must teach every child — nay, every person — that the greatest measure of our own humanity is the degree of human dignity we afford those from whom we are different. A smile, a kind word, a handshake, a hug, understanding and compassion — the simplest acts of goodness can bridge the widest chasms. These little boys deserved our love. Instead, through the vessels of our children, they were shown our scorn. We failed.

Carl and Jaheem, I will never forget you. I am the father of 11 year-old twins. I will give them extra hugs and kisses tonight in memory of you. I will teach them to be even more tolerant, in memory of you. I will make sure that they know that I am always there if they need an ear or a shoulder, in memory of you. I will let them know, when the waters get choppy, that the storm will always pass, in memory of you. And, I will make sure that they know in no uncertain terms that whomever they grow up to be, I will love them always and forever. This too I will do in memory of you.

We will soldier on in your stead. You rest in ours.

(It should be noted that to my knowledge neither child had self-identified as gay or bisexual at the time of their death, but now it matters not. Whoever they would have been is forever lost to the grave.)

I also invite you to join me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter or e-mail me at chblow@nytimes.com.
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

1 Response to “Dignity For All Students”

  1. May 4, 2009 at 8:35 PM

    I think it does matter that the boys had not self-identified. The Issue here has very little to do with homosexuality. they may well have called the boys geeks or aliens or spics or micks or… unending line of cruel names. Being bullied to death is an issue of parenting, education, faith and social conscience. The issue is not homosexuality, it is lack of love.
    I was put a year ahead of my age group in public school. the school administrators said i would be bored if left with my own age group. It turned out I was slow to mature emotionally and physically, so i do know a bit about bullies. They could see you copulating with an opposite sex partner and still call you gay, they create their own little realities.

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That's too bad - I'm so sorry. Oh, well, just try to make the best of it. What you'll find here is a variety of essays and ramblings to do with things theological, social, whimsical and, sometimes, all three. I don't write to get famous - trust me, I've been told how futile that would be - but to express myself. I love to communicate and browbeat - ummm, I mean dialogue - about the things I find intriguing. Since you're here, and the door's locked, why don't you stay a while. There's a page bar under the header with links to information about us - I mean me. Don't forget to tell me what you think - in a nice way, I mean.

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