My husband, Marc, has been writing about harassment and bullying for a couple of years now. This is his perspective on the reporting of recent suicides of bullied gay and lesbian teenagers in the US. Without taking anything away from the tragedy of these suicides, Marc challenges us to see the broader picture rooted in violence and power.
There has been much media coverage of the recent suicide of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who leapt off the George Washington Bridge after video footage of a make-out session with another male student was broadcast over the Internet. His suicide was the highest-profile among several gay teenagers who committed suicide in recent months, all feeling powerless to stop the bullying they were enduring.
Several prominent celebrities have spoken out about these suicides. Neil Patrick Harris, Lance Bass, Dan Savage and Daniel Radcliffe, among others, have condemned the bullying of LGBT teenagers in interviews. Perhaps the first big point was the message given by Ellen DeGeneres on her daily talk show:
In her message, she makes the following statements and asks a few questions: “Teenage bullying and teasing is an epidemic in this country, and the death rate is climbing. One life lost in this senseless way is tragic. Four lives lost is a crisis. And these are just the stories we hear about. How many other teens have we lost? How many others are suffering in silence? Being a teenager and figuring out who you are is hard enough without someone attacking you.”
The last sentence is very true. I’m sure Ellen is well aware that teenage bullying and teasing has been going on for a very long time. I am sure that during her school years, she would have witnessed, conducted or suffered bullying in school – this is true for just about everybody.
The question that caught my attention was “How many other teens have we lost?” It would have taken a few minutes on Google to get a real sense of this “epidemic”. Children and teenagers have been committing suicide as a result of endless bullying for years – these suicides have even been given the name “bullycides”. One website, Jared’s Story is maintained by the mother of a 13-year-old who killed himself in 1998 after going through years of bullying. This site has stories of over twenty teenagers who committed suicide in the past decade, all attributed to the bullying they put up with. The site www.bullyonline.org lists several dozen children, mostly in the UK, who killed themselves to get away from the suicide. It would be safe to estimate that hundreds of children and teenagers have been lost around the World, due to the helplessness they felt enduring bullying at school.
A few of these cases have made national news, but most barely made a ripple outside of their own communities. In January 2010, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince killed herself after having to put up with months of incessant bullying. Her family had moved from Ireland to a community just outside of Springfield, Massachusetts. She had disputes with other girls over a football player she dated, and was a prime target for other students at her school. On the day she ended her life, she had put up with a full and unusual day of taunting, was followed on her walk home and had an empty can thrown at her. Once word of her suicide spread, one of her bullies posted on Phoebe’s Facebook wall the single word “Accomplished”. A memorial Facebook page was filled with crude comments about her, and had to be deleted. Her suicide did make national news – for a few days. No national commemorations were held for her – just a candlelight vigil at her high school. No celebrities spoke out about this senseless loss of a young life (a few news commentators wrote opinion pieces, which may have provided comfort to teenagers who read CNN.com regularly).
Back to Ellen’s question… If four bullycides make a crisis, what about four dozen or four hundred lives lost? And if she’s concerned about “teenage bullying”, why didn’t she do a quick bit of research to get a sense of its full effect on all teenagers, not just the LGBT community? I am glad Ellen made her statement – it may soften some hearts and lead to positive action, and if even one teenager who self-identifies as LGBT is led off the path to suicide by her comments, then I give her full credit for that. But, it is frustrating to have her and other celebrities speak out against “teenage bullying”, when they really seem to care about (or only talk about) “anti-gay bullying”.
Some will respond that anti-gay bullying is particularly rampant and devastating, and deserves special attention. This response misses the big picture: children and teenagers are bullied for many reasons, and all of them hurt. Homophobic taunts are certainly among the most common forms of bullying, because of the homophobia in our culture. However, teenagers also get taunted for their physical appearance, race, religion and social status, and these taunts will also lead to feelings of isolation, hopelessness and eventual considerations of ending one’s life. Anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-obese and anti-disabled bullying is still prominent in today’s world, and these are just as hurtful and wrong as anti-gay bullying. Students who show high intelligence and capability of independent and creative thought get picked on by their peers, to the point of deliberately hiding their skills and gifts. Students even get taunted for reasons that would seem quite mundane to adults – supporting the “wrong” sports team, showing interest in the “wrong” music or movies, wearing their hair the “wrong” way, speaking the “wrong” language to classmates, or having the “wrong” friends.
The common thread through all of this: these kids are different from what is expected of them.
As many people have been focusing on details of anti-gay bullying incidents, they are missing the important question: why do bullies bully? Bullying occurs because the bully wants attention, and he or she gets some pleasure out of tormenting the target. Bullies are weak people themselves, but they find a target that they know will not fight back, or will be too scared or weak themselves to do much about the taunting. To frame “anti-gay bullying” as a special subset of bullying misses the point that all bullying, at its root, is a power trip done by the bully to get a reaction out of the target. That is the behaviour that must be addressed and eliminated. The content and manner of the bullying is the hook by which the bully gets a reaction. The fact that people taunt over sexual orientation, race, appearance, disabilities (or strong abilities), is in indication of society’s attitudes towards these facets of people, but it doesn’t explain why people bully or how to stop it. If we completely eradicated homophobic attitudes tomorrow, it would lessen but not stop bullying among children, because there will always be other differences among children. Every real or perceived difference is a wedge in which a bully sticks his or her foot. A bully will not call an overweight classmate names because he or she is concerned about the risk of diabetes and heart attack, or because he or she encourages their classmate to lose weight – he or she does it to savour the reaction from the target. That response, along with the laughs of bystanders and the approval of others, is the bully’s reward. A particular teenager may not care or react when a bully calls him a homosexual epithet, but will get upset when mocked about his race – and just like that, the bully has found the button that they will push until it wears out.
I fear that this attention being drawn towards bullying is but another media fad that will disappear in a few weeks, making place for the next flavour of the month. Instead of simply condemning bullying, or telling teenagers that “it will get better” (when you are 12 years old and dealing with bullying every day, being told that it will go away in a mere 6 years or so is not at all a comforting thought), let us give teenagers tools to combat bullying. Some may frown on this, as it sounds like the victim is somehow to blame for being bullied – it is, after all, the bully’s fault that this is happening – but simply leaving a victim with no advice or plan of action, in the name of not making them feel guilty about being bullied, will eventually leave them feeling powerless as they wait for the bullies to change. There are simple things a victim can do to help dealing with bullies (hopefully before a situation escalates): Refuse to engage in the bully’s provocation. The bully is trying to isolate you – don’t allow it by talking to trusted adults or friends. Don’t believe what the bully says about you, even if it is nasty. Don’t let yourself feel like you are the first kid ever to have been bullied. Check the Internet – there are many other resources to help bullied teenagers. Not every gay, overweight, disabled or otherwise different student is bullied; try to see what it is about those students that make them less of a target. And gently befriend people who you know are being bullied, let them know you care and you have their back.
Hopefully the suicides of Tyler Clementi, Phoebe Prince and others will move people to combat teenage bullying in all of its forms. While gay teenagers and gay-positive allies work towards a society that is more accepting of LGBT people who live open lives, they should take solace in knowing that they have many more allies in the global fight against bullying. By combining the voices of all children, teenagers, parents and adults who have gone through some form of bullying, we can make a point that it is not acceptable and not tolerated to bully someone for being different. Bullies thrive on the oxygen of other people who validate their behaviour. If enough people speak out and make them see that they are not cool or popular, and when others stop laughing and cheering him on, it takes away their oxygen, and they will stop their behaviour when they realize that they are acting like fools.