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Suicides and bullying: A closer look [20 May, 2009]

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Two school students as young as 11 years old recently committed suicide within 10 days of each other after enduring anti-gay harassment.  Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover of Springfield, Mass., killed himself April 6 and Jaheem Herrera of DeKalb County, Ga., hanged himself with a cloth belt April 16 after similar taunts.  The incidents have created waves of shock and dismay and generated a public conversation about such instances of bullying.

The harassment of students based on their real or perceived sexual orientation is an ongoing concern for LGBTQ education activists.  According to the 2007 National School Climate Survey conducted by GLSEN (Gay and Lesbian and Straight Education Network), “86.2% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 44.1% reported being physically harassed and 22.1% reported being physically assaulted at school … because of their sexual orientation.”

Windy City Times spoke to students and activists about how to find solutions to the problem of anti-LGBTQ harassment and, as it turns out, schools are pivotal to the issue.  Schools are where students spend a majority of their time, and they are potent combinations of the politics of power of gender, sexuality, race and other factors that are a part of students’ lives.  Given this context, we asked: What causes students to engage in anti-LGBTQ bullying? What kinds of conditions would make it possible to see an end to such harassment? What kinds of changes need to happen on a local and federal level to make these conditions possible?

In many cases, anti-gay slurs have nothing to do with actual sexual orientation and/or identity but more with perceptions of the same.  And they can be combined with racial and ethnic slurs.  According to Jaheem Herrera’s mother, who recently appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show with Walker-Hover’s mother, he was not only teased for looking feminine but because of his accent and skin color.  (The family is from the Virgin Islands.) Students who are actually LGBTQ-identified may feel vulnerable and unsafe even when they don’t experience direct harassment, or because they see their classmates being harassed.

Such was the experience of Ahkiya Daniels.  Daniels witnessed a butch lesbian friend being harassed for her gender identity by a police officer in charge of security at the South Shore High School in 2008.  According to Daniels, who graduated that year, her friend was being “put out” for aggressive behavior but, in the process, was told by the officer who pushed her, “If you dress like a boy, I’m going to treat you like a boy.”  Daniels eventually called another friend and they got the fellow student out of the situation.  However, said Daniels, from that point on, she felt that the police officer (part of the school’s security system) appeared to have identified her as a lesbian as well, and became hostile to her.  In the absence of a school support system for LGBTQ students, Daniels began to be more conscious about her safety.

Jose Delgado’s experience at Senn High School was somewhat different, but in part because he and other students consciously set out to create a GSA (gay-straight alliance) in 2006, when Delgado was still a sophomore.  Still, according to Delgado, he saw Pride stickers on lockers with the word “fag” scrawled on them and witnessed friends being “tossed against lockers.”  By junior year, Delgado said, he had learned to be comfortable enough that, when confronted with the word, he would simply respond, “Yes, and I’m proud of it.”  But he emphasized that his comfort came about in a school with affirming policies.  For the most part, he said, his teachers were “very, very affirming” but while he never heard words like “fag” being used in the classroom, he did find that coaches, for instance, were homophobic.  Windy City Times contacted Senn High School for a response, but has not yet received one.  The school’s GSA was not listed on its Web site at the time of this writing.  Windy City Times also attempted to get in touch with South Shore High School but encountered an impenetrable phone system.

Both Daniels, who is African-American and Delgado, who is Latino, are students of color, as were Walker-Hoover and Hererra—which begs the question: Why should anti-gay bullying efforts be any different from addressing bullying on any other grounds? GLSEN Press Relations Manager Daryl Presgraves spoke to the issue.  According to him, “there’s a real need for enumerating categories like gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation.”  He said that the right-wing opposition to such legislation paints the anti-gay bullying issue as if it’s connected to gay marriage but “when we tell students they can’t call someone a fag, it has nothing to do with gay marriage.  Schools have this fear that they tell someone you can’t bully someone based on sexual orientation, they’re going to be weighing in on this culture war.  What we tell them is: the stand you’re taking is that your students should be safe in school.”  He added, “If you say it’s wrong to call someone fat, universally, people will say it’s a problem.  But mention the word “fag” and there’s wavering.  That’s the difference: all of a sudden you get a resistance.  And so it’s important to recognize that when you start talking about bullying, you have to include anti-LGBT bullying because it’s the one area that schools have frequently failed to address.  We should talk about all types of bullying.  The problem is most schools don’t want to talk about anti-gay bullying.”

The reasons that students might use anti-gay slurs on other students have a lot do with social conditioning and perceptions of weakness, according to Chicago-area activists.  Sam Finkelstein, a member of the Leadership Council of Gender JUST (Justice United for Societal Transformation) , a group that has organized an upcoming public forum with CPS (Chicago Public Schools) CEO Ron Huberman to discuss this issue among others, said that the “stories of suicides are the most tragic end” to this kind of bullying.  [Disclosure: This reporter is a member of GJ.] He blamed “a culture of heterosexism and homophobia.”  According to Finkelstein, “the issue is not only with the actual bullies themselves, but that events escalate when students and teachers are often passive bystanders.”  Erica Meiners, a social-justice activist and associate professor of education at Northeastern Illinois and the author of Right to be Hostile: Schools, Prisons and the Making of Public Enemies, said that anti-gay bullying was “directly reflective of national anxieties around sexual orientation and gender identity, perceived or actual.  Schools mirror larger cultural and political anxieties.”  She also blamed a culture of misplaced “accountability” saying that, “it’s ironic, because we’re in a moment of hyper accountability for teachers, in terms of test scores, but see a lack of accountability in other areas.”

The question of accountability raises the issue of who is ultimately to be held responsible for bullying—and how can schools change to provide a supportive atmosphere? Presgraves pointed out that while “schools are and have been made liable for incidents arising from anti-LGBT bullying, the conversation we want to have is not about lawsuits but about we can address this problem.  How can we do more to make sure our students are safe?” Meiners said that it was essential that teachers also be unionized if we are to see better conditions for LGBTQ students: “It’s essential that you’re not worried about losing your job, about collective bargaining.  If you’re unionized, you’re protected if you take a stand on controversial issues like LGBTQ youth competencies, or if you support national Coming Out Day, or talk about Eleanor Roosevelt as a lesbian in the classroom.”

Finkelstein stressed that there could be no quick-fix solutions, and that measures like a Pride Campus were symbolically important but “there’s no point in creating one school where we can wash our hands of it, and make it harder to solve the problem by not making it systemic.  At Gender JUST, we are also asking for professional development of staff.”  Like Meiners, he stressed the importance of teaching about LGBT figures like Bayard Rustin so that ‘the curriculum fosters a sense of respect for gay people in history.  It’s also important that schools teach LGBTQ-affirming sex education.”

All the people we spoke to emphasized the importance of establishing GSAs in every school and developing faculty and student awareness of the dangers of gay bullying.  It also became clear that the voices of students who are willing to take a stand, like Daniels and Delgado, have to be taken into account.  (Both are also active members of Gender JUST.) At the same time, there needs to be a federal recognition of LGBTQ-specific issues in relation to bullying.  GLSEN is hopeful about the Safe Schools Improvement Act, a federal anti-bullying bill introduced May 5, will go a long way toward that.  Presgraves said, “students are intelligent and when you lay out what’s acceptable or not, they respond.  If a student responds to an assignment with ‘That’s so gay,’ and the teacher ignores it, it sends a message to students.  It’s important to train our educators to identify a problem when they first see it in order to reduce its impact throughout the year.”

Windy City Times made several attempts to contact CPS for comments, but calls were not returned.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 20 Mary, 2009.


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