Ronin Shimizu and Leelah Alcorn are just the latest casualties of bullying. But the unrelenting taunts can't solely be blamed on their peers.
I am haunted by a story that nearly got lost amid the recent #blacklivesmatter protest headlines that swept the nation before the holidays. In a small West Coast town, another young life was senselessly destroyed—not by racist police brutality, but by something just as dangerous, sinister and tragic: homophobic bullying.
I can’t stop thinking about Ronin Shimizu, a bright-eyed, creative 12-year-old from Folsom, California, who killed himself. Friends and family said that Ronin—the only male member of the Folsom Middle School cheerleading squad—committed suicide because the other students were relentlessly taunting him.
News reports said the bullying became so bad that Ronin had to be home-schooled. A school official confirmed they did get a number of complaints from Ronin’s parents, and that the school “followed protocol,” but that didn’t stop the kids from bullying him, even after his contact with peers was pretty much limited to the cheerleading squad.
And now Ronin is dead. His death is one of the growing, tragic tally of intolerance and hate. I am both disturbed and infuriated that so many people are cruel and heartless enough to bully a child to the point where he would plan and execute his own death.
What’s worse: Ronin is not an outlier. And even more tragically, the anti-gay bullying comes not only from peers but from parents, school officials, religious leaders, and other authority figures in children’s lives. In many ways, it comes from society as a whole, where growing numbers of young LGBTQ people are made to believe that their lives are deviant, hopeless, and not worth living. Parents and other authority figures, not classmates, tend to be a child’s first bullies. They teach kids, often by example, how to bully, and give them the language with which to do it.
The recent online suicide note of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender girl in Ohio, went viral after she was hit and killed by a semi-truck while walking along Interstate 71 on Sunday, December 28. The note, posted on Tumblr (and since taken down), read: “There’s no winning. There’s no way out.” Her parents didn’t accept her gender identity, and dragged her to faith-based therapy. The local newspaper reported her death as that of a teen boy with the birth name Joshua Alcorn.
Anti-bullying advocate Carlos Vigil, a 17-year-old in Albuquerque, New Mexico, had transferred from one high school to another to escape bullying for his weight, his glasses, his acne, and for being gay. Carlos was active in Youth and Government, pushing for stronger anti-bullying laws and traveled to speak out against bullying. But the constant harassment was too much for him, said his mother, who told a local news station that the bullying started when he was 8.
Just before he died, he left a heart-wrenching message on Twitter: “I’m sorry to those who I offended over the years. I’m blind to see that I, as a human being, suck. I’m an individual who is doing an injustice to the world and it’s time for me to leave. Please don’t ever feel sorry for me, or cry—because I had an opportunity at life and that opportunity is over. I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to love someone or have someone love me. I guess it’s best though, because now I leave no plain onto anyone. The kids in school are right, I am a loser, a freak and a fag and in no way is that acceptable for people to deal with. I’m sorry for not being a person that would make someone proud. I’m free now. Xoxo. Carlos.”
While many teens commit suicide after being rejected by their families and classmates, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Lowe of Manchester, England, did so because she anticipated being rejected by her Christian parents, who are deeply religious. Her father said that she would have received “a wealth of love and acceptance” for sharing her secret. She’d told her friends she thought she might be a lesbian, but hadn’t reconciled that with her Christian faith. She had texted a message to a friend that ended with “stay strong. I am sorry.” The friend alerted Lizzie’s mother, who called the police, but it was too late. In September, Lizzie had hanged herself in a local park.
But not all homophobic bullying comes from peers. This past fall, Sergio Urrego of Bogota, Colombia, took his life at 16 after administrators in his Catholic school outed him when they saw a photo of Sergio and another young man on his cell phone. A teacher took away Sergio’s phone and sent both boys to the school psychologist. School administrators forced the other boy to come out to his parents, who hastily withdrew him from the school. Administrators blocked Sergio’s transfer to another school, frequently suspended him from classes, repeatedly sent him to the psychologist and accused Sergio of sexual harassment.
It proved to be too much: Sergio sent good-bye texts to his loved ones and jumped to his death from the roof of a local shopping center. The classmates who attended his funeral (40 out of 42) were summoned to a meeting by the principal who called the dead teen an “anarchist, atheist, and homosexual,” told the students to be “discreet” about the suicide, and required them to make up the day they missed by attending classes the following Saturday.
Sergio’s father said the boy’s suicide was a cry of protest against the school for their bullying and harassment. In a letter he left for his grandmother, Sergio wrote that he “never wished to die” before his grandmother, “but I cannot continue on … I ask your forgiveness for this.”
Some modest signs of progress have come from a Utah family successfully suing their late son’s school district. David Phan, 14, shot himself to death in front of classmates in November 2012 after they bullied him for being gay. Rather than going to court, the family and the district reached a settlement in which the Granite School District said it would put new policies and practices in place to prevent similar tragedies, including a implementing a broader definition of gender harassment. The Associated Press reported that the school district will work with the Denver-based Equity Assistance Center to learn to better “navigate race, gender, and national-origin issues.” District representatives say that working with the Phan family has helped them learn to communicate more effectively with parents and create a safer environment for students. The teen’s death helped inspire the Utah state legislature to pass a law requiring school officials to notify parents in writing if their children are bullying others, or threatening suicide.
These are just a handful of examples—sadly, there are too many suicides, and even more cases of bullying to recount here, each one more wrenching than the last. So what do we need to understand about the risks and consequences of anti-LGBTQ bullying throughout society?
Bullies make life a misery for every child, whether they are being harassed about their race, religion, nationality, disability, or body type. But eventually, some of these kids may find solace or consolation by their families or communities or houses of worship that love and accept them, and tell them they’re okay. Not so gay and transgender kids, who tend to face greater risks and dangers because not only are they taunted and spurned by their peers, but by authority figures, like religious leaders, teachers, and even their parents, who may try to convert them or otherwise reject them, which heighten their feelings of alienation and hopelessness.
And family acceptance is vital. The Family Acceptance Project—the first study of its kind—helmed by clinical social worker Caitlin Ryan at San Francisco State University shows that LGBTQ youth who “experience high levels of rejection from their families during adolescence … were more than eight times [more] likely to have attempted suicide, more than six times likely to report high levels of depression, more than three times likely to use illegal drugs … by the time they reach their early 20s.”
The Suicide Prevention Resource Center estimated that between 30 and 40 percent of LGBTQ youth, depending on age and sex groups, have attempted suicide. A 1989 U.S. government study, Report of the Secretary’s Task Force on Youth Suicide, found that LGBT youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than other young people. Overall, more than 34,000 people commit suicide each year, making it “the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds with lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth attempting suicide up to four times more than their heterosexual peers.
It’s clear that school policies and environments have a long way to go, including in higher education. A report by the Campus Pride found that “approximately 25 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students and university employees have been harassed due to their sexual orientation, as well as a third of those who identify as transgender.”
Parents and dynamics also play a vital role. In some cases, parents might unknowingly bully their children, setting that up as a culture of normalcy in the home environment and increasing the chances that their children will repeat these behaviors in other environments. The website nobullying.com describes some common forms of parental bullying:
Aggressive Parenting: Often considered harsh and unyielding, children who grew up in that type of environment, believe that aggression and humiliation are common and acceptable methods o teaching. Aggressive parenting tactics can include mental, emotional and physical forms of abuse.
Children who are bullied at home by their parents or older siblings will often become bullies at school. During the formative years, constant bullying from older siblings can create patterns of aggression. Children will often treat others according to how they were treated in the past. That means if they were constantly yelled at or made fun of by a parent or sibling, their reaction to others would be the same.
Along with avoiding the behaviors described above, what can a parent do to rear a child who isn’t homophobic?
A first step is to understand that homophobic bullying includes verbal slights and put-downs, such as the popular expressions “That’s so gay,” and “No homo,” to hostile name-calling, spreading rumors about someone being gay, threatening to out them, or making inappropriate sexual comments or jokes. Social bullying might play out as a young person being excluded, isolated, humiliated, hazed, threatened or intimidated for their sexuality or gender identification.
When bullying gets physical, it might be easier to recognize, in the forms of obscene gestures, hitting, kicking, or otherwise attacking a person, threatening to harm them, stalking them, and touching, teaching or harassing them in any way.
Online bullying is even more insidious, taking advantage of the relatively anonymous, swift and impersonal tools of social media, the internet, and many forms of sending messages on various devices, to threaten, insult, tease, secretly record or make fun of someone because they are perceived to be gay or transgender.
The truth is that anyone can be a homophobic bully, sometimes without realizing it. Some of the attitudes that contribute to bullying and often end in tragedy, include the concept that sexual and gender minorities are inherently wrong or immoral and therefore must be attacked. Members of sexual and gender minorities and their children might be seen as not deserving the same rights, privileges, and treatment as others. The traditional gender stereotypes built on the ideas that “girls should act like girls and boys should act like boys” often lead people to think that they must reinforce a dominant or “normal” heterosexual “lifestyle.” Students who suffer homophobic bullying are often singled out because they’re seen as poor athletes, social outcasts, or “different” in a way that makes others uncomfortable.
And then there’s religion. While nobody is asking anyone to change their faith, many children are rejected, harassed, and ostracized within their families’ houses of worship, with religious leaders propagating the stereotypes that reinforce the heteronormative status quo. The first time I heard the words “faggot” and “dyke” were at church, where ministers constantly preached about how gay people were sinners, an “abomination” in the eyes of God, and destined to go to hell.
Do you parents sometimes slip up and use homophobic or transgender slurs? When terms and sayings are considered part of the cultural “norm,” it can be easy to forget the pain and harm they might cause others. How about conversations about same-sex marriage—what kinds of opinions and views are expressed in your home? Is your parental frame of reference based on assuming that your child is heterosexual or comfortable in their assigned gender?
And then there’s our pop-cultural intake: the movies, music, television shows, which all contain references to what is considered society’s norms, as well as minority people, cultures and lifestyles. What kinds of discussions are you having with your child about what they’re watching and listening to—and what you are? Do you challenge stereotypes and slurs? Do you encourage your child to treat everyone equally, knowing that they learn far more from and are most likely to follow your examples rather than your words?
Hip-hop lyrics and culture are notorious for being sexist, hypersexual, and hostile toward LGBTQ people. How do you help your child understand what they’re hearing, even as they’re nodding their head, tapping their feet or shaking their bodies to what are often hypnotically irresistible beats?
While there are no fast, easy answers to raising awareness, changing our own thoughts and attitudes, and paying greater attention to the words, images and messages that we and our families consume is already a significant step toward combating homophobia, and I believe, the bullying that goes hand in hand with it.
I leave you with the heartbreaking request from Leelah Alcorn’s suicide note:
“The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society. Please.”
Please welcome Dr. Stacey Patton, who launches her new Monday column, “How It Is” today. The author of the memoir That Mean Old Yesterday (Simon & Schuster/Atria Books), Patton has worked at The Baltimore Sun and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She is currently on staff at the Chronicle of Higher Learning.
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