25.9.11

Make It Stop



Before I go ahead, I want to give a lot of credit the director for making this video as dark as it needed be to tell the stories of the kind of the lives lived by the teens that are listed in memorial by Tim at the end of the clip.  Don't turn a blind eye, this isn't a rare extreme, it is a frequent reality.  To see that it has 4 million views and counting gives me a bittersweet smile.

Even as progress is being made - gay marriage in New York, the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, even as more teens are finding hope in the "It Gets Better" project, there are not enough eyes and ears in classrooms willing to stop the endless harassment and abuse that is endured by LGBT youth. College students too, are at risk.  There is also a greater issue here, of the perpetuation of intolerance and hate speech towards LGBT people by great masses of grown, rational adults, who pass this prejudice to their own children and see no wrong in persecuting kids for being gay, for excluding them from school events, and schools themselves. They continue to resist almost all attempts at inclusion and respect for LGBT citizens - from a wedding dress, to a soldier defending their country.  Prejudice in the hearts of those on school boards, and parents who complain that their child shouldn't have to go on school trips or shower "with the gay kid", keep the politics in play.  The welfare and freedom of every child to feel safe to obtain an education gets lost in the fray, in the ceaseless debate.  It seems unfathomable that personal politics or misrepresented religious faith may keep otherwise good people from acting specifically to protect LGBT youth (and human rights in general). The discussion of those wrongs, in itself, could fill a thousand pages in small font.

For now I want to focus on the fact that it is not only LGBT who are driven to end their lives due to incessant bullying, all of us who survived high school relatively unscathed can think of at least
one or two kids that took the hardest hits, both mentally and physically even if we were not in the line of fire.

It never needed to be about an actual sexual orientation, the implication was often enough, and "fag" and "dyke" still stand as words that can be plainly used to degrade, no matter what the actual facts are. For some of us it was only our clothes, or way of thinking, our smarts, or our bad luck in the genetic lottery - but really, wasn't it always only the need of others to justify their position in the petty high school hierarchy?  Those of us who made it out know that anxious microcosm of existence will fade away as the graduating class scatters into adulthood and on to bigger problems than where to sit at lunch. But for the young ones still in the trenches, the daily consequences are more real than they can see past right now and the means of death as an escape feels like the only way to find relief.

To respond to critics who think the bullying issue is overblown, and that this is something that has been going on for years -you will never justify a failure to act to protect someone's personal and mental safety based on the principle that kids need a bit of a "rough time" as part of growing up to make them stronger in character.  No doubt you cannot fight their every battle.  They will learn that they can't be friends with everyone, that they won't always make the team, or be able to live up to every dream they ever had.  There will be plenty of opportunity for failure.  Likewise, I'm certain kids can learn everything they need to without being trapped in an environment where they are constantly attacked for who they are, belittled, or sometimes cruelly stalked to be told that their very existence has no value, that they should die or burn in hell. 

What is seen most commonly is kids, and then parents, who may stand up and speak out only to discover that teachers and administrators turn a blind eye, an exaggeration of the circumstance is assumed, and an older generation just keeps saying, kids will be kids, right? Schools are overcrowded and understaffed, if someone is gay, or just a bit unusual, how many times will we hear, "we've got to let them sort it out" or finding some way to place blame on the victim, to discredit their plea for help and allow a return to the status quo.

When I was a teenager there was still safety in books, in your own spare time.  In some ways the internet does provide it's own potential refuge as kids reach out to find like-minded others online via websites and chat. Today there is no shortage of positive messengers, fighting to remind teens that if they just hold out a little longer, they will see their future was worth waiting for.   Though nothing (as the recent news of Jamey Rodemeyer's suicide illustrates) if your day to day reality is painful enough, dreaded enough, hopeless enough, not even a voice or a video online can convince you that the next day isn't one more day that will be too much to take. 

I was at the receiving end of a lot of nasty work by my classmates, my response was to just focus on my education to the exclusion of most other things and for the most part - it worked.  I found my own group of misfits and discovered that indeed it does get better.  Though I will admit at the time, I wasn't innocent either.   I was always too was afraid to stand up for others who were taking worse hits, I just went underground and stayed there for a very long time.  I'm not proud of myself for not doing more, saying more, and therefore I was complicit in the problem. That's what I have to live with.  But it points out the other aspect of this issue that needs to be dealt with.  That is, that we will never see lasting changes unless we help kids learn to create an atmosphere where standing up to these cruelties is a noble act to be respected by other students, not a risk they need to fear taking.  It saddens me now to see how many are enduring so much worse than I could barely stand, and just can't find a way to continue, but then, should anyone ever have to fight this hard just to get a basic education?

It's one thing to generally ignore someone you'd rather not hang out with, to send the message that they should just move along.  Adults do it all the time with common courtesy and little hesitation.  It's not easy, and it doesn't feel good, but it lets us know where to place our loyalties. It's quite another level of "lesson" to openly, publicly degrade a human being - to render them worthless in the eyes of their peers and consequently in their own eyes - for what?  For no reason other than to maintain a persona or a clique, or to hide one's own dark insecurities.  If a child has an obvious weak point, an easy pick  (like being gay) and is brave enough to be who they are, in some instances it does not matter if they try to just adopt a  "Born This Way" attitude and go on living their lives.  There continue to be the harshest bullys who won't even let them eek out an existence on their own terms, and the weaker willed sometimes follow suit and may join in. This is where the lines are drawn, when just existing and participating in life at school is a struggle fraught with pain. When you have no ability to even walk a hallway without facing disgusting remarks, or walk home without physical attack, or even know your own teachers hate what you are - who among us as grown-ups would even be able to endure that?  The answer is that we wouldn't.

We are the adults now, and it has gone beyond our sugarcoated memories of high school when you might have gotten hassled a few times a week from one lone jerk or another, and become the kind of physical and emotional warzone  that we wouldn't tolerate between adults at a workplace, in a military unit, or even a coffee shop.  Adults can file grievance, adults can walk away, get a new job, a new group of friends, but kids are trapped relying on their parents and teachers to help them change schools, move to a new area or just resort to homeschooling.  We forget the powerlessness that is being a child or teenager, we forget that they are at the mercy of our voice to advocate for them and to protect them, as victims - but also to protect them from themselves and all the tempting ways it is easier to be the bully than the one taking the abuse.

If you're a parent or a teacher, and the kids tell you how bad it is, don't ever undermine them with platitudes that they just need to "stand up to them and they'll leave you alone" or my all time favorite "they're just jealous of  how great you are, so ignore them".  Many of these young people are fighting harder than you will ever know to save the best part of themselves from being trashed, day after day after day. You only see them when they get on the school bus or  in the classrooms and hallways.  But there are hidden cameras in every cell phone, a danger in every bathroom stall, and there are more than enough times in a day when no one can save them, trust me, they know better than you how bad it can get.   The response needs to go beyond dealing with the damage as it manifests.  The students that are allowed to continue perpetrating the abuse are also being harmed in never properly learning empathy, never having the root of their actions addressed and the effects on the victim truly considered. We may be shocked at some of the most monstrous behavior, but few take more time than to unleash a suitable punishment and only hope they will actually stop - the response needs to go further than that.

There is still an this assumption that in the long term, bullies will see the light and have remorse as they find their popularity in high school didn't translate as well in adulthood, as they 'mature'.  But some never do learn, and go on to become the "horrible bosses", avoided coworkers, and sometimes, much worse. So by not fully tackling this issue, what is ever gained by holding on to hollow cliches that are obviously no longer relevant? Nothing for the bully, nothing for the victim and ultimately nothing for society as a whole.  The aftermath of the ones who don't give up are broken people, stripped early of their self-worth, who are forced to re-learn self-esteem. As well as the others who continue to have their unconscionable acts go unchecked, learning little about ethics and their own humanity, who mature into adult and citizens, and so it goes. The fallout continues until we grasp what we are losing when it's our sons and daughters contemplating the noose, eyeing a bottle of pills, that's when the realityof this issue finally hits home, and it should never have come to this.

When suicide is the third greatest cause of death among teenagers behind homocide and accident - how long will it take, and how many more bright young people must we lose before we make it stop?



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