I came across this link a day or so ago, and wanted to talk about it in some more detail: A sense of belonging. The article starts out by describing how the It Gets Better Project got started and the impact it has had in just a few short months. Nevertheless, there have been those who point out shortcomings of the message, and this is another one of those:
It’s almost impossible to watch any of the It Gets Better videos without being moved. But is this the best way to tackle homophobic bullying? Michael Barron is the director of BelongTo, an organisation that supports lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) young people in Ireland. He likes the videos and the spirit behind the campaign, but has mixed feelings about the message.
“I think [the campaign] is important and it’s especially great that people like Obama and Hillary Clinton are on board,” he says. “But in general it suggests that you should struggle through something because things will be better when you leave school, as opposed to saying that things should be okay now. If we want to get to the root of homophobic bullying, we have to examine the responsibility of schools, of parents and communities. And if the message to young people is, at some level, just to hold out until you’re 18, it places no responsibility on teachers or anything else.” Of course, the presence of gay role models is a good thing, and Barron says it’s important for gay teens to see happy gay adults.
I don’t disagree — in fact I made much the same sort of comment back in early October. But I’ve come to realize that IGBP is in many senses a starting point. In the absence of any other support from family, friends, church, community, or school, the answer for many gay kids is to tough it out. An isolated gay teenager in the rural midwest is not going to be able to turn things around singlehandedly, in most cases. His or her job may be simply to wait until such a time as he or she can get out, or is not dependent on such homophobic “support” structures.
So really, the IGBP winds up doing two things. Offering hope and role models (a very important thing, which the article acknowledges, and I will emphasize, from personal experience) to today’s isolated queer youth. But also providing a challenge to us adults to ask ourselves: “how can we make this better?”
Remember that informal poll that showed the average age of coming out dropping from 37 to 17 in two generations? That means more and more youth are in need of better support structures, and that’s the reason for the increased visibility of the need for these. I know there was no such discussion like this when I was in high school years ago. (However, I’m sure there were at least as many bullied kids back then as there are now.)
So what’s the best way to tackle the problem? A new report commissioned by the Equality Authority, “Addressing Homophobic Bullying in Irish Schools”, offers some suggestions. Dr James O’Higgins-Norman of the School of Education Studies at DCU led the research, which drew on the attempts of six schools from all over Ireland to tackle homophobic abuse.
Since 2006, the Department of Education has recommended that homophobic bullying should be specifically covered in school’s anti-bullying policies, but the new research found that in order for a school to be successful in dealing with homophobia, the initiative has to be embraced by the entire school. “The involvement of management and especially principals is an essential ingredient,” says O’Higgins-Norman.
Here’s the thing. We already know this. There are many examples of individual schools in Western nations who have eliminated bullying. We know exactly what works . Explicit anti-bullying provisions that include gender presentation and sexual orientation, a school administration that takes bullying seriously and takes appropriate steps when bullying does occur, and teachers who quickly and effectively step in and stop the bullying that they witness. We know this.
But implementation of these procedures gets blocked at many levels. Government, from the local to the federal, does not require anti bullying provisions to be in place in public schools. Administrations, teachers, and parents all do their part to stop anti-bullying measures from being enacted or keeping them too narrowly focused. Or teachers turn a blind eye, administrations fail to enforce existing policies. So there’s a lot of work to do out there, and in the meantime the queer youth stuck in these sorts of these places? Yeah.
So we need to make it better, at all levels. Everyone has something to contribute toward this effort, at levels in which they are involved. BelonG To has one excellent approach for LGBT allies:
BelongTo’s Stand Up campaign encouraged straight teens to stand up for their LGBT friends and relatives. “When we did research around the country and asked what helped young people when they were coming out and being bullied, nearly all of them said it was their closest friends, who were almost always straight,” says Barron. “The campaign was about promoting LGBT and straight friendships.”
If you’re a politician, you can sponsor legislation, such as the anti bullying bill that Texas State senator Wendy Davis did.
I would also suggest that many of the celebrities that have gone on to do IGBP videos are more beneficial for LGBT allies than for the queer youth themselves. Very few believe they will become a rich and famous out gay musician, for example. But their straight peers may see these productions and absorb an attitude of tolerance.
All of these approaches are working together — no single one will address all the different pieces that need to be worked on, and I don’t think any single one can. All of these are needed.