a culture of bullying

Explaining American schools’ gay bullying epidemic: In a Q&A session with Stuart Biegel, author of “The Right to be Out,”, made this point, which I think explains how bullying — which is most certainly not a new thing, as the wide age range of those who contributed to the It Gets Better project attests — is now gaining a lot more visibility:

But I think what’s happening now, with this particular rash of suicides is that you have families who have been open about what happened. This goes back a few years, to the mother of Carl Walker-Hoover. There used to be so much shame associated with these suicides. Now my sense is the families are more comfortable opening up about them and the media is more comfortable reporting about them in great detail. […] I think [the increased media attention is] very significant. For a long time, these issues haven’t been discussed openly. When people would mention words like gay and lesbian in airports and restaurants they would lower their voices. We’re only recently seen what may be a turning of the tide. Now there’s less lowering of voices and more comfort in addressing these issues openly in schools and at the dinner table.

The more we talk, the more dialog we can generate. The more dialog, the more people will see past the manufactured shame to the underlying problem at hand. He also discusses the “uneveness” of homophobic culture across the country, how different LGBT folks can have vastly different experiences — even different schools within the same district can have extremely different atmospheres for attending LGBT students. This, I think, is something important to pay attention to as well, especially if you’re tempted to say your own coming out was no big deal.

It is critical that we address the problem of LGBT bullying. LGBT folks comprise — depending on who you talk to and what books you read — anywhere from 3.5% to 10% of the population. Yet among the teen homeless population, thirty to forty percent are LGBT. Once homeless, education and jobs are interrupted, with attendant lifelong consequences — to say nothing of the effects of addiction and prostitution. This is finely detailed in this LA Times article: Gay and homeless: In plain sight, a largely hidden population.The homeless shelters who try to address this problem share a common refrain:

Getting off the streets is a challenge for many of these young people. The L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center is one of several Hollywood organizations that assist homeless youths. Among them, there are only about 200 beds available.

This is echoed by the director of one of NYC’s shelters in Guest Post – Carl Siciliano

In New York City, there are 3,800 youths who sleep on the streets every night. Over 1,000 of these youths admit to being LGBT. There are only about 250 shelter beds for homeless youth in NYC, so the great majority are left stranded on the streets.

If you are looking for somewhere to donate your money or time, I would strongly encourage you to look up your local youth homeless shelters.

In all of the focus on the bullied LGBT students, let’s not forget one potentially huge resource these kids could have, who are themselves bullied into staying utterly quiet about their orientation: LGBT teachers still fear being fired for coming out and The War on LGBT Teachers.

As long as they don’t explicitly describe what’s appropriate and what’s not while they’re willing to fire people over “one discussion” in “one classroom,” LGBT teachers are going to be worried about losing their jobs. Without explicitly [sic] guidelines, a straight teacher saying he’s not married because his girlfriend is still in college will be appropriate, while a gay teacher saying he’s not married because he can’t in the state of Oregon will be inappropriate. A straight teacher talking about her trip to England with her husband will be perfectly wholesome, while a lesbian teacher talking about her trip to England with her partner will be treated as if she were explaining the ins and outs of cunnilingus to kindergardeners.

Granted, once out of compulsory education, and away from repressive families, life becomes a lot better for LGBT folks (again, as attested to by the It Gets Better Project). However, we live in a culture so steeply drenched in homophobia that LGBT allies and even some LGBT folks don’t always notice the extent to which it permeates issues. Gay Bashing at the Smithsonian by Frank Rich lays this out. The controversy over “Fire in the Belly” was framed as a religious objection to the use of a crucifix in the video clip that was originally part of the exhibit.

When his mentor and former lover, the photographer Peter Hujar, fell ill with AIDS in 1987, Wojnarowicz created a video titled “A Fire in My Belly” to express both his grief and his fury. As in Haring’s altarpiece, Christ figures in Wojnarowicz’s response to the plague — albeit in a cryptic, 11-second cameo. A crucifix is besieged by ants that evoke frantic souls scurrying in panic as a seemingly impassive God looked on.

Amid protest, the museum pulled the clip. However, examining the controversy more closely reveals the homophobic bullying at the center of the controversy:

But of course Donohue was just using his “religious” objections as a perfunctory cover for the homophobia actually driving his complaint. The truth popped out of the closet as Donohue expanded his indictment to “pornographic images of gay men.” His Republican Congressional allies got into the act. Eric Cantor called for the entire exhibit to be shut down and threatened to maim the Smithsonian’s taxpayer funding come January. (The exhibit was entirely funded by private donors, but such facts don’t matter in culture wars.) Jack Kingston, of the House Appropriations Committee, rattled off his own list of exaggerated gay outrages in “Hide/Seek,” from “Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts” to “naked brothers kissing.”

The museum didn’t stand up for long at all under the “pressure” and quickly pulled the exhibit. Not only that, it turned around and banned two men who later protested the censorship by peacefully standing near the entrance holding an iPad displaying the “controversial” clip and handing out articles describing the situation.

The incident is chilling because it suggests that even in a time of huge progress in gay civil rights, homophobia remains among the last permissible bigotries in America. “Think anti-gay bullying is just for kids? Ask the Smithsonian,” wrote The Los Angeles Times’s art critic, Christopher Knight, last week. One might add: Think anti-gay bullying is just for small-town America? Look at the nation’s capital. We should not be forgetting how the AIDs epidemic swept through the nation some 15-20 years ago, taking with it nearly an entire generation of gay men.

The Smithsonian’s behavior and the ensuing silence in official Washington are jarring echoes of those days when American political leaders stood by idly as the epidemic raged on. The incident is also a throwback to the culture wars we thought we were getting past now — most eerily the mother of them all, the cancellation of a Mapplethorpe exhibit (after he died of AIDS) at another Washington museum, the Corcoran, in 1989.

(If you read nothing else, read Rich’s article in its entirety, now.) One thing that every colonized culture experiences is a loss of history, as the dominant culture succeeds in erasing it. (This happens over and over again, from Deaf people to native/indigenous people, and LGBT people.).

And this just in: Books about gay issues vandalized at Harvard

Police at Harvard University say they are investigating vandalism to about 40 books about lesbian and gay issues at a school library as a hate crime.

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