Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Tragic Lesson in Anti-Gay Bullying

By Joleen Hanlon

If you were taunted with words like "fag" and "dyke" daily in school, to what extent would this affect you? Perhaps the experience would keep you hiding in the closet for years, send you into a depression, or lower your academic achievement. Maybe the homophobic culture of your school would convince you that gay people are inferior, and you might start using the ubiquitous phrase "that's so gay" to describe every unfavorable person, place, or thing.

Or, if the bullying were unrelenting, perhaps you might do the unimaginable: commit suicide.

That was the tragic consequence in April for a 6th grade Massachusetts student named Carl Walker-Hoover, a victim of anti-gay bullying. People who knew Carl described him as flamboyant and effeminate. He defied gender expectations. Although he did not identify as gay, students harassed Carl daily, calling him names and saying disdainfully that he acted like a girl.

Months of being taunted and harassed finally became too much for Carl to bear. On April 6, he hanged himself with an extension cord in his Springfield, Mass., home while his mother was cooking dinner downstairs.

This 11-year-old sent the world a powerful message, one demonstrating just how painful words can be. His death also provided educators with another illustration of the need to address homophobic attitudes in schools. The consequences of anti-gay bullying may be difficult at times to see, but they can forever alter, and sometimes end, the life of a child. It is time for educators to stop overlooking anti-gay language and start responding to it with the same vigor we would to the expression of racist attitudes.

The fact is that this type of hate language, used against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, youths, is common in American schools. Students who are LGBT—or, are perceived to be—are frequently bullied. In fact, sexual orientation is, according to a 2005 nationwide survey, the second most common reason for repeated harassment in schools.

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