In recent months there has been much emphasis placed on queer youth suicide, jump-started, perhaps, on October 2010 when 18-year-old Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi jumped off of a bridge to his death after his sexual encounter with an older man was filmed and streamlined across the internet by his roommate. Dahrun Ravi sent a Twitter to the entire school with the following warning to perspective viewers: “I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again” It is this intimate “it’s” that Ravi was convinced was so humiliatingly shameful that he had a right to share it with the world.
After the recent death of 15 year-old Ottawa high school student Jamie Hubley (who took his own life after being continuously bullied for being queer by fellow students) there has been an outpouring of rage against the homophobic youth who taunted Hubley to death, as well as questions about how the communities we foster enable these kids’ emergence.
I’m wondering here though if given the social parameters that privilege heteronormativity, whiteness, wealth, and masculinity can we really expect anything different? The answer I need is yes, we must expect something different.
Trying to figure out how we, queer or heterosexual, adults can step up and actually do something to make things better for queer youth I need to first realize what our queer youth are up against.
While there are a plethora of ignorant arguments insisting upon the negative effect of homosexuality on society one stands out like no other—that of pastor Fred W. Phelps. Opposed to what he calls “dyke liberty” and “the filthy fag agenda,” Pastor Phelps has a way with words so poetic that during a sermon in his church, he preached the following:
“Same-sex marriage, by any name, civil union or otherwise, is the ultimate smashed-mouth in-your-face insult to God almighty, and you think he’s going to let England and America and the rest of this evil world get by with it? God almighty has not joined fags in holy wedlock. God no longer keeps America safe, America is doomed. We’re getting the pants beat off of us, in Iraq, in Afghanistan. God is now America’s terrorist. God duped you into starting a war, so he could punish you [. . . ] You’re going to eat your babies! God himself duped Bush into a no-win war, and he did that by the technique of putting a lying spirit in the mouth of all his trusted advisors, to punish America.”
Okay. Now, what Fred W. Phelps is most concerned about here is seemingly:
1) God abhors gay anything and anyone who supports it.
2) God is a terrorist.
3) As homosexuals, we eat our own babies.
On a basic level, Phelps is in idiot. And I want to dismiss him and yell “Hey, Fred! Judas called and wants his role back.” However, the sad fact remains that Phelps and people like him exist and they are listened to. It’s dangerous to forget that.
There have been a variety of suggestions on what can be done to stop queer kids who are hurting from both continuing to be hurt in places that should be safe (like school), and from turning to suicide after encountering people like Phelps and his rhetorical spawn.
In an impassioned video to his television audience Rick Mercer makes a rare personal plea, from one gay man to an audience of listeners, demanding that homophobes be called into account for their terrorization of queer kids. He argues that rather than simply relying on grief counsellors who only come into a school after a tragedy like Hubley’s death occurs, all adults, especially public-figures who are gay, must create and enforce a no-tolerance environment for homophobia, starting with “the old fashioned assembly [. . . ] where the cops show up and there’s hell to pay.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wh1jNAZHKIw).
He demands to know why we, as a Canadian society, are coddling homophobic abusers when we should be protecting at-risk kids. “We have to make it better now,” he argues with a sense of urgency, as though he knows all too well that if we don’t do something “better” soon, we’re not going to have any queer kids left to make it up to.
Mercer is right, of course. As gay adults we need to come out and help in a big way. Ready to be there. Because sometimes showing up is enough.
Matthew Pearson also makes a fantastic suggestion as he discusses the homophobic bullying he suffered as a teen growing up in Ontario. He outlines ”the arithmetic of shame” that he accredits with saving his life.. Showing up to school with enough treats to hand out to his aggressors, and offering to drive his taunters around the town, Pearson survived high school by trying to appeal to his peers’ materialism and, maybe even, their guilt. He hoped daily that if he was kind enough, gave these people enough stuff, they’d stop pushing him into lockers and calling him a fag. I get that. I survived my high school life in much the same way. Like Pearson, I lived with “this secret [that] I never shared out of fear that it could destroy everything.” And when you’re 14, this “everything” seems to insurmountably resemble the social sphere in high school–the cafeteria, the hallway, the bus, the bathroom, the parking lot.
And you’re stuck there for three years without the experience or the knowledge that it will change. Like Pearson who calls on “heterosexual men” to wake up, what I needed were heterosexual adults to get it. They didn’t but I needed them to.
But there’s much more necessary.
We need to make it better and stop waiting for someone else to do it. The notion of the “bystander effect” that has popped up over and over again in the media surrounding the death of 2-year-old Wang Yueyue in China also holds true here. While we can stand in judgement of a group of 18 people who willingly watched a dying baby on the side of the road slip away without picking her up and carrying her to safety, we overlook the fact that each one of us is standing by, watching as our teens are slowly murdering those who they think are just a bit too different to be allowed to walk down the hallways unscathed.
And worse, these teens are our children, our babysitters, our soccer stars, our students, our neighbors. They mow our lawns and sell us chocolate bars for school trips. They’re the same kids we used to hand treats out to on Halloween, who used to pee the bed at our kids’ sleepovers, who used to suck their thumbs until their teeth bucked out when they were in Elementary school. We pass them often on the street, and cheer them on at hockey games and concerts. With the exception of a few perhaps, these homophobes are not monsters. If only. That would be a lot easier to understand. Instead, they are you and they are me. And they are unquestionably our fucking responsibility.
I do wonder too if Mercer’s observation of the western adult is not a bit idealistic. He says, with a huge heart, that as “adults, we don’t need role models, kids do.” And when he describes how he reacted to a Youtube video of Hubley singing Lady Gaga tunes with his friends, he states: “as an adult you look at that and go, ‘you know what? That kid’s going places.’” I would love to agree with this, but what strikes me here is the confidence Mercer has that by virtue of us being adults we’ve made it, or, we no longer need to learn how to be better people. Yet the Fred Phelps of the world snap me awake pretty easily.
I need a role model. I need one that can help me understand the feelings of utter disgust I feel towards 12 year-old kids who hate other kids because a little boy might like ballet, or a girl might wear a backwards hat to school. I need a role model I can call that can speak to me clearly about why, in 2011, we’re still fighting to have queer sexuality education in every classroom, not as an-add on but as a part of everyday sexuality studies. I need a role model to stop me from showing up at schools and kicking these homophobic kids right in the arse.
The fact of the matter remains that a lot of adults don’t see a beautiful kid like Jamie Hubley and think, “he’s going to be a star.” They see red. And then they raise kids who see red too.
As Sarah Silverman brilliantly puts it:
“Dear America, when you tell gay Americans that they can’t serve their country openly, or marry the person that they love, you’re telling that to kids too, so don’t be fucking shocked and wonder where all these bullies are coming from that are torturing young kids and driving them to kill themselves because they’re different. They learned it from watching you.”
Dan Savage has offered that “sometimes the damage done by hate and haters is simply too great.” He might be right, but the worst thing we can do as adults is enable this type of statement to render us complacent or helpless. I’ll stick with Rick on this one that “we have to make it better now,” and that we can’t afford to be “invisible anymore.” Our coming out stories might be very different from the teens today who are experiencing a world where the color of someone’s shit can make the front-page of yahoo news, but that doesn’t mean we can let them go it alone and meet us at the bar when they make it.
Homophobia is a crime, not a misunderstanding. But it’s not a crime being committed by a bunch of evil kids who don’t matter. They’re our kids doing this and they’re hurting others before we sit and eat with them at dinner, and after we drop them off at the rink to free-skate.
I completely agree with Sarah Blackstock‘s statements that”we must go after the homophobia,” but I think we have to also go after that part of ourselves that explains away homophobia as a notch on a belt that we suffer through on our way to gay.
And we need to do that now.