When I think about what we can do to support LGBTQ youth, two stories come to mind. The first begins, at least on one level, in the fall of 2011, when 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer killed himself at his home near Buffalo, NY.
Jamey’s parents had been supportive, but school had been difficult. Several months earlier, in a video on the “It Gets Better” Youtube channel, Jamey had described the homophobic bullying he faced there: “People would be like, ‘faggot,’ ‘fag.’ They’d taunt me in the hallways, and I thought I could never escape it.” Indeed, the bullying followed him home: “JAMIE [sic] IS STUPID, GAY, FAT ANND [sic] UGLY. HE MUST DIE!”, someone wrote on his Formspring page. “I wouldn’t care if you died. No one would. So just do it 🙂 It would make everyone WAY more happier!”
When I was a kid, this kind of bullying at least stopped at school. Now, it can be the last thing kids see before bed and the first thing they see when they wake up.
I remember sitting at my computer screen shaking the morning that I read about his death. I lived about twenty minutes from his home; I’m sure it was, in part, the proximity that hit me. And, of course, the sheer awfulness of his death. When a 14-year-old child can be driven to kill himself, we need to examine something very fundamental about our society and our schools.
I was also shaking, though, because of how Jamey’s story reminded me of my own. I knew, or began to suspect, that I was gay around the age of twelve. I didn’t come out until I was 22, just before heading to grad school.
I never experienced the torment that Jamey did, from anybody. No one ever called me “fag” or “dyke” or any other anti-gay epithet. No one ever has. Though I probably did, I don’t even remember hearing lots of anti-gay language thrown around in school. I was always a bit of a tomboy, but I also fit traditional notions of femininity comfortably enough not to have faced judgment or cruelty on the basis of my gender expression.
In a lot of ways, I was a genuinely happy adolescent. I ran track and swam the butterfly; I put frog stickers on my flute case. But on a deeper level, I was terrified. I could not imagine life as a lesbian.
As far as I knew, I had never met a lesbian. I’d read voraciously since elementary school, but had never encountered a lesbian or gay character in any of my books. Ellen Degeneres came out when I was 16, to controversy: I kept my distance. The world around me offered a huge variety of possible futures, but, from the movies I watched, to the games I played, to the people I saw when I looked around me, all of those futures involved me falling in love with and marrying a man. The lives I could imagine as a lesbian were grainy and incomplete, marked most by isolation and loneliness. And so, like Jamey, I also thought about killing myself. I never came as close as Jamey did. I didn’t actually want to die. I just couldn’t imagine a life that I could live.
I think that’s why I couldn’t stop shaking when I heard Jamey’s story. I am so grateful to have had a different story.
The main thing I remember from the night I came out to my parents is something my mom said: “I am so sorry you had to go through this without us, and I wish we could have helped you, but even if I could change this about you, I wouldn’t, because then you wouldn’t be my daughter, and I don’t want anyone else as my daughter.”
I had always known that my parents would support me, love me. Still, that statement blew my mind. It had never occurred to me to ask for anything but acceptance. It would take me time to become comfortable with my sexuality, but that night—literally, that night—all of the worst fears went away, and I began to imagine a different kind of future.
So how can we support LGBTQ youth? First, we can love them fully and openly. Love them with the kind of love that Drea Kelly, ex-wife of R. Kelly, describes when she speaks of her transgender son, Jay: “You can’t do anything to earn it, you never do anything to lose it and it’s never gonna change.”
I think we have a notion that parents and families have become more accepting—and I think that’s true. Yet, in my work as advisor to two university gay-straight alliances, I have heard so many stories of young people, now, whose coming out experiences have been marked by rejection, by silence, and by a continued need to hide whole portions of their lives from the people they love most. So first, we need to be genuinely open to the gender diversity of all of the young people in our lives. We need not just to accept, but to love every part of what makes them who they are.
But we also need to do more. Together, my story and Jamey’s point to two damaging forces. Jamey’s points to the dangers of homophobia and transphobia—of outright hatred. Mine points to heteronormativity, or the subtle expectation with which I would argue we’ve all been imbued, including me, to expect heterosexuality, and to expect certain gendered practices as normal and ideal. I’ll address homophobia and transphobia here, and heteronormativity in a blog to come.
Every other year, an organization called GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Educators’ Network) releases a report on the experiences of LGBTQ youth in schools. Their most recent report, released in 2012, included the following findings:
- Nearly 85% of LGBTQ youth hear derogatory terms and phrases like “fag” and “that’s so gay” at school.
- Over 60% hear comments about students not acting masculine or feminine enough “frequently or often.”
- Nearly 65% were verbally harassed on the basis of gender expression, and 81% on the basis of sexual orientation. Many others were physically harassed or assaulted.
- Of all LGBTQ youth, transgender youth face the highest rates of harassment.
These numbers depict school as a place of fear and intimidation for so many students. And while most youth don’t report these incidents to teachers, over a third of those who did said teachers did nothing in response.
Such numbers can present LGBTQ youth as helpless victims. The youth I have worked with are creative and resilient and passionate about creating a different kind of world. But these numbers do make clear the challenges that they also face, and the work we as adults need to do to support them.
Educators at every level must make clear that homophobic and transphobic language and actions are not acceptable. GLSEN offers a wide range of teacher resources that can help with this work. We need to address bullying. We need to address what CJ Pascoe calls “fag discourse”: the way straight boys in particular throw the word “fag” around among themselves, and even play-act as the “fag”—all, Pascoe says, as a way of making clear their own heterosexuality and of regulating traditional masculinity. We need to ask boys to think about why they do this and about what effects this behavior might have on themselves and others.
And merely forbidding such language and actions isn’t enough. We also need to talk with young people about it. We need to teach empathy: through literature, and through hard conversations about the effects our words have on one another. And—in the work that remains hardest for me, the work I’m still not very good at—we need to model for young people ways to disrupt this language beyond the classroom, too.
I don’t claim that any of this will be easy. I’ve tried, and sometimes I’ve had to have faith that some lessons take time to steep, and that addressing this language may help kids in ways I’ll never know about. The GLSEN reports support this belief. For the first time in a decade, the 2009 report showed an increase in school supports for LGBTQ youth. The next report, in 2011, showed the first-ever decline in harassment and abuse based on sexual orientation.
The adults in the lives of young people have power. Weeks before he died, Jamey Rodemeyer wrote on his Formspring page, “I always say how bullied I am, but no one listens. . .What do I have to do so people will listen to me?” I don’t want to presume to know more about Jamey Rodemeyer’s experience than I do, but I wonder: what difference would more support, or a different kind of support, have made for him? And how can we offer that support to the kids in our schools now?
blog by: Heather McEntarfer
feature image Catherine Mommsen Scott