“God hates fags,” says the face of terror. It is the now repugnantly familiar slogan of the Westboro Church, a clan of white Christian fundamentalists recently in the public spotlight for a Supreme Court free speech case on anti-gay protests at military funerals. This particular brand of free speech is pure stars and stripes terror, easily repudiated by the enlightened, easily placed in that special category of sweaty troglodyte extremism.
Over the past several weeks the impact of anti-gay vitriol has grabbed headlines, from the bullying-related suicides of several young gay men to the snowballing sexual abuse allegations by teenage male parishioners against professional homophobe Bishop Eddie Long. These tragedies have renewed national conversation about the pervasiveness of bullying in schools. Bullying is vicious, unconscionable and life-threatening. Yet reactive public condemnations of bullying often foreclose real analysis of the systemic mechanisms that institutionalize violence and terror against gay, lesbian and gender non-conforming children.
As a straight middle class girl in a homophobic heterosexist school community I was trained to dehumanize gay kids. After all, God, as we were fond of jeering to the suspected “fags” at my elementary school, created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. Historical leaders were straight, public figures were straight, normal families were straight, laws sanctified straight families, law enforcement protected male dominance over women and children in the home, and the exotic world of romantic love pulsed to the tune of boy conquers girl.
This was our creed, our lifeblood, our moral universe, our cultural license for terror. This was the moral universe that claimed the life of Carl Walker-Hoover, an eleven-year-old African American Massachusetts boy who committed suicide in April 2009 after the adult leaders at his school failed him. Like scores of youth who are targeted for being gender non-conforming, Hoover-Walker’s pleas for help from school administration went unanswered. Coverage of his death barely made a dent in the mainstream media.
Coverage of the bullying-related suicide of a white Massachusetts high school girl during the same period made national headlines. In 2008, the murder of gender non-conforming middle school student Lawrence King by a fellow classmate in Oxnard California put anti-gay bullying in the public spotlight. Prior to Lawrence King’s murder, homophobic violence in schools elicited little media attention or national outcry.
Like most children growing up in the U.S. I was systematically taught to view lesbian and gay people as deviant, unnatural, and immoral. Because heterosexuality was the “norm,” the absence of LGBT figures of color in textbooks and media reinforced the righteousness of my straight identity. It conferred me with an automatic self-esteem and self-image advantage LGBT youth did not have.
Because I looked, talked, and generally played the part of a boy-obsessed straight girl I was not ostracized for my attraction to the opposite sex. And because I lived in a community where the presumption of heterosexuality and hetero-normativity always trumped other gender identities. I was not targeted for social “extermination.”
At my elementary school, a boy named “Luke,” who was obsessed with Mrs. Beasley, a doll featured in the 1960s sitcom Family Affair, was mercilessly harassed for being effeminate and mentally “off.” Luke became a cautionary tale for little black boys bold enough to be themselves. For in this state of identity warfare, we were constantly reminded to enforce clear lines of demarcation between male and female, to inflict terror. Children who blurred gender lines like Luke were deemed less valuable, less normal, and, by extension, less human. Girls who didn’t express a preference for and show some interest in deferring to boys (vis-à-vis appearance, flirtation and giving the impression of being receptive to male advances) had questionable gender identities. Boys who didn’t exhibit an overt interest in girls—who didn’t flirt with them, compete for them or harass them—were nerds/outcasts from the fraternity of male hardness. Gender variant or gender non-conforming boys were social suicides.
Why isn’t it considered immoral when gender non-conforming children have no space in our culture? Are reviled for the toys they play with and the clothes they wear, while their straight peers reap the social benefits of being silent, of being normalized? And why isn’t it a moral issue when LGBT youth don’t see themselves represented in school textbooks and media?
Power is “moral” when it is arrogated by authority figures that uphold these gender norms and boundaries as an unimpeachable truth claim. A secular morality should be based on the premise that homosexuality has value as part of the range of human sexual orientation. Gay identities have moral value both as part of the range of sexual identity and in their difference from the compulsory heterosexual norm.
This is decidedly different from the Kumbaya bromide of “tolerance” and respect for “difference.” On the right, family values charlatans decry the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools and preach a vanilla brand of “tolerance.” On the left, liberal educators advocate inclusion and recognition of “diversity.” Mere tolerance for difference essentially neutralizes difference by reinforcing culturally prescribed norms. Respect for difference without the foundation of value says that I can acknowledge your right to exist without understanding why your identity has been culturally defined as oppositional to mine. Respect and tolerance without critical consciousness means that I won’t understand why my identity (as normal and naturalized) can’t exist as normal and naturalized without this oppositionality.
Although some school districts have adopted their own anti-bullying policies, there is little systemic district-mandated LGBT youth-oriented training or resources for adults and parents in K-12 schools. The Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) has been a national advocate for the Safe Schools Improvement Act, a federal bill that would require comprehensive anti-bullying protections in schools. Both GLSEN and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and have developed educational professional development guides that address such themes as family diversity, anti-bullying and gender non-conformity. The HRC’s Welcoming Schools guide has been successfully adopted in school districts in Minnesota, California and Massachusetts.
Bullying is not merely an issue of “intolerance” but a symptom of dehumanization and othering. And it is only when activist school districts, parents and communities move beyond a reactive focus on bullying to the root causes of terror that the lives of our most vulnerable children will be protected.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and the author of the forthcoming Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and Secular America. She is a Senior Fellow with the Institute for Humanist Studies.