Teen Bullying: It’s Up to Us
As a gay teen, I know what it’s like to be bullied for my sexual orientation. The rare instances in which I have been bullied have been brutal, heartless. Through all the pain, I always come back to the question: How can people be so cruel?
I pondered this question during the worst summer of my life, in between the 9th and 10th grade, when I attended summer school in a small Colorado town. One of the boys who lived in my dorm started making jokes about my sexual orientation. From the beginning, I wanted it to stop. But I didn’t say anything. Pretty soon the jokes became malicious, and he started asking me inappropriate questions about my personal life. Then he started to mutter homophobic slurs in class. I cried each night on the phone to my father, trying to find comfort from someone familiar. If the boy hadn’t been forced to leave the school, I don’t know where I’d be today.
That summer came back to mind when I read the headline “Suicides Put Light on Pressures of Gay Teenagers” on the cover of the New York Times. There had been a number of gay teen suicides by that time, and I remember staring at the pictures of the victims. Most of them were around my age when I had been bullied. I saw myself reflected back in those pictures, and I remembered that I had thought of making the same decision. But things were completely different for me. I realized how lucky I was to live in a community where I could be openly gay and feel safe about it. Had I lived in other circumstances, my face could have been sprawled across that same page.
What, I thought, could I do to spread awareness about what’s happening to my fellow high school students?
I viewed it as my responsibility to address the recent suicides because I have the resources to do it, and because I know what it’s like to feel hopeless at the hands of homophobia. Unfortunately, the GSA (Gay/Straight Alliance) at my school wasn’t adequately discussing the issue, and I had become frustrated. At first I felt powerless. Then, I decided to take matters into my own hands.
At Phillips Academy Andover, the boarding school that I attend, students are encouraged to become leaders for a cause they are passionate about. I am passionate about gay rights; I view the issue as deeply personal. However, many people in my school community believe that gay-bashing is an irrelevant topic of discussion, saying that Andover is much too accepting for such bullying to occur. But that wasn’t the point. I wanted to challenge the school community to look beyond our immediate problems. After all, if we are to become leaders, we have to learn to address the needs of others.
I first wrote an article for The Phillipian, the school newspaper, about Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who committed suicide after his roommate live-streamed a video of him having a sexual tryst with another man. My hope was that the article would stimulate necessary discussion. The results were slightly positive; I could tell that I had gotten the faculty to discuss the Rutgers situation. But I didn’t accomplish my ultimate goal of inciting discussion amongst my peers.
Consequently, I decided to organize a facilitated discussion about the bullying of gay teens. I worked with my school’s GSA and an on-campus group that facilitates controversial discussions to plan the event. We rented a schoolroom, put up posters, and developed a list of fifteen questions that would provoke conversation among the attendees. We scheduled the meeting for a Friday night so that students would not be distracted by schoolwork. By the end of the week, we were anxious to get the discussion started.
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We began with a video of Joel Burns, a Fort Worth, Texas, city council member. He described his experiences as a gay teen and later, as an adult, stating, “it gets better.” His voice could be heard in the background as a montage played of photos of the suicide victims. He started to cry while describing Seth Walsh, a 13-year-old boy who hanged himself from a tree in his backyard. He described Seth’s mother, who waited nine days to unplug him from life support.
Naturally, this video provoked discussion about our own experiences with homophobia. We realized that homophobia was a lot closer to our lives than we'd thought. One girl described dealing with overt homophobia from her mother, who didn’t realize that her daughter was a lesbian.
Hearing her story made me realize how fortunate I was. At least I had the support of my family. At least I knew there were people I could go back to. Perhaps that was what saved me from the fate of the deceased. But who would this girl turn to if she were bullied?
But that was the point of the discussion: to raise awareness of the issue so that other gay teens would know that they were supported. That girl could now more easily withstand homophobia, armed with the knowledge that others go through the same thing every day.
But more needs to be done to spread awareness of gay-teen suicide. I am comforted to know that other people, such as Joel Burns and gay rights activist Cleve Jones, are working to spread awareness of this issue. But I believe that the real solution must come from teenagers ourselves. I will keep working to ensure that gay teens are proud of their identity, confronting homophobia in a strong, constructive manner.
Benjamin A. Talarico wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Ben is a student at Philips Academy Andover.
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