a thought piece …
At least once a year, every year, on this blog I have had to write a piece about a child who committed suicide because of transphobic-homophobic bullying in the schools. (I’ve linked these two distinct oppressions together here because the cases I am referring to have included both oppressions blurred together; however, bear in mind, they are distinct and have both caused murder or suicide individually.) After some high profile deaths on both coasts last year, there was a lot of national level talk about ending gender and sexuality based school bullying. The discussion was so mainstream that even Oprah did a special on it and longstanding organizations like GLAAD, PFLAG, and THE offered curriculum to any school willing to take the first step. All of the key secondary school pedagogy magazines carried articles on it and the web also lit up with discussion and lists and pledges on youtube. As a one time diversity trainer (you know back in the good old days when I thought that stuff might help), I even got phone calls from old contacts asking if I could go do trainings in the schools again. And yet, despite all the hoopla, gender and sexuality based school bullying, often spurred on by repeated public expression of hate in states with same sex marriage or partner benefits proposals up for vote (see report by the SPLC abt how marriage debate is increasing hate crimes), continues on.
The disconnect between public outcry and reality hit home this past weekend when my mother called me frantic about my nephew being bullied in school. My nephew is a mild to moderate autistic child who speaks very little and when he does he parses his words and phrases down to their barest available meanings. Like many autistic children, he is a genius in certain subjects, seemingly willful with regards to social interaction, and often tunnel visioned. And like most of the high functioning differently-abled people in our family, his teachers “overlook” or minimizes his disability because he is smart, in the typical ableist manner of equating disability with dumbness and ability with intelligence. Their profound failure to provide him with reasonable accommodations has led to him being placed into a regular classroom with a curriculum beneath his IQ and a social setting far above his abilities. In other words, a recipe for disaster.
One day in gym class (a class I personally believe is the source of far too many childhood traumas to be justified), my nephew’s class was asked to pick teams. When it was my nephew’s turn, the two semi-formed teams could be best described as the boys who were mean to him for being smart and different (ie ableist boys) and the girls who had always been nice to him. Parsing his words in a fashion that was typical to his particular manifestation of autism, my nephew stated “I want to be a girl.”
The tormenting began almost immediately. Even the girls laughed at him. The PE teacher failed to either explain what had happened or intervene. And when the teams were fully formed, the boys targeted my nephew, intentionally slamming him with the ball, each time yelling out “hit the girl” in a way all too close to “smear the queer.” Also in an all too familiar pattern, the PE teacher sat back and watched without comment or correction.
Since that incident, my nephew has been teased from the time he gets on the school bus to go to school until the time he gets off it on his way home. The boys shove him, rub against him and ask if he “likes that”, put pink markers on his desk, and even accosted him with lipstick, once again blurring the lines of gender and sexuality policing. And all the while, his teachers have done nothing. While much of their silence is homophobia and transphobia the ableism that makes them resent his willfullness also no doubt makes them secretly enjoy his being publicly harassed.
The intersection of ableism and hetero & cissexism are exacerbated in this case by my nephew’s father. When my nephew was born, my sister’s born again evangelical husband could not have been more proud. He practically thumped his chest and yelled “Me man, man beget man, hooha!” He went out of his way to ensure his newborn son was allowed nowhere near me and my bevy gay male friends who would “corrupt him” and lesbian friends who would “confuse him.” And then, his child was diagnosed with autism and pride flew away on angel’s wings. In my sister’s husband’s eyes, my nephew was less than a man because he was not temporarily able-bodied. Leaving him behind to play with his sister in a strictly gender segregated household had the added effect of making my nephew far more at ease with the women and girls in his life, who never made him feel less human or ungendered because he was differently-abled.
The sense of comfort he found with women as a direct result of ableism and sexism in his home, made my nephew gravitate to the girls in school as well. Thus the PE incident seemed oddly over-determined by the points of intersection on all sides. And of course, when my sister’s husband found out about it, he only looked at his son through ableist eyes and shook his head as if he had the final proof that the boy is “broken.” Further, his own phobias and ableism, like those of my nephew’s teachers, have combined to keep him and my sister from advocating for my nephew’s safety or calling me to do it for them.
The result of adult inaction both at home and at the school has been my nephew’ deteriorating ability to function. His social phobias related to his autism have increased while his burgeoning social skills have all decreased. He is having accidents in and out of school, coupled with nightmares, and if he were an able-bodied child his grades would no doubt be slipping as well. Where he once learned from his father that being autistic meant he couldn’t “be a man”, he is now learning that “being a girl” is something worse still, especially if you were born physically a boy. The only place he has ever really been at ease is being torn down by an adult pre-occupation with cissexism and homophobia that they have passed down to children. Those children and the schools that have become the place of widescale social torture for many young people, enact violence largely without any real sanction for increasing oppression.
Listening to what my nephew is suffering, my mind cannot help but wander to all of the young boys whose names and photos have ended up on this blog as a testament to a society that unofficially encourages children to behave like Lord of the Flies with queer youth playing the role of Piggie. In most of these cases, the failure and/or encouragement of teachers and administrators made schools the most unsafe places that children, gay, straight, or questioning, trans, genderqueer, or simply quiet or tomboyish, could be in. And in many of them, the failure or silence of parents surrounding issues of gender and sexual diversity made children feel they had no allies or that they were profound disappointments. In talking about my nephew’s case, we have an added layer of disability that marked him as different, and in the eyes of his father, less, from the beginning. What my nephew is experiencing is a phenomena that is both specific to dis/ability issues and illustrative of how difference of any kind gets pushed through the mill of homophobia and transphobia in schools all the time.
While many of us, myself included, jumped on the bandwagon of parental involvement and school reform, my nephew’s case also highlights how little these reforms do when they are in reaction to sensational cases or when they fail to be intersectional in nature. The fact is, my nephew attends a school district that has an extremely strong anti-bullying policy. That policy specifically addresses best practices with queer or questioning youth. However, like much of the curriculum circulated in the last few years, the policy assumes children are queer or questioning and does very little to impact the overall climate of phobia that targets people regardless of their actual gender or sexual orientation. In other words, kids learn early that calling someone “a girl” is a bigger insult than “shy” or “quiet” or “know it all” could ever be and they are learning from huge anti-gay rights campaigns that being “gay” means being less than human and calling someone “gay” will permanently ostracize them. My nephew has not yet chosen a sexual orientation or gender preference, but he has been painted with a big pink brush by his classmates nonetheless. They did it because he is different and because his ableist teachers never bothered to provide the reasonable accommodations required by federal law that would have made those differences technically off limits.
And while we live in a culture that has become increasingly aware of sexuality and gender differences, we also live in a culture where both these identities and dis/ability are often the target of oppression based humor on television, radio, and in film. Though schools have a long history of addressing dis/ability, it is peppered with ableist, stigmatizing, and uninformed choices that have often been a detriment to differently-abled children’s development. My nephew was supposedly lucky. He attends a school district that has a mandate to serve all identified “special students.” They have a specific educational planning session for each identified student and that plan has to be followed up on by the school or the parent’s can petition to move the child to a better equipped school. Barring that, the people failing to uphold the plan can be reprimanded or fired. And yet, part of what is happening to my nephew has everything to do with the failure to provide him appropriate services. Not just in the way I have mentioned above, but also because his teachers resent having to modify their lesson plans or do not know how. In his first weeks in his new school, he was in conflict with them regularly because they did not provide enough transition time or instruction for him to follow through and when he acted out as a result (a typical behavior for autistic children asked to transition activities without warning) they punished him and he acted out more (also a typical trait). Filtering his actions through ableist eyes, his teachers judged him as a “willful, spoiled, brat” not a differently-abled child with specific needs. When they were called out for punishing him, they looked to his IQ as proof he was “faking it.” That resentment built up over time, so that when the other students in the class turned on him, the teachers simply sat back and enjoyed it instead of doing their jobs. Their lack of training and accountability with regards to dis/ability issues coupled with some of their homophobia and transphobia to allow my nephew to be repeatedly targeted without intervention. The message their inaction, and no doubt non-verbal enjoyment, sent the children in his school has lasting effects on how both differently-abled and gender non-conforming or same sex desiring students will be treated for years to come. For my nephew, the consequences could be dire.
So what does this mean for similar children trying to get through middle school especially in the post-anti-bullying hoopla? It seems to me that my nephew’s case illustrates how little we have accomplished. Like the newly formed European states that all have anti-discrimination against LGBTQ people in their constitutions but still have some of the most vehement and violent opposition to celebrations of queer culture or the presence of LGBTQ people in their towns, it seems that both anti-bullying curriculum and dis/ability ed have failed to do more than provide legal language for offenders to mask their ongoing bigotry behind. And when we buy into the fanfare without actually working daily to ensure that schools are doing more than just pay lip service, people like Larry King, Carl Joseph-Walker Hoover, and Jaheem Herrera (all pictured here) die.
When parents assume that the schools are following mandates or are simply “safe places” for youth, they often over look signs that their children are in real trouble. Bullying of all kinds goes unreported to parents by their children for fear that parents will either not understand or minimize or that they will go to the school and “make it worse.” This is a failure both on the part of society to properly aid parents in understanding the power of bullying on children’s development but also on the part of school boards to educate parents’ about their rights and schools to work cooperatively with involved parents rather than stigmatizing their kids. Worst of all, as in the case of my sister’s husband, some parents have allowed their own phobias and hetero &/or cissexism to prevent them from standing up for their children. Like the radio shock jocks in California who said they would beat their imaginary children if they were transgendered, some parents actually believe that gender policing on the school yard will be “good for their kids.” But as the parents of the dead children pictured here, some who were homophobic, some who were not aware of their rights or the extent of the abuse, and some who advocated every chance they got to no avail, prove, school based bullying has lasting detrimental effects on children not positive ones. And any church, school or other institution that teaches you to hate your own children and leave them to the mercy of unchecked violence is a place you should actively work to shut down not praise or follow.
On a personal note, as my mother’s frantic calls about my nephew’s situation burn up my phone line and the silence of my sister’s born again husband leaves my nephew out to dry, I can’t help but worry that one day I will be looking at my nephew’s photo posted all over the internet while everyone writes about how wrong transphobia and homophobia are and gnash their teeth about educational reform. And of course, there will be those who will minimize his loss because he doesn’t fit their narrow definitions of who we should and should not care about.
Dialing the phone to his school, knowing they will be able to hide behind the fact that I am not a parent but a relative despite my educational privilege, I cannot help but think there has to be a better way …
- Lawrence King/unattributed. Killed by a fellow student after experiencing both homophobic and transphobic violence in school
- Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester on Glee/unattributed. Character who uses her power as coach to torment students who are different
- Pastor Rick Warren/unattirbuted. Notoriously homophobic Pastor invited to speak at Pres Obama’s inauguration
- Carl Joseph Walkeer Hoover/photo originally provided by family. Killed himself after experiencing both homophobic and transphobic violence at his school & his mother’s advocacy failed to produce results
- Ben Stiller as Simple Jack in Tropic Thunder/Dream Works/2008. While the Disability Rights Activist community boycotted the film & tried to raise awareness about the advertising campaign that demeaned them, temporarily able bodied people, including feminist and anti-racist bloggers minimized or rejected their efforts.
- Ny’irah Keene writes goodbye to her brother Jaheem Herrera/Curtis Compton/AJC. Jaheem Herrera’s body was found by one of his sisters after he killed himself unable to endure anymore homophobic school bullying