Bullying and teen suicide: Sometimes it gets better

I, like any feeling human being, have been extremely disturbed by the recent rash of U.S. teenage suicides caused by bullying, and by homophobic responses to those suicides.  The media have reported four suicides in September alone; all of these young people had been taunted for being gay, regardless of how they identified their own sexual, affectional, or gender orientations.

These suicides took place about 9 months and 18 months after two suicides in my region, those of Carl Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old African American boy in Springfield, Mass., and Phoebe Prince, the white 15-year-old whose hanging herself in South Hadley received national and international attention.  As local writer Tobias K. Davis pointed out in an email to the Northampton newspaper Daily Hampshire Gazette this summer, what both suicides had in common was these young people being “punished” by their peers for their perceived sexuality – Walker-Hoover was bullied for “acting gay,” and other high school students called Prince a “slut” and an “Irish whore” while accusing her of boyfriend-stealing.

To pile horror upon horror, these kids can’t even be left in peace after their deaths.  The most obscene individual reactions to the suicides have ranged from people posting hateful comments and photos on a Facebook page created by friends of Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old Rutgers student who jumped off the George Washington Bridge on September 22 after his roommate and another student surreptitiously taped and broadcast a video of Tyler having sex with a man in his dorm room, to the public statement made by Phil Chappel, the principal of Greensburg High School in Greensburg, Indiana, where 15-year-old student Billy Lucas hanged himself on September 9 after having been bullied by classmates for years.  According to a report by local TV station WTHR:  “Chappel said that no one had been punished for picking on Lucas, and that bullying had not even hit their radar.”

“Sometimes he created that atmosphere around him,” Chappel said.  “Kind of like a little tornado because he went around doing things that made dust fly, I guess.”

How’s that for victim blaming?  One of my initial responses to this sort of idiotic, unthinking, uncaring behavior on the part of an adult toward a young person is “I hope that kid’s parent(s) sue the sh– out of him, because that’s the only thing asshats like that understand.  If they don’t care, make ’em care by hitting them in the wallet.”  There’s some truth to this; gay and lesbian legal organizations began using lawsuits in the 1990s as a defensive weapon against school administrators who were aware of bullying but did nothing to stop it.  Here in Hampshire County, Mass., the district attorney has charged six of the students who bullied Phoebe Prince with crimes ranging from criminal harassment to stalking and statutory rape.

Much has been said and written about why Prince’s suicide garnered national media attention, while the deaths of innumerable other young people have been almost ignored.  I agree that mainstream media loves stories of pretty young white girls in trouble and doesn’t cover kids of color except as stereotypical perpetrators of crime.  But Prince’s story also had unique elements – Irish family moves to the United States for a fresh start, bullies live in affluent area full of well-educated people.  And I’m haunted by one aspect of her suicide reported in the local media:  Phoebe’s younger sister was the person who found Phoebe’s body in their home.

I think most caring adults are horrified by these suicides and want to do something immediately to stop teenagers from killing themselves.  The district attorney had limited power – she couldn’t change U.S. culture or lock up the South Hadley school superintendent, principal, or teachers, so she arrested and charged the kids.  I’m curious to see how this plays out in court, but I also recognize that most of my interest isn’t mere curiosity.  Nor is it vindictiveness, although I was a bullied child.  (I’ve written about this already, and published a bit of memoir, “The Diary of Anne Moore:  Why I Was a Pre-Pubescent Punching Bag” in the book Tales Told Out of School:  Gays, Lesbians, and Bisexuals Revisit Their School Days [Kevin Jennings, ed., Alyson Books, 1998]).  I feel a sense of urgency about bullying because it seems that things are not only not improving, as I’d hoped when lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people began winning some civil rights struggles, but instead growing worse.  With heightened awareness about sexual and gender orientation, many more kids come out at younger ages – but many of them are still getting the crap beaten out of them.

In my middle age, I’m motivated not by a desire for revenge, but for healing – everyone.  In “Diary of Anne Moore,” I noted that nearly every one of the kids who tormented me in junior high school showed up later in one or another of my hometown’s gay and lesbian bars.  I had hated and feared those kids and was delighted to go to college to escape them.  Suddenly they were in my face again – now chatting away, buying me a drink, offering me cigarettes.  They were extending an olive branch – the kinship of gay identity.  We were now sisters, they indicated, not enemies.  I realized immediately that those former classmates and neighbors had been bullying me so that no one would look at them.  The hysteria they’d generated in regard to me (Chappel’s “little tornado”?) made sense suddenly – the more publicly and vociferously they picked on me, the greater the fortifications of their own closet doors.  Although I wouldn’t have put it this way when I was 18 – I was too busy trying to figure out how the world had turned upside down – the Universe was offering me an amazing lesson in understanding, followed by forgiveness.  This is what I wish for everyone who has been or is being bullied.

When adults point out that the bullies as well as the victims need help, they’re not being pollyanna-ish.  Kids who torture other kids are not getting something they need, at school, at home, or both.  Often they learn to bully from parents, siblings, or other relatives who are mistreating them.  Some of these kids are being emotionally, physically, and/or sexually abused; some have parents or guardians who are simply distracted or overburdened; some have mental health problems.  And some – but by no means all – of the victims have similar problems.  I was a shy, sensitive child who suffered from depression from roughly the age of eight; my parents were in a miserable marriage; my father, who may also have had depression, was perpetually angry and took it out on his family.  I learned how to cower at home, and other kids saw that and went in for the kill.  (Yes, human beings are animals.)

No matter how old and mature we grow, how much we’ve understood and assimilated, how well we’ve healed, the effects last for those of us who were bullied kids.  I suffer from sensory defensiveness; whether it’s a lingering effect of the physical and emotional assaults I endured as a child, I don’t know.  I’m still afraid of people and perhaps will never entirely trust them, and I think this is a result of classmates and neighborhood children ganging up on me beginning when I was 9 years old.  Each year I learn that more and more of my adult friends and acquaintances were bullied as children.  Some are lesbian, gay, transgender, or bisexual, some heterosexual; some grew up in working-class neighborhoods as I did, and some were in one of the most academically advanced school districts in the country.

Bullying occurs in every social and economic class, but I’ve also noted over the years some of the class divisions that come into play.  I think some of the working-class kids with whom I grew up used bullying tactics because that’s all they had to work with.  I’m not implying that wealthy kids don’t bully; perhaps the class divide was so stark because I grew up in a suburb carved out of corn fields and populated mostly by the offspring of European immigrants clawing their way out of working-class city neighborhoods.  I never noticed class differences when I was a kid, but once I’d been in college a few months, I started to realize that I had writing talent and opportunities nurtured by my stay-at-home mother and engineering professor father and privileges afforded by a 4-year tuition waiver, and I was about to leave my former tormentors in the dust.  I was going to get a bachelor’s degree and a job, then have a career, while most of them would be working at KMart, and, if they were lucky, graduating from the community college and finding a more lucrative job.

This isn’t an unusual story – the dumb muscleman has been kicking sand into the intellectual’s face in cartoons forever – but how often do we talk about class, and race, in connection with bullying?  I’ve been wondering about Tyler Clementi’s roommate and the friend who was his accomplice in posting the video that outed Tyler.  Apparently they’re both Asian American; were they, like the bullies of my childhood, pre-emptively striking before someone attacked them?  Had they been bullied as children because they were Asian American?

I’ve enjoyed gay columnist Dan Savage’s writing and political stances for years, and I appreciate the effort he and his partner, Terry, are making by starting the “It Gets Better” YouTube channel in an effort to speak directly to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender young people and prevent teen suicide.  Dan and Terry were interviewed discussing their unpleasant experiences as young gay men and their satisfying adult lives, and included photos with their adopted son and their extended families.  They’ve invited everyone in internet land to videotape their own statements on the “It Gets Better” theme.

I hate to be a big ol’ naysayer and kvetcher, but like much media, this project strikes me as overwhelmingly white and middle-class (who has ready access to video cameras?).  If I were a poor or working-class youth, Dan and Terry’s waxing nostalgic about wandering Paris at dawn and skiing double-diamond slopes would make me want to retch.  I know it isn’t intentional and they’re just trying to help, but dudes, please remember that graduating from high school and coming out of the closet does not automatically earn everyone a free ride to college, a middle-class career, and airline tickets to Europe.  Unfortunately, these days it gets many people enlistment in the military and a free trip to Afghanistan, where they can’t ask and can’t tell.  As Tonilyn A. Sideco pointed out in her September 30 Facebook post, the San Francisco contribution to the “It Gets Better” project makes that city look like a big romp in the park for queer white folks, while the reality is that the poor, youth, transgender folks, people of color, and many women aren’t welcome in the Castro.

As other commentators have pointed out, it seems more productive for adults to alleviate kids’ suffering now, rather than videotape ourselves telling them that things will be peachy after they get out of high school.  Why don’t we investigate whether the kids in our lives are bullies, victims, or bystanders and proceed accordingly?  And if we don’t have kids, ask our friends and relatives who are parents whether they need help advocating in the schools for their children?  Maybe if administrators started receiving multiple phone calls from community members asking what they’re doing about bullying, this problem would be taken more seriously.

Because I do not want to wake up tomorrow morning and hear about one more teenager killing himself.

About springbyker

See more at: springbyker.wordpress.com. Feminist QBLTG Left activist grammarian & general crank. Love grassroots political movements, literature, independent film, travel in Latin America, bicycling, & good vegetarian food. I plan to write about all of these, plus being a recovering clutterer, writing, and saving the planet from suburban sprawl.
This entry was posted in BLGTQ, Health & wellness, Northampton/Connecticut River Valley, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Bullying and teen suicide: Sometimes it gets better

  1. springbyker says:

    Unbelievable. The minute I finished posting this, I read that yet another young gay man has killed himself:
    http://advocate.com/News/Daily_News/2010/10/01/Suicide_Takes_Life_of_Gay_RI_Student/

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