So, here is something that is in the news a lot lately: GLBT kids committing suicide. I know, right? SCARY. Definitely not suited to an article in which there are jokes. Because, my God. However, here is a nugget I came across in my internet searches, which I will now share with you:
In the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, there have been four suicides in the last year alone due to anti-gay bullying. When asked why they do not teach about sexual diversity and enforce any anti-gay bullying policies the district spokeswoman, Mary Olson, explained, “We have a community with widely varying opinions, and so to respect all families, as the policy says, we ask teachers to remain neutral.”
Oh! Right! “Neutral!” You know, in that “explicitly on the side of the bullies who seem to be continually driving kids to the point where suicide seems like the only possible option” kind of way.
I myself am not a GLBT lady. This was not, however, the opinion of Blendon Middle School in the early ’90s! There was a rumor about me; it spread; pretty soon my locker was getting defaced, and my stuff was getting stolen and broken, and once I sat down at a cafeteria table with some former friends and they all stood up and walked away, and folks spit on me in the halls, and during a Learning About Discrimination session, in which we were all supposed to give a presentation on why prejudice is bad — I chose “homophobia,” because I was going to change some minds! — students ganged up on me and posed insults disguised as “questions” until I gave up and left the room and when I came back my desk was covered in ripped-out pages of notebooks with various homophobic slurs written on them, and what strikes me now as I look back on this is how the teacher decided to let it happen. Like, at some point, she was like, “a desk covered in notebook pages? Oh, well! Learning About Discrimination Week is going super well! I give myself an A DOUBLE PLUS on this one.”
I don’t talk a lot about how I ended up getting home-schooled, or about The Rumor, because: I don’t want to co-opt anyone’s experience. (“Hey, you know what would really help this discussion? If a straight person chimed in, about her problems!” No.) I had it bad, briefly, but I’m fairly sure actual queer folks have it a lot worse and all over and for far longer, and also I had an adult in my life who got involved in stopping this terror, whereas lots of kids don’t, BECAUSE THE WORLD IS AWFUL. However: There are a few things I think I might have learned from this. First, queer-bashing in schools isn’t necessarily about sexuality; it’s about policing sexuality. It’s partly intended to punish people who are perceived as queer, but it’s also intended to send a message to anyone else who might be; it’s a way of showing that bad things happen when you break the rules. As such, it is very, very frequently public. People see it happen. They have the choice to get involved in stopping it. If they don’t make that choice, they bear every responsibility for the consequences.
Second: Adults let it happen. Adults are, in fact, responsible for it; even if teachers and school officials don’t participate in it directly, by calling names (and I have anecdotal evidence that some teachers do call names) or using their institutional power to bully the students without consequences (and again, teachers do this; it can be as subtle as telling a concerned parent that their child wouldn’t be bullied if he didn’t “bring it on himself” by “not working hard enough to get along,” or as severe as punishing a student for standing up to the bullies), they participate in it by not taking steps to stop it. These people are in charge. They decide what the rules are. If they don’t decide that hate crimes against fellow students are against the rules, then hate crimes against students are allowed, and they happen. Granted, the kids who participate in it are still hateful monsters, and are responsible for their actions. But they are being taught to be hateful monsters. Every time they are permitted to act like hateful monsters, they are learning that it is acceptable to be this way. Which is why the adults are doubly responsible.
Teachers have the explicit responsibility of punishing violent harassment and bigotry in their schools. You find a kid doing it, you punish him. If the kid’s parents object? Tell them that it’s their job to make him stop doing it, so that he doesn’t receive further punishment. Tell the kid, and the parents, that we don’t do those things in normal, non-asshole society, and we certainly don’t do them in school, and that people who do them often don’t graduate your school, what with all the expelling that tends to happen. If you can suspend a kid for wearing a t-shirt that violates dress code, you can suspend a kid for calling another kid “faggot.” It’s really not that hard.
Plus, if you don’t do it, children die! And I’m pretty sure “killing your students” is the first thing they tell you to avoid, in Teacher School. So, you know, there is that.
The one thing you cannot do, actually, is to be “neutral.” There is no “neutral,” as these things go. When it comes to being a bigot, and engaging in behavior that is more or less proven to kill people — or allowing that behavior to exist — you literally cannot take a neutral position. You can be right, or wrong.