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Hey, Everybody: Let’s Define “Neutral!”

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.


  1. Kris wrote:

    This is an awesome post. I hope someone prints it out and nails it to the door of that school district.

    Friday, October 1, 2010 at 10:32 pm | Permalink
  2. Ahab wrote:

    “We have a community with widely varying opinions, and so to respect all families, as the policy says, we ask teachers to remain neutral.”

    What a load of crap. The school district is too lazy, narrow-minded, or cowardly to protect its LGBT students, and so it hides behind supposed “neutrality”. Meanwhile, kids suffer.

    Friday, October 1, 2010 at 11:41 pm | Permalink
  3. lilacsigil wrote:

    I’m a big fat lesbian, so you can imagine what I went through in high school…no wait! Unlike most fat and/or LGBT kids, I had a perfectly good high school experience because my school had an explicit and actually enforced anti-bullying policy. They did not tolerate bullying, actively watched out for it, and very few of the teachers were bullies themselves. If a rural Australian Christian school can do this in the late 1980s/early 1990s, there’s no excuse for teachers and administrators now.

    Friday, October 1, 2010 at 11:52 pm | Permalink
  4. hallie wrote:

    thank you for calling bullshit on ‘neutral’. that shit is so tired right now that it is sleeping on the bus. honk shuu honk shuu tired. that tired. only a lot more lying-liar-y. gahhh! it makes me stabby.

    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 12:41 am | Permalink
  5. AMC wrote:

    I like your post, but I am not sure that posting your experience co-opts anyone else’s. It simply speaks to how homosexuality is still viewed as a bad thing, and how that in and of itself hurts people who are gay who are not teased if they remain closeted, by demonstrating to them that homosexuality is a dirty word and something they should be ashamed of, even in their own minds.

    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 1:38 am | Permalink
  6. Anonyme wrote:

    The school I went to had no anti-bullying policy that I could discern, but it also didn’t seem to have had much anti-queer bullying. Well, I (queer) had a fucking awful time, but it didn’t have anything obvious to do with me being queer; just that I failed to conform adequately. And, well, our schools are designed to teach certain kinds of conformity. This is one of the things people mean when they talk about homeschooled kids “not learning proper socialization”. So, since I learned to conform and did not actually commit suicide, the system worked, right? Anti-bullying classes might have reduced its effectiveness. If I had committed suicide, well, some teenagers do; there would have been moving speeches but no changes.

    But really, when the school says it’s being “neutral”, I think what they mean is that they’re choosing a position between two opposing ideas. One idea is that there’s nothing wrong with being gay; if you believe this, then obviously you should try to shut down the bullying and save as many kids’ lives and psyches as possible. The other idea, though, is that being gay is wrong and sinful, and leads people not just to destroy themselves but corrupt others. If you believe this, then you should be doing everything you can to stamp out gayness among students, and if a few of them die in the process, well, at least you’ve saved the others. If you’re running a school, and this latter group has a loud enough voice, then simply doing nothing about the bullying, but also not actively teaching that being gay is evil, may feel like a reasonable compromise between the two options.

    The latter opinion is thankfully now considered sufficiently outrageous that not many are willing to express it publicly, but it’s clearly motivating many of the anti-gay groups out there; they just find more politically acceptable cover language.

    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 1:40 am | Permalink
  7. eilish wrote:

    This is not just individual teachers choosing to turn a blind eye: this is a case of every teacher in the area being directed to ignore their duty of care.

    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 2:27 am | Permalink
  8. MissaA wrote:

    The one thing you cannot do, actually, is to be “neutral.” There is no “neutral,” as these things go.

    Here here! This needs to be said. And repeated. Ad nauseum.

    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 2:28 am | Permalink
  9. Angela wrote:

    I went to a conservative girls’ school, which people like to imagine as a hotbed (no pun intended) of lesbian sexytimes. Actually, no — but what my school *did* have is an openly gay Head Girl, a Gay-Straight Alliance (called “the Rainbow Society” to palliate conservative parents), and a weirdly high level of acceptance for nonconformity. My angst in high school was not that I was queer, but that I wasn’t queer *enough* for my peer group.

    It makes me so angry to read about things like this. It takes so little to create a safe space. You don’t even have to stridently support Teh Gai. You just have to accept responsibility for making queer students a part of the normal school community. It doesn’t take much.

    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 2:29 am | Permalink
  10. sonia wrote:

    its a abuse to remain netural – but why do kids feel so angry about peoples choice in there sexual preference – Education is the key here very complex issue that will take time to sort.

    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 4:29 am | Permalink
  11. Anonyme wrote:

    ‘The one thing you cannot do, actually, is to be “neutral.” There is no “neutral,” as these things go.

    Here here! This needs to be said. And repeated. Ad nauseum.’

    Um. I have to disagree with this, though in a sense it’s a question of semantics. You can be neutral: you simply don’t interfere on either side. You don’t punish kids for being gay; you don’t punish kids for bullying. Of course, the effects may not be good.

    Switzerland was neutral in the Second World War, for example; they didn’t fight anyone. Hooray! Which meant the Nazis had a handy place to store all their loot. Neutrality means standing aside and supporting neither side – which if one side is doing evil, means watching the evil happen and doing nothing. Remaining neutral can be an evil thing to do.

    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 4:32 am | Permalink
  12. Maud wrote:

    And we have a lovely school system here in the Anoka-Hennepin area! We maintain a conveniently values free learning environment. If your child is gay, we won’t say hir nay! If your child enjoys tormenting other children to death, we are totally okay with that, too!

    This may be a convenient approach for the adults involved, but any parent with a child in that school system has to ask hirself just what their child is learning there, and how safe and educational an environment that is for any child.

    Switzerland was neutral in the Second World War . . . Which meant the Nazis had a handy place to store all their loot. Neutrality means standing aside and supporting neither side

    Providing a conquering army with a place to “store their loot” is a form of support, if a low level one. Switzerland may have fought nobody, but through their “neutrality” they actively supported the Nazi regime, which is more than they did for the victims.

    Sady’s point is that supposed neutrality often, as she describes in this case, involves enabling the evil done, though the support may be discreet, with no support of any kind provided the victims.

    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 6:25 am | Permalink
  13. Kristen wrote:

    Bullying is bullying. Is it more horrible because bullying people for being GLBTQI is perceived in the world at large, (at any age, ffs,) as a, “Moral,” issue? Yes. But bullying is always about a bully exerting power over somebody else. I was bullied, viciously, in 7th and 8th grade. The principal and my homeroom teacher disclosed to the bullies, (and the rest of my classmates,) my psychiatric history, as a so-called effort to get them to stop. I don’t know why we didn’t sue, but we didn’t. (This was almost 25 years ago, so…) They told me that my classmates tortured me because *they* were intimidated by me. Why? Because I was smart. I was basically Hermione Granger, I admit. However, with a history of clinical depression beginning at the age of 9, I was particularly vulnerable. The principal (a nun,) and my homeroom teacher knew this. Victim-blaming isn’t neutral. Victim-shaming isn’t neutral. Teachers and school authorities are responsible for the well-being and safety of EVERY student. They don’t GET to BE NEUTRAL about bullying, regardless of whether its perceived as being about a, “moral,” issue or not. I want any teacher/official/person in authority who ignores bullying charged with depraved indifference/negligent homicide when people commit suicide because of bullying. Note: Suicide is, legally classed as a form of homicide – it’s self-murder, and people *can* be charged with attempted suicide as a crime. Therefore, it shouldn’t be a problem charging the people who have a responsibility to do stop bullying, when they don’t.

    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 8:56 am | Permalink
  14. Dena wrote:

    Hearing about each experience of bullying is important and I’m glad you decided to write about it. Thanks for doing so in a respectful manner. I’m queer and got a little harassment, but I was a roughhousing belligerent type (before I learned about non-violence…thanks Gandhi!). What I saw in the miserable gay people around me in high school was that the horribleness of being bullied interacted in a toxic way with internalized hatred, shame, guilt, and/or a strong wish to be straight.

    So thank you for sharing your experience and admitting to having been bullied. Lots of people feel shamed by the bullying itself and opening your mouth is helpful. And also thanks for recognizing that your experience is bound to have differed from that of someone who really is gay. Nice balance.

    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 9:49 am | Permalink
  15. Seraph wrote:

    I think these people are misunderstanding the word “neutral.”

    “Neutrality,” to me, in this case, would be saying “bullying will not be tolerated,” and ignoring the supposed “reason” for the bullying. So, a kid bullying another kid for being fat? Not cool. For being religious? Not cool. For being gay? Also, not cool.

    Anyone who doesn’t agree that Bullying Is Bad, no matter who is being bullied or “why”–really, anything can be a reason when someone sees torturing another student as fun–is a dick who shouldn’t be allowed to interact with kids.

    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink
  16. Samantha B. wrote:

    @Anonyme @6, right, well I went to a private high school, and I’m straight, so I’m hardly the foremost expert on this subject. But the shift from early public school years to later private school years did make it especially clear to me that public schools are designed with one preeminent goal: to teach us to conform to systems. So when they say they’re being “neutral” on anti-gay bullying, really they *are* actively enforcing their chief policy, which is to engender societal conformity.

    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 10:16 am | Permalink
  17. Ray Gunn wrote:

    I think Seraph’s made an excellent point. The school district isn’t maintaining neutrality on homosexuality, but on bullying – and that is an indefensible position.

    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 10:44 am | Permalink
  18. Grace wrote:

    Desmond Tutu put it well:
    “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”


    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 11:46 am | Permalink
  19. Grace wrote:

    I agree with AMC @5, Sady. It’s perfectly fair to state your experience, within appropriate limits of not talking over other people. I think that it adds something valuable to the discussion to point out that our society is such that you experienced homophobia EVEN WITHOUT BEING TLBG. Of course you don’t want to be all, “Oh, I know JUST WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE TLBG,” but that’s not the same thing as saying, after the other person has finished speaking, “I, too, as a straight person, have experienced some homophobia, and here’s my experience.”

    Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to talk about my experiences getting taunted with homophobic slurs, even though I thought I was a straight boy (turned out I was a trans girl, but I didn’t have the vocabulary or cultural context to figure that out until much later).


    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 12:16 pm | Permalink
  20. lizvelrene wrote:

    I was also bullied, in grade school, for reasons I still can’t entirely fathom. This bullying was physical and was absolutely noticed by teachers who did absolutely nothing. Except once : during P.E. class, an older boy picked up one of the heavy traffic cones that we used to mark the bases and was hitting me with it while I cowered on the ground. The next thing I remember is being in the principal’s office, and the principal asking me what I did to make the boy so angry. I don’t know? I exist? My existing seems to make them angry? Should I stop doing that? That’s the adult me talking, the child me just sat silently and told myself: no adult is going to help you, adults don’t care. Thanks for the lesson, asshole principal!

    The teachers know. The principals know. Some school choose to protect their students, and some schools just don’t care.

    At least four families in the noka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota know this very well. Wouldn’t it be nice to see a class-action law suit against that school. They are supposed to be caring for all the children, and they failed.

    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 2:25 pm | Permalink
  21. lizvelrene wrote:

    Oh, and this was a private school, be it a shitty redneck religious one. So I have to disagree with the argument that private schools are any better than public ones as far as policing conformity and opposing bullying.

    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 2:31 pm | Permalink
  22. MTS wrote:

    I went to an all-girl, Catholic, college-prep high school (graduated in 1984). Lots of open-minded, groovy “let’s talk it out” sort-of religion classes at the time. And bullying went on. The mean girls went out of their way to taunt, insult, and make life miserable for one or two girls, and the teachers either outright ignored it or acted like they were also afraid of the bullies…which they probably were. So basically, no one did anything.

    I was one of those “under the radar” people myself: you know, the type who don’t confront and try to keep a low profile lest the bullies turn on them. I’m not proud of that. High school sucked.

    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Permalink
  23. Gayle Force wrote:

    I could maybe write a novel about being a middle school teacher and being maniacally un-neutral. I would whip around and shoot at kinds, “If you EVER say something hateful like that again, I will not allow you to step foot in my classroom” A LOT. They would protest and then I would always say, “I don’t care what you believe. WE DON’T DO HATE HERE.”

    I had some problems with parents who really thought their kids should be allowed to do hate. It was disgusting.

    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
  24. Anonyme wrote:

    @Grace @18, I get what Sady was talking about, actually. Her experiences are valid, and interesting, and discussions of them have their place (for example, pointing out to parents who think their kids aren’t gay that homophobia is *still* their problem). And I think Sady handled this instance well. But. There are a lot more straight people than queer people, and the workings of privilege often mean they are listened to more than we are. So it’s very easy for even well-intentioned allies to drown out genuine queer voices. Think of it this way: the “It Gets Better” project is supposed to reassure queer youth that life gets better once you get out of high school. So it’s a collection of videos from queer folks whose lives did get better. What if all the straight allies contributed their stories? Suddenly for every one queer story, there are nine videos saying “yeah, I had a hard time in high school but then I grew up straight and it was okay!” Not exactly helpful to the queer kids.

    In short, I think that yeah, allies’ stories are important, but they should think twice and write carefully, as Sady did here, to avoid drowning out queers’ own stories.

    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 4:38 pm | Permalink
  25. Copcher wrote:

    The idea of being neutral when people are being bullied is absolutely ridiculous. I definitely agree with Seraph @14, but I also think that schools have a responsibility to teach students that oppression is bad and diversity is something to celebrate. Of course, since some people in charge of schools think that’s completely false, that might be too much to ask for.

    Also, I’d be interested to learn what other issues they remain neutral on. Like, if some students started beating people up for being white or rich, or if someone decided to start a superfun, supercasual, superconsensual sex club, and there were parents who thought these were all good ideas, would the teachers be asked to remain neutral there too? I’m very curious.

    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 7:24 pm | Permalink
  26. AMC wrote:

    @Anonyme I think actually that empathizing with people can be wonderful-the whole idea of “Yeah, I was bullied too, but for say, being mixed-race and called a zebra, it sucks”-If done with empathy and not talking over, it shows that the other person isn’t, well, “Other” and when people realize that person being bullied could have been them, or could BE them for another reason, that’s when people connect as humans.
    /Writers perspective: Our job is to jump into other people’s shoes and realize the common humanity and get other people to realize it too.

    Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 10:40 pm | Permalink
  27. Aydreeyen wrote:

    “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” — Paulo Freire.

    Sunday, October 3, 2010 at 2:01 am | Permalink
  28. speedbudget wrote:

    Sady, I got bullied for being a lesbian in high school too even though I am not a lesbian lady. It was because I refused to date the asshat douchecanoes that passed for boys in my high school. Not to threadjack, but I just think it’s interesting how homophobia is used as a weapon against even non-gay people.

    That being said, I also taught high school for a few years. I had a not hate policy in my classroom that shockingly included LGBTI. I would not allow the F word to be uttered. I gave the same punishment for that as the school policy suggested for hate speech, including the N word. This made some students angry, but I figure hate is hate.

    Because of this no-F-word policy, students came to me begging for me to be the faculty sponsor of their GLSN club. They had not been able to get a faculty member to sponsor their club for years, and so had not had a club. I couldn’t believe when I heard that. I guess that’s neutrality. Teachers will sign on to sponsor knitting clubs and friendship clubs and gardening clubs, but nobody would be willing to even just sit in a classroom and grade schoolwork while the group met. What a shame.

    I always think about replacing the gay person with any kind of minority and then imagine the school system bending over backwards to be allowed to continue hating on them. Despicable.

    Sunday, October 3, 2010 at 8:12 am | Permalink
  29. Jaybird wrote:

    I recently aged out of (escaped from?) the Minnesota school system – not Anoka/Hennepin, but close by – and sadly, I have to say that this is more or less trufax as far as the state of our schools goes. Personally, I think it has a lot to do with our regional culture: Minnesotans pride ourselves on being easy-going, nonconfrontational, and, yes, ‘neutral’. We are precisely the kind of people who could convince themselves that standing by and letting high school kids sort out their own hate speech is the right way to go about things. Because if we confronted them about their shit their parents might get upset, and then – god forbid! – we might actually have to TALK about things. Which is not a Minnesotan method of communication at all, basically.

    I hope the families of these dead children can find some measure of peace, and count myself very lucky indeed that neither I nor my queer friends were pushed down that path.

    Sunday, October 3, 2010 at 12:17 pm | Permalink
  30. April wrote:

    I live in this school district, and I’m not surprised. This part of the Twin Cities has a lot of anti-gay sentiment. My hubby and I just moved here from the much more lgbtq-friendly Minneapolis, and it’s been very difficult.

    Thanks for spreading the word.

    (I also wrote about it at my place, as well.

    Sunday, October 3, 2010 at 1:26 pm | Permalink
  31. Andrea wrote:

    That school needs to learn the difference between being “neutral” about whether or not they like a specific policy (eg gay marriage) and being “neutral” about bullying. There is no neutrality allowed for bullying. No bullying. Period.

    Sunday, October 3, 2010 at 3:59 pm | Permalink
  32. Sady wrote:

    @Everybody: Thanks! So much! For all the discussion. I just want to add a note, here; although bullying is bad (and common! Hence so many stories about being bullied in the comments) the focus of this post is less “bullying in general” and more “bullying as a way to enforce an oppressive social norm, and privileged folks’ accountability for and contribution to all of that.” So I’d like it if those of us straights who have been bullied can focus on that, and not pull focus with our own stories and such. Thanks!

    Sunday, October 3, 2010 at 5:31 pm | Permalink
  33. AMC wrote:

    @Sady I’m actually not a straight, I’m bisexual, and the woman I’m interested right now is pansexual, and the college I go to is about as gay friendly as a place can get. Also, my example was from my best friend, who was bullied for being mixed race, which really IS about bullying as a way to enforce an oppressive norm. Also, simply because someone benefits doesn’t mean they contribute-if you stand up for someone outside of your privileged group, you can then enter the line of fire and be bullied for being willing to stand with them. I don’t want to be rude, I just don’t think anyone here meant to silence others experiences.

    Sunday, October 3, 2010 at 8:58 pm | Permalink
  34. Sady wrote:

    @AMC: This wasn’t about you specifically, at all. I’m kind of puzzled as to why you think it was? It was just a trend I perceived, and I wanted to say something before we got to the point of derailment. Also, part of the point of the post is that if you benefit, and do not take that move out of the silent-privilege zone and into standing up for the oppressed, you are contributing. Food for thought, there.

    Monday, October 4, 2010 at 8:03 am | Permalink
  35. Erik wrote:

    Anonyme, I think it’s interesting to think of “gay is okay” and “gay destroys people” as opposing ideas. They are, in one sense, opposite, but the *other* opposite of “being gay is sinful and wrong” is “being straight is sinful and wrong”. From that perspective, “there’s nothing wrong with being gay or straight” seems like the neutral position.

    Monday, October 4, 2010 at 2:33 am | Permalink
  36. Anonyme wrote:

    @Erik: I posited those two ideas as opposites not because they are in some purely abstract sense opposites but because there are two camps of people with those two ideas acting on the school board. A choice somewhere in between – say, neither enforcing anti-gay policies nor interfering with bullying – strikes me as a compromise a school board could plausibly come to. Especially if it’s a tacit one. But I think one should draw the distinction between a compromise position and neutrality. A compromise position is a stance and policy somewhere between two opposing ideas. Neutrality, as I understand it, would be non-interference. Not enforcing any kind of policy; a hands-off idea. In a military context, a compromise position has you still fighting, though possibly against both endpoints. A neutral position has you standing aside and not fighting at all while the two combatants resolve it themselves. So I think that neutrality is perfectly possible. I also think that it’s wrong, and ends up, in practice allowing the strong to oppress the weak. Having been the weak group in certain ways, I have personal attachment to the idea of intervention. But framing the discussion as “neutrality is impossible” doesn’t seem right to me.

    Here’s an interesting question, though: Suppose that the school board, or maybe just a school principal or teacher, really does want to protect its queer kids, but that it is politically infeasible to make that policy. Perhaps the “stamp out the gays” faction has enough loud voices and money to make a huge stink, perhaps they even control a majority of the votes. How can well-meaning school officials help in spite of this?

    One idea might be to aim for more generic anti-bullying ideas. Even if you ignore the anti-gay bullying, there’s still plenty of bullying based on weight, race, language, class, or just plain non-conformity. Perhaps a program to try to stop all bullying that made no mention of queerness would be an easier sell? Or would the same “gay is evil” folks view bullying as a natural (or even essential) part of the socialization process carried out in schools?

    This last is not such a totally outrageous idea as it might seem; from what I know of modern education, part of it is building a culture among the students that encourages learning. In other words, part of how effective schooling works is relying on peers to support, encourage and teach each other. If this can be made to work for getting students to study, surely it can be turned around and abused to get students enforcing conformity on each other. At the university level, at least, there were various events explicitly designed to build communities among the incoming students; when I was a frosh leader we tried to build in ideas about safe sex, consent, and responsible drinking, though I’m not sure how well it took.

    Monday, October 4, 2010 at 7:43 am | Permalink
  37. The Low Priestess wrote:

    Great article Sady. In the UK it is illegal to discriminate against or harass, not only people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, but also people who are targeted because they are perceived to be any of these things, whether they are or not. I think that is absolutely right and your experience is really valid. As a lesbian since 1965 I don’t find your experience unhelpful. To the contrary. Great stuff, thank you.

    Monday, October 4, 2010 at 11:17 am | Permalink
  38. The Low Priestess wrote:

    Oh and I didn’t mean because we have legislation that bullying doesn’t happen, I am afraid.

    Monday, October 4, 2010 at 11:18 am | Permalink
  39. AMC wrote:

    @Sady, Oh I just meant to display that, in general, as a bisexual woman, I didn’t find people contributing other stories of bullying to be lessening GLBT experience, especially yours because it is still a result of homophobia, and was agreeing with lots of other GLBT people here who felt you didn’t have to worry that you were downgrading our experiences by sharing yours. Also, Sharks!

    Monday, October 4, 2010 at 12:34 pm | Permalink
  40. Craig Smith wrote:

    I just finished “Us and Them,our tribal minds”, and found a likely source in this book for insight into motivation, and understanding of these primal needs to devalue those unlike ourselves. And if desired, how to deal with the consequences. Tough read, but well worth it.

    Monday, October 4, 2010 at 1:52 pm | Permalink
  41. brighid wrote:

    Frankly the only way middle america(who or whatever they are) will get that screaming faggot at a child for for years while stuffing him in a locker has a negative influence, is to show them that the abuse harms their nerdy straight boy just as much as it hurts the gays. I actually think some of the taunting thrown at straight kids is worse. As a gay teen I knew what I was, I didn’t like it but I knew and I absorbed a lot of bullying but the straight butch girls or girly boys didn’t have that option, to embrace the label. So they conformed by acting out sexually, egging on the bully, or they diissappeared. so I am glad you shared your experience. Homophobic taunts in high school are very often attempts to police gender nonconformity and no kid should have to face that knd of abuse every day.

    Monday, October 4, 2010 at 2:15 pm | Permalink
  42. Amy wrote:


    So I almost didn’t say anything, because a semantic debate about “neutrality” vs. “Compromise,” while interesting, is kinda derailing. More importantly you and I agree with the underlying morals, and you’re obviously coming from a genuine place. But the more I think about it, I have to respectfully disagree with this statement: “neither enforcing anti-gay policies nor interfering with bullying– strikes me as a compromise a school board could plausibly come to.” I agree that this happens in the real world, but I have to push back on your argument that non-interference is neutral, or even a compromise. The base-line of one of these sides is illegal. Constance McMillen successfully sued her school for not allowing her to bring her girlfriend to the prom in Mississippi. Whatever bigotry happened afterward, there is no possibility for a school to ever enforce anti-gay measures. These are not two equally valid camps duking it out. Acknowledging the anti-gay side as a valid argument already destroys any neutrality you might claim, because it’s illegal to aggressively and forcefully harass someone, even if they are a horrible/racist/bad person who stole your trapper-keeper in middle school. If any other government agency could get sued for allowing/enforcing certain behaviors, then there’s no basis for assuming it’s a valid bookend in a debate concerning official school policy.

    The center of the issue is the behavior of the bullies, not their justifications. Perhaps, if they took a neutral stance on all bullying, they might have a logical leg to stand on. I don’t think any parent wants that. Do these teachers ignore fights (physical and verbal) between students if they aren’t affecting the learning environment? Would they do this even if the fight was over politics, because they support diverse opinions in the district? Do they allow cursing in class unless it’s directly disrespectful to an instructor? Is it official policy (not saying this doesn’t happen, but is it official policy) that a student can call a girl a skank/slut in a teacher’s hearing with impunity? Because some of the diverse opinions in the district include those who think premarital sex is wrong? Unless the answer is yes to each of those questions, then they are saying that it is okay to systematically terrorize some students, but it isn’t okay to do that to others. These bullying behaviors are severely punished in many situations. And the argument, when this happens, is that the behavior of the perpetrator is unacceptable. Yet this exact same behavior is ignored, per stated policy, if the victim is GLBT. This is not a neutral position on bullying, and it sure as hell isn’t a neutral position on homosexuality. And don’t forget, this “neutrality” was brought up in response to questions about four deaths in one year.

    I’m gonna have to agree with Sady, and say that neutrality is impossible in this situation. Whether official or not, the school has a bullying policy. It currently stands that they allow bullying if the student is suspected to be anything other than heteronormative. And they allow it because the opinions of some of the parents outweigh the lives of the kids getting bullied, in their estimation. That isn’t neutral. It isn’t even a compromise, because kids are killing themselves. What worse endpoint could you be working against?

    I hope that didn’t come across as too strident. This has just been knocking around in my head while I walked the dog:) I’m not trying to single you out and disagree, because I wholeheartedly agree with you that they should aim for generic anti-bullying policies, ie it’s never okay in any instance.

    Monday, October 4, 2010 at 8:06 pm | Permalink
  43. Neutrality has always been kind of a weird concept for me. I mean, the idea of letting combatants duke it out for themselves while sitting back and watching makes a certain amount of sense – particularly when they’re evenly matched and you have no stake in it whatsoever. In my head, though, it evokes the concept of “objectivity,” and how it’s used as a club to constrain thought and action in just about every situation.

    Neutrality is coded as a good thing, being, as it were ‘above the influence’ of whatever petty thing may be causing tension. Not only does it have all the power issues listed above, for the most part, it seems like an irresponsible lack of attention or concern.

    There are plenty of valid reasons or situations in which one might remain (functionally) neutral – parents not taking sides in non-harmful sibling bickering, teachers not taking sides in non-harmful student political debates, etc. – but in any situation in which there is harm, potential or current, there is no neutrality without apathy (or at least indifference). If you know what’s going on, no matter what you do or don’t do, you are not neutral.

    Monday, October 4, 2010 at 9:36 pm | Permalink
  44. Vancouver wrote:

    I was watching Larry King live when the mother of a deceased student from Minnesota was telling about the districts “neutrality” policy on bullying.
    I thought: “bullying neutrality?” In school? What?! So I googled it and this blog is hat came up.
    Thank you for your story.
    This is really an outrage. Whoever from the school board is responsible for throwing kids to the wolves has blood on their hands.

    Tuesday, October 5, 2010 at 12:50 am | Permalink
  45. Samantha B. wrote:

    Lizvelrene, my point was not so much that private schools are perfect sanctuaries, but rather that by virtue of paying an unsmall amount of tuition to an exclusive private school, the expectation became that we were allowed to set our own rules as students to some degree. As long as the public schools are systematically about structuring norms and obeisance, then that’s inevitably going to be reflected in students’ behaviors. Our job as allies and activists and the like, then, is to shift those norms. I don’t think that most public systems are set up to respond to internal pressure so much as external, and that’s where we come in, ideally.

    Tuesday, October 5, 2010 at 12:56 pm | Permalink
  46. Kate wrote:

    “Neutrality” is bullshit. When I was in high school my teacher actually introduced a lesbian poet to us by saying, “And I’ve seen her picture, so I can understand why she was a lesbian. She must have had a pretty hard time picking up men!” This same teacher let it slide when a student referred to Brandon Teena as a “dyke” in a discussion about movies. Luckily she didn’t reprimand me for incoherently screaming at him, which I guess was her version of “neutrality”. I never got beat up for being bisexual, but I got shit thrown at me from cars and was called a dyke, and overall, having an authority figure perpetuate and allow homophobic stereotypes and slurs was much more painful than what I got from my peers.

    Even beyond bullying, the subtle and not-so-subtle anti-gay comments that students and teachers get away with in classroom situations, and the erasure of queerness (in history, literature, health, sex ed, and other subjects), are not neutral.

    Wednesday, October 6, 2010 at 12:25 am | Permalink
  47. Erik wrote:

    By the way, because I think this has gotten lost in translation:

    1. From what I can tell, the school district *does* have a policy on bullying; they’re against it.
    2. The “neutrality” quote was about a policy that prohibits teachers from saying that being gay is or isn’t okay.
    3. The context, I think, was that teachers somehow aren’t sure how to stop anti-gay bullying without saying it’s okay to be gay.

    So that’s nice. No doubt to understand the real situation we’d have to actually talk to somebody who knows about it.

    Wednesday, October 6, 2010 at 4:10 pm | Permalink
  48. Erik, I am not so much interested in the quibbling about what the “neutrality” is referring to when, ya know, multiple, as in five, (FIVE! what the fucking fuck) kids in the past year (YEAR??? WHAT THE HELL) have all killed themselves because of anti-gay bullying.

    I just. don’t. care. When you’ve seen 1 kid in the past year kill hirself and you know that ze was bullied for being perceived as gay, you damn well do something about. When 2, 3, 4, or 5 kids kill themselves and you know it’s related to them all being bullied for being perceived as gay, you’ve lost your right to say “I just don’t know how to stop the bullying.”

    Thursday, October 7, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink
  49. Amy wrote:

    Erik: “3. The context, I think, was that teachers somehow aren’t sure how to stop anti-gay bullying without saying it’s okay to be gay. So that’s nice.”

    uh, not so much. That’s actually the particular piece of bullshittery that proves they aren’t neutral. Why is name-calling never tolerated unless it’s a homophobic slur? You don’t have to express an opinion on sexuality to punish a student for name calling or cursing. I’m sure the school is officially neutral on political topics. Can the young democrats suddenly start shoving Tea Party members in the halls? Would the teachers be endorsing the Tea Party if they stopped it? This is the only time they think the motive behind harassment matters.

    Thursday, October 7, 2010 at 2:09 pm | Permalink
  50. Casey wrote:

    I thought Erik was being sarcastic when he said the bullying policy was “nice”…. >_>V

    Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 8:08 pm | Permalink
  51. Bibi wrote:

    Thanks, Sady. I’m a teacher and I work hard to teach that gay is normal. I was nervous when I first started reading books to my class with gay characters and having discussions about how people love all sorts of people, but it’s been amazing. I know that many teachers are homophobic, but there are also many teachers are afraid of being harassed or fired if they speak out. To me, it wasn’t a choice. It was my responsibility.

    Sunday, October 17, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Permalink