Thursday, May 7, 2009

"Sexual Bullying" is the new "Queer-Bashing": I don't think so

[the above ridiculously homophobic/misogynist/racist "test" image is from here]

In case you didn't see it, the Oprah Winfrey Show about "sexual bullying" was filled with many heart wrenching moments, and many infuriating ones as well.

I watched the very, very sad program yesterday, featuring three grieving parents of boys who committed suicide due to being called gay and variations of it. (I just typed and corrected a "slip": when about to type "boys" I began to type "bodies" instead. Tragically, that would not have been an error on my part.) The show also told the story of another boy who was in the midst of dealing with this problem, being victimised especially by one boy in particular.

I have a problem calling anti-queer violence "sexual bullying" both because "sexual bullying includes far more than anti-queer violence, and anti-queer violence includes far more than sexual bullying. The rape of women and the bashing of lesbian women, trans people, and gay men, for example, are not forms of "sexual bullying" exactly. Or, they are at least that and also are other things, like the use of force to degrade and subordinate, so as to make said victims more compliant and amenable to what patriarchal men want from women and trans people. Surely the "sexual bullies" discussed on the program were or are not intending to get "more frequent sex--the kind bullies want" with the victims while all concerned are adolescents in public or private school systems.

There is something quite insidiously dangerous about using the term "sexual bullying" to refer to anti-girl, anti-woman, and anti-queer violence, all stemming quite directly from misogyny. But what else is left out of the equation if we consider it "sexual bullying" when it happens among pre-adolescents and teenagers in or around schools?

For me, that answer is that there is actual violence done to specific groups of people because they ARE members of that group. Calling pre-adolescent boys who are "effeminate" or "odd" gay, if they are not yet aware of their own sexual orientations and do not self-identify as gay (however privately they do so), is a form of [sometimes lethal] gender policing, making sure boys learn to not behave as some (by no means all) girls behave, in any visible ways. Calling boys and girls "gay" for liking Disney's High School Musical series is not the same thing either. "Gay" has become especially popular as an insult, but it was one when I was a boy too, and it's never stopped being used that way by anti-gay assholes, or people--younger and older--who just don't understand what they are saying, nor the impact of saying it. Children who are lesbian and gay, or transgendered, do not have to be bullied overtly to take our own lives. We do so, at alarming rates, independently of rates of bullying, simply because we learn we are socially despised (if in heterosexist societies). What happened to the three boys was a tragedy. Their sweet selves never got to live beyond their early ages. Those who knew them never got to see them reach adulthood. This is cause for outrage and grief. And we ought not conflate this particular form of venomous cruelty with anti-lesbian/anti-gay violence, even while they appear to have some of the same features.

I used to babysit two white Jewish kids; the girl was three years older than the boy. And I was friends with their mom. (Each of them--mom, daughter, son--and I are still friends.) Two incidents of note:

1. I realised they were beginning to use the term "gay" to mean "stupid" or "uncool", and that they picked this up from their elementary school environment. So, after consulting with their mom, I told them about my first boyfriend who was gay, and how a brick was once thrown against his head because he was gay. (Needless to say, I "came out" to them as well.) They stopped using the term to mean those things after that talk.

2. When their divorced mom's ex-husband, the biological father of these two wonderful children, who also parented them for the first few years of their life, found out I (their primary babysitter) was gay, strange things happened. He had already arranged for them to be with him for a year, in a distant state in the U.S., but once in his home he then filed for full custody based on that fact alone. Letters I had written to the boy were photocopied and presented in court as "evidence" by the prosecuting attorney--and idiot--of this molestation that had apparently been going on--well, in the mind of the boy's father, anyway. Keep in mind the boy had never made any allegations, nor was there ever any evidence of him having been molested... by anyone.

The judge, a fair-minded person, dismissed the case. She told the "ex" that he has wasted all of their time in court and that the allegedly damning letters revealed to her a very appropriate, caring relationship between babysitter and the boy. His children have not been that close with him ever since then; but he went on to have two more. They and I are close and I consider them part of my chosen family.

The "dad" had two more children with a second wife. Again, one girl and one boy. He raised them in one of the more white conservative/homophobic school systems in Kansas, and when this other son was a teenager, there was a lesson on the sin of homosexuality, or some such nonsense. In protest, not necessarily knowing of his father's history of being a misogynistic/homophobic asshole, he held hands with a male friend, visibly, during the whole anti-queer lecture. He's heterosexual, btw, which only matters because him doing so as a socially identified heterosexual male made a different statement and had different consequences than if a gay-identified teenager had done the same thing.

Which brings us back to the matter of "sexual bullying" not being the same thing as "queer-bashing" (even if the "bashing" involves neither sticks nor stones, but instead only words). [The book linked to there deals with racist and misogynist speech-as-harm, primarily. But many of the points apply to anti-queer speech as well if it occurs in a deeply heterosexist society such as the one I live in.]

Calling lesbian girls "dyke" and gay boys "fag" is something else. That is in the same category as whites using the n word against a Black person, and as men using the b or c word against women. It is intended to humiliate and degrade and otherwise harm someone, deeply, for being who they intrinsically are socially--for being a type of person over which they have no control. It is not due to "naturally occurring traits" of race or gender or sexuality" which is the stimulus for harassment and other violence, btw. The stimulus, the causal agent, is a violently dualistic and hierarchical ideology, made real in practice, in the society in which one lives.

About the matter of "causation" when it comes to "sexual bullying", I have serious disagreements with Dr. Susan Lipkins. She was a guest on this episode, and a support person in the thirteen year old boy. They had done some counseling together, some of which was filmed and aired on Oprah's program. The ethics of airing that is for another conversation. This boy has endured a great deal of anti-gay and misogynistic violence in the form of "sexual bullying". As a potential solution to the problem of being bullied she did not see that anything needed to be done to modify the behavior of the abuser. Instead she worked with the victim to learn the necessary skills that would enable him to stand up for himself and speak out against what is happening to him, directly, to the bully. We all know how well that approach works for women with rapists: "No" being contorted by fucked up men to mean "Yes".

Then another professional on the show promptly noted the following: in some cases, vocally or otherwise opposing or standing up to the bully may result in much more harm coming to the victim; this may become the time when verbal bullying moves into verbal and physical bullying. It may be the time when one bully rallies his troops to more thoroughly destroy the esteem of a victimised boy or girl.

Dr. Susan Lipkins also said, quite clearly, even if she meant to say something else, that schools and parents cannot be responsible for this behavior. She may have meant this to augment her statement that our children are sometimes alone with other children, without teachers, guidance counselors, and parents to look out for them, but the effect of her statements on me, and obviously to others there in the audience and beyond, was to "blame the victim" for not doing what is possible to do that will cause bullies to not be bullies.

As someone who was bullied for seven years consecutively in my childhood and adolescence, I'll tell you that me stating "No" or otherwise vocally opposing what was happening to me, which I did, had no effect whatsoever, and only egged on the bully to humiliate me further. So I believe "professional counsel" that teaches victims to "just say no--loud and forcefully enough" is a crock of shit, and dangerous in many ways. In my view, any psychotherapist or guidance counselor who believes this is "the" approach to teach and employ when abuse is happening inside a school system has no business counseling children.

Ironically, strictly speaking, homophobia means the fear of that which is the same, as opposed to heterophobia, which means the fear of the different. Let us now consider the fact that heterosexual men are raised to loathe gay men, who are, after all, also men. And men are raised to loathe heterosexual and lesbian women for many reasons, but the bottom line is "they are not the right kind of female human being"; in patriarchy, "Woman" is, by definition, not the right kind of human being. This partially explains why in some past Western cultures--also virulently patriarchal and lethally misogynistic--"same sex" sexual unions were not regarded as evil or bad. In some ways, in some societies, they were seen as preferable to the so-called "degrading acts" of the allegedly good, pure, rational, spiritually high and holy man laying down with the allegedly bad, impure and polluting, irrational and emotional, low and beastly woman.

We can note that one of the most common Old Testament verses quoted by homophobes and other heterosexist assholes, Leviticus 18:22, is the one that when, mistranslated and misunderstood, is sometimes said to mean: "Thou shalt not lay down with [have sex] with a man as one would [have sex with]a woman".

As has been noted by many feminist thealogians, the interpretations of this verse are largely CRAP, and are misogynistic at least as much as they are homophobic, and also deeply racist. The secular or religious "crime" per se, is for a man to behave as a woman behaves [sexually]. Some interpret this to mean men ought not take a penis into any part of his body, because to do so is to behave as degraded humans (patriarchally meaning: women) do.

I've always thought this "meaning" ignores the fact that surely it is something about the penis that must be socially and morally foul, if women who have contact with it are damned, and men who have contact with it are also damned, even if only masturbating! That penis/serpent is a dangerous thing, in the Old and New Testament/Christian Bible. What is it about the snaky penis that will degrade in a heartbeat? Is it that it is used in such a way as to degrade? Could it be that "How the penis is used by a man" determines whether or not the "engager" with said penis is degraded by such contact? I'd say yes. If men use their penises, or words, or hands, or any other dimensions of their beings to degrade women, that is an abomination.

Thou shalt not degrade a woman with a penis or by any other means.

That's not in the patriarchal Bibles I've seen; I just wanted to see what it would look like, and to imagine growing up in a society--and there are such societies--where this is a basic tenet or moral belief. (They aren't necessarily industrialised societies, but they existed and do still exist.)

We know men use our penises in ways that are, to use that biblical term, an abomination: men use them to hurt others, to harm them (causing them physical injury), to subordinate, to degrade, to humiliate, to dominate and control. Men use many other aspects of their beings to accomplish these goals as well.

"Thou Shalt not be a Patriarchal Man".

I just wanted to see what that looked like written down, as I can't seem to find it in few books pulled together by patriarchs, leaving out the stories that were not misogynistic.

In conclusion, I think that shows that when we approach the matter of "girls and boys being ridiculed in school", sometimes so severely or ceaselessly that the child feels the only escape is death, we had best distinguish between the ways in which this violence functions as overt misogyny, as anti-queer activity, and as gender policing.

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