Friday, October 1, 2010

Bullying, Harassing, and Exploiting Gay Youth: an analytic and personal discussion

image depicting the practically unimaginable world of "heterophobia"
This article focuses on "gay" youth because of the recent cases of gay male youth killing themselves. I've been thinking and feeling a lot about these horrible stories. One thing I think about is how lesbian girls and the abuses gender non-conforming girls are generally ignored or classified as something else other than "homophobia", "transphobia", and "heterosexist violence". If girls are abused it may be called misogynistic, sexist, or patriarchal harm. But to miss the heterosexism involved in various forms of violence against queer youth is to really "not get it" about what's going on.

The reality is that in most abuse, class, race, gender, and sexuality, as well as age and ability, all coalesce to produce more or less violence. Some of the boys who were picked on--bullied--harassed--tormented--terrorised--were abused because they were smaller in stature, because they didn't want or desire to wear "popular" expensive clothes, or because they were deemed to be "gay" based either on heterosexist, misogynistic, classist, and racist stereotypes or because the child was "out" as gay and was mercilessly mistreated because of that fact.

What is often missed in discussions about these cases is how anti-gay bullying, harassment, terrorism, and exploitation is "sexual abuse". It does what sexual abuse does: it causes deep and overwhelming shame which shapes the self-esteem and behavior of people abused sexually. It causes victims to blame themselves for harm done that they didn't invite or welcome.

To live in a heterosexual world means that one's own non-heterosexuality will inevitably be experienced as "different" at least, and "abnormal" and "bad" in all likelihood. When I hear grieving parents speak about how when they found out their male child was gay they told him they'd accept him no matter what, this perpetuates, however unintentionally, an idea that there is something wrong with being gay. Because if a child expresses "heterosexual interest" parents do not remark, "I love you anyway." And, of course, many parents do not accept or tolerate their child's gayness, instead wanting to frame it up as a phase or something that will hopefully go away. What this leaves some children feeling is that for their parents to be happy the child must go away. And sometimes that leads to thinking about suicide.

Race, ethnicity, ability, class are usually left out of conversations about anti-gay bullying and terrorism. But the more marginalised someone is, the more difficult it may be to "come out" about being tormented. It might also be the case that torment isn't experienced as specifically anti-gay, if one is hearing racist epithets all day long as well as anti-gay ones.

There can be advantages to experiencing a few forms of marginalisation, even while there are obvious detriments. Here's an example. I grew up in a middle and working class area in my "formative years". The region was largely white, and ethnically Italian Christian and Ashkenazi Jewish--Italian Jews were a rarity, but at least some physical characteristics of both groups blended together without much notice. I observed racism and anti-Semitism before I recognised heterosexism and homophobia. Classism wasn't so much on my radar, due to being class-privileged for the most part. I got it about boys being valued more than girls. That was blatant.

You only need to see how shaming it is for a boy to be told publicly he throws like a girl to know that girls are not considered capable, physically (and that boys are expected to be). Girls are perceived by boys, often enough, to be disabled. Chronic physical incompetence is what is assumed to be true about most girls, even while some do excel in sports, especially since Title 9 made girls sports mandatory in any school where there were sports for boys. But class and race factor into how girls are perceived. White girls often stigmatise Black girls as "tough" for example, or as more prone to being angry. I see how this carries into adulthood, where Black women are often seen as simultaneously lesser-than, and also more able to endure abuse. There's a paradoxical sub-human/super-human determination made by whites about Black women, in my experience of whites. How does this get complicated when a Black girl or woman is lesbian? Is it assumed she is both more sub-human AND more super-human? I see Black lesbian women being stigmatised as "courageous" and "strong" and "brave" as if they aren't women enduring all manner of abuse, daily--which hurts the way any insult and abuse hurts.

Stats show that queer kids and disabled kids are VERY likely to be both emotionally/verbally and physically/sexually abused. What then are the chances of disabled queer youth coming through childhood with a healthy sense of self? What is being done to ensure that disabled queer youth CAN come through and be regarded and treated as the fully human people they are? If you are nerdy, or awkward, or shy, small, or fat, how does this impact your experience of queerness, where, particularly when older, being queer and male is assumed to mean you are into being buff and shallow? What is the intellectual to do? I am thinking here of James Baldwin, and how the many points of social discord informed his view of his worlds, and led him from one to another: from Harlem to Paris, for example.

How does sexual abuse that is physical not verbal, compound sexual abuse that is verbal not physical?

Back to my story. Because I was white and Jewish, I saw how I was marginalised and ostracised as not quite white enough in ways that were experientially similar to being seen and treated as not quite boyish enough. Because I had some esteem around my Jewishness--or, at least, I knew it wasn't a characteristic of my being that was "a phase"--I could determine anti-Semitism to be stupid and wrong. This gave me a framework for understanding anti-gay bigotry as similarly stupid and wrong. Having some consciousness around sexism and racism being messed up also helped, but in those cases I wasn't oppressed or ostracised for being of color or a girl. Curiously, though, being Jewish and white, and gay and male, did render me targetable for many of the terms used to degrade and humiliate people of color and girls.

Sexism is the foundation of heterosexism, and there's no social space in which being like a girl, if you're a boy, is "socially staus-giving". I am thinking now of an old song:



Enough with the analysis. Here's the deal. Hearing about these stories of queer kids and young adults taking their lives, or of "only" being mercilessly ridiculed, is heart-wrenching and terribly painful. It makes me feel both rage and despair. I want to hug every queer child and tell them how valuable they are, while knowing that any grown male having contact with any youth is seen as problematic particularly and especially when the adult male is queer. I want to create safe spaces for queer youth. I want queer-dominated elementary and high schools. I want all children to be taught about how some of us are and will be queer in exactly the same way we are taught that there are other differences among us: such as some of us being left-handed and taller, or stronger and better at learning languages. I want sexual orientation to not be stigmatised at all, to not be seen as something we have to protect children from learning about, including very young children. If a child is old enough to register anything we might call "heterosexuality" they are old enough to register and integrate knowledge about being non-heterosexual too. And they should be learning that it is all very deeply human.

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