The Bully Backlash: How the Christian Right Is Attacking Efforts to Help Kids
For four years at his Tennessee high school, Jacob Rogers was bullied for being gay. He repeatedly appealed to school administrators for help, but didn't get much. Around Thanksgiving of last year, it got so bad that he quit going to school. In early December, not long after turning 18, he killed himself. Jacob, who lived with his grandmother, left her with passwords to his phone and email accounts, so that she and investigators might understand why he chose to take his own life.
In the recently released film Bully, filmmaker Lee Hirsch reminds us just how much cruelty young people are capable of displaying toward one another. The documentary records the grief and the determination of the parents of Ty, a boy who committed suicide at the age of 11, as they fight to change the system that served their son so poorly. It follows Alex, who faces daily torment on the school bus. And it tells the story of Kelby, a one-time star athlete in Tuttle, Oklahoma, who comes out as a lesbian – only to be kicked out of the school sports team amid an outpouring of hate.
Thirteen million children are bullied every year, says Hirsch. According to the American Psychological Association, approximately "40% to 80% of school-age children experience bullyingat some point during their school careers." Suicides like Jacob's take place somewhere in America every single month. According to a Yale University study, children who are bullied are two to nine times more likely to end their own lives. Kids are bullied for all sorts of reasons: for being fat, shy, poor, rich and for no reason at all, although everyone familiar with the phenomenon knows that sexual orientation is a common excuse.
Solutions to the problem of bullying aren't easy. They have to do more with changing the culture than changing the legal codes. Families bear the chief responsibility for teaching their children to respect others. Schools can help, though, by educating students and teachers about the problem, setting up clear and effective policies for dealing with cases and establishing accountability, and fostering a safe and welcoming environment for all students. State legislators in New Jersey, Michigan, and Illinois, among other places, have taken important steps in this direction with useful anti-bullying bills. The merits of specific policies, and the money and time they will consume, can be debated, but we can all agree that bullying is a bad thing and that we should be looking for solutions. Right?
Wrong. A number of groups that claim to represent the "Christian viewpoint" have come out in vigorous opposition to anti-bullying initiatives, and their opposition has to do with a fundamental question about exactly what we think bullying is.
In Arizona, for example, legislators had their anti-bullying bill teed up for passage in March. But then, Cathi Herrod, chief of a lobbying group associated with Focus on the Family, decidedthat the bill was really part of an effort to "force cultural acceptance and affirmation of homosexual lifestyles". Although the bill doesn't refer specifically to any one victimized group, Herrod successfully pressured lawmakers into rejecting it. Senate minority leader David Schapira, a sponsor of his Senate Bill 1462, called her a "legislative terrorist". "Cathi Herrod, an unelected lobbyist, killed a bill that would protect all Arizona kids purely because of her intolerance of gay kids," he said.
In Michigan last year, the "anti-anti-bullying" lobby went on the offensive with some legislation of their own. In a bill dealing with the bullying issue, they inserted a provision that would have exempted bullies who acted out of "a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction". With an irony that seems more than usually cruel, the bill was named for a Michigan teen who had committed suicide after years of bullying.
A national outpouring of disgust at the Michigan legislature's attempt to legitimize faith-based bullying ultimately resulted in the removal of the provision from the bill. But now the lawmakers of a Tennessee plan to make good on the loss. In what must count as an extraordinarily perverse way to mark the suicide of Jacob Rogers, they have introduced a bill that follows the trail blazed by the Michigan lawmakers, with some inconsequential changes in language, to open up a loophole for verbal bullying that is motivated by religious prejudices. Given that theTennessee legislature approved Bill 368, which is intended to bring "creationism" into the state's biology classrooms, on 26 March, the prospects for this anti-anti-bullying bill have to be considered good.
In Washington, Senator Al Franken and Representative Jared Polis have put forward the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to anti-discrimination law. The legislation recently won the signed backing of 70 civil rights and educational groups, ranging from the ACLU to the American Federation of Teachers. But the Christian right is up in arms. According to rightwing pundits and bloggers, the nefarious purpose of Franken's and Polis's bill is the so-called "homosexualization" of students. Concerned Women for America says it aims at "promoting acceptance of LGBT behavior".
Many people will undoubtedly conclude that these efforts by the anti-anti-bully lobby are lacking in Christian charity or common sense. But their proponents do have a point that we should carefully consider. To be sure, the notion that the anti-bullying initiatives are driven by "the homosexual agenda" – a phrase that conjures the vision of gay hordes aiming to seduce children into lives of abomination – is preposterous. But the sense that anti-bullying initiatives involve teaching children "acceptance" of LGBT peers, to use the word of the Concerned Women of America, is not. If you want the school to tell students to stop harassing kids like Jacob Rogers because they are gay, you have to let them know, at some point, that the school thinks it's OK to be gay.
As Americans, we all like to believe that we can establish laws and policies that are neutral with respect to religious belief. But the truth is, we can't, and we don't. Sometimes, we have to make a choice. We have already made such choices – obviously, the right ones – with respect to race or ethnicity. No state or school would or should entertain for a moment the notion that it is acceptable for students to tell those of another race or ethnicity that they are inferior and degenerate because their religion teaches them – as some religions in America did, until quite recently – that certain races are less worthy before God than others. Maybe, it's time to come clean about sexual preference.
We can spend long hours parsing the complexities of social and cultural influences on human sexual behavior, and we can devote still more hours to lamenting the reductive crudeness with which human sexuality is coralled in tidy categories. But the fact is that for most people, sexual orientation is no more a matter of choice than place of birth or color of skin. And even if we were to suppose that, for some of the people, some of the time, it is a matter of choice, the fact remains that it is not the kind of choice that breaks anybody's leg or picks anybody's pocket. It is OK to be gay. And it's time to let the bullies know that.