Conservative 'Culture of Bullying' Keeps LGBTQ Youth From Feeling Safe

When a documentary about bullied children gets a stronger MPAA rating than a film about teenagers fighting to the death, you know something is wrong with our culture.

Handsome, outgoing and athletic, Jason is one of the "top dogs" in high school many boys want to be and many girls want to be with -- that is, if they are straight. Although he projects himself as heterosexual, with a girlfriend, Jason is secretly involved with the openly gay Eric, who is often bullied by Jason's macho friends. When their secret is revealed, Jason is forced to choose between coming out and joining the bullies to beat up the helpless and terrified Eric.

Jason's choice lies at the center of Man in the Mirror (2011), a short film that has made the short list of the first PBS Online Film Festival. The film's original screenplay was written in 2009 by Treviny Marie Colon, then a high school senior, for a Scenarios USA writing contest. Colon won the contest and her script was made into a film by Hollywood director Joel Schumacher (The Phantom of the Opera).

During a recent conference call, Colon, now a Penn State student majoring in English and sociology, told reporters that Man in the Mirror was based on personal experience and observation during high school. "It was happening. I saw it every day," said Colon, speaking of anti-LGBTQ bullying. It "is very old news," she added, in response to the recent media attention to the issue.

The film came out at an emotional time, with a recent spate of LGBTQ youth suicides forcing Americans to face the cruelty of bullying in schools. Seth Walsh, Jamey Rodemeyer, Justin Aaberg, Tyler Clementi and Eric James Borges -- the list of bullied LGBTQ teenagers who ended their lives is growing. (See other cases here.) These suicides, especially the high-profile cases such as Tyler Clementi, opened up for Americans a dark reality in which LGBTQ teenagers live on a daily basis. The cases also prompted a much-needed national dialogue, of which the film is a part.

How Bad Is Anti-LGBTQ Bullying?

According to recent research from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN):

  • Eighty-five percent of LGBTQ middle and high school students reported verbal harassment, 40 percent reported physical harassment and 19 percent reported physical assaults at school during the previous year because of their sexual orientation.
  • The percentages of reported bullying because of students' gender expression are 64 percent for verbal harassment, 27 percent for physical harassment and 13 percent for physical assaults.
  • Nearly two-thirds of LGBTQ students surveyed did not feel safe at school.

According to the report, school environments for LGBTQ students have been improving at a slow pace. The report shows that between 1999 and 2009 there was a slight decline in verbal harassment and increase in LGBTQ-related support at schools. However, assault overall remained constant. Meanwhile, effective interventions and support are not available in most schools. In GLSEN's survey, only 45 percent of students reported having a gay-straight alliance at school, 53 percent could identify six or more supportive educators, and only 18 percent reported having an anti-bullying school policy.

If anti-LGBTQ bullying is not a recent "epidemic," as some media characterize it, it is undoubtedly a serious and urgent problem that is still claiming too many young lives and making many more lives miserable. And it is clear that we haven't made the progress we should have over the past decade.

Conservative Obstructions to Making Schools Safer for LGBTQ Students

As activists, educators, parents, and celebrities work to create a safer environment for LGBTQ teens, conservative organizations and policy makers continue to set up obstacles by promoting homophobia, silencing LGBTQ victims, and closing up the space for open discussion on sexual orientation, gender identity, and bullying among youth.

Progressive advocacy group People for the American Way (PFAW) recently published a report on how the Religious Right tries to make school a safe environment for bullies rather than their victims by urging schools to "embrace a policy of inaction."

Meanwhile, the conservative Parents Action League (PAL) has put pressure on the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota to promote intolerance against LGBTQ youth. According to Think Progress, the group was largely responsible for influencing the school district's former anti-LGBTQ policy, which was recently rescinded under an agreement the school district signed with the federal government. After the agreement was reached, PAL demanded that schools teach that homosexuality is a "disorder" and AIDS a "gay-related immune deficiency," recommended several books condemning comprehensive sex education, and asked the school district to protect bullies ("students of faith" and "moral conviction") with a special set of resources.

Although these demands were rejected by school board chairman Tom Heidemann, his "reluctance to defend gay students and object to PAL's smears suggests the process of creating an LGBTQ-welcoming environment in the district will be a slow one," Think Progress observed.

Of course, not all conservative organizations blatantly promote homophobia -- some are more furtive in their bigotry. Claiming to protect LGBTQ students, GOProud, a gay Republican coalition, focuses not on changing the anti-LGBTQ environment in schools, but rather argues that parents should be "empowered" and "supported" to transfer their children to schools of their choice. If that does not work out, the group recommends home schooling. This so-called solution can only further silence and victimize bullied LGBTQ youth.

Perhaps even more dangerous, some seemingly neutral organizations are doing disservice to anti-bullying efforts. The Motion Picture Association of America initially gave an R rating to Bully, a 2011 documentary that depicts the reality of school bullying. Comparing the Parents Guides for Bully and The Hunger Games shows that the MPAA is anything but neutral. The Hunger Games contains extremely violent scenes involving teenagers (one teen throws a spear through the chest of another), while most of the scenes that fall under "violence and gore" in Bully are verbal (a teen girl narrator speaking of suicide attempts and cutting). However, MPAA rated The Hunger Games PG-13, while Bully got an R.

As Andrew O'Hehir writes at

In the "Bully" case, the board [of MPAA] has ended up doing what it usually does: favoring the strong against the weak, further marginalizing the marginalized, and enforcing a version of "family values" that has all sorts of unspoken stereotypes about gender and sexuality and race and other things baked into it.

Under pressure from activists and the public, MPAA has lifted the R rating, and Bully will be released unrated. However, the bigotry and hatred promoted by organizations and politicians have already contributed to creating a culture in which civil discourse is repressed and bullies go unchecked.

Do We Live in a Bullying Culture?

The sad fact is, anti-LGBTQ bullying not only happens in schools, it happens in athletes' locker rooms, at political debates, and in many other public and private places.

In an article in the Guardian, Hadley Freeman points out the absurd leeway given by politicians who bully by contrasting the punishment of Dharun Ravi, the bully in the Tyler Clementi case, to the growing popularity of Rick Santorum among Republicans. She points out Santorum's repeated attacks on LGBTQ individuals:

A 53-year-old man on a high-profile political stage saying that gay marriage will cause America to "fail"; that homosexuals do not perform activities "that are healthy for society" and therefore do not deserve certain "rights" such as raising children; that gay "sexual activity" is not "equal" to heterosexual "activity" ; that repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell is "playing social experimentation with our military ... And that's tragic" ; that gay marriage is analogous to polygamy and, most infamously, bestiality.

Santorum and other Republican candidates, Freeman says, are "bullying on a national scale, of kids just like Clementi and beyond."

Changing this toxic bullying culture will require activists serving different marginalized and vulnerable groups to work together, for bigotry and hatred are not only directed at LGBTQ youth, but at women, people of color, the poor, and others. For evidence, one need only look at the national political rhetoric of the past few months -- Republican candidate Newt Gingrich calling Spanish "the language of living in a ghetto" and Rush Limbaugh's "slut" slur against law student Sandra Fluke. With this sort of public verbal bullying pervading the media, how can kids learn to be tolerant, civil, and respectful toward their peers?


Jin Zhao is a freelance journalist, multimedia producer and photographer. Her work has appeared in the Nation and on AlterNet. Follow her on twitter @jinealogy.