Hypergraffiti

Where I spray-paint my thoughts…

Would You Pick on This Child?

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Well, of course you wouldn’t. You’re an intelligent, mature, educated blog reader.  You probably wouldn’t bully anyone.

But if you were thirteen? And a little insecure yourself, and needing someone to look down on? Come on, be honest. The glasses? The haircut? The braces which you can barely see, but I assure you are there? The vest which screams, “I’m wearing my mother’s vest, which looked great on her but looks ridiculous unstylish on a thirteen-year-old, because I have no fashion sense of my own!”?

And what about the things you can’t see? That I’m taller than all the girls and all the boys? That I make straight A’s in a school environment where academic achievement is not a cause for celebration? That I’m socially awkward, incredibly straight-laced, and insufferably bossy and arrogant? I think you can see where this is leading.

When I tell my kids that junior high is tough, I can assure you I am speaking from personal experience. Hard, bitter experience.

There’s been a lot of talk about bullying on the web lately, since the rash of suicides of young gay students in response to bullying and harrassment.  Some people have said that all of us, especially Christians, need to speak up and take a stand against the bullying of gay and lesbian youth. Others have jumped in quickly (and I’ve seen this on Facebook and blog comments repeatedly) to say, “ALL bullying is wrong. Why single out anti-gay bullying as if gay and lesbian teens are more special? Let’s take a stand against bullying in general, without identifying any specific group.”

Are those commenters right? On the surface, yes, of course. ALL bullying is wrong, and every adult in society — in the school, in the church, in the neighbourhood, in the home, on the sports field — should clearly and unambiguously, verbally and nonverbally, give kids the message that it’s always wrong to bully, belittle and harrass other kids.

But do gay and lesbian kids deserve “special treatment” when we talk about bullying? Yes. (They may not be the only class of kids deserving special treatment — kids with disabilities are another group that spring to mind, though for different reasons, but I want to address this one topic here).  Here’s why.

Every school day of my life in Grade Seven and Grade Eight was a living hell.  I went to a nice, small, Christian school with mostly caring, concerned teachers, and every single day a pack of mean girls surrounded me, taunted me, called me names, pulled my bra straps, smacked my head into the fountain, and generally made me feel like dirt.

But when I went home, I was safe. I went home to parents who loved me unconditionally and told me that I was OK — even though I was tall and geeky and too smart and too outspoken.  And at church, I was safe. Not necessarily safe from the other kids, some of whom also went to my church (though the worst offenders didn’t, so there was some relief), but I was in a safe environment where I learned that it was OK to be who I was, because God had created me and loved me just the way I was.

So I knew, deep in my heart, that the kids who picked on me were wrong and I was OK, because the important adults in my life told me I was OK, and told me that God thought I was OK.

Not all kids who are bullied are lucky enough to have that.  Sometimes because they don’t have a caring family or community to tell them they’re OK.  Sometimes because they’re gay or lesbian, and the larger community — including their churches, including, sometimes, their own families — tells them directly and indirectly that they’re not OK, that God doesn’t love them just the way they are.

I was bullied for being too tall, too skinny, too smart, too geeky, and too opinionated. I was also bullied for being arrogant and smart-mouthed, which I probably could have done something about, but otherwise, like most kids, I got picked on for things I couldn’t change, things that were just a part of who I was.  But I didn’t go to church, or out into society as a whole, and hear that these aspects of myself were Wrong and Bad and Sinful, so I didn’t internalize the bullies’ message. 

Even at the worst times, I knew bullying was something to get through, something I would come out on the other side of, because I knew the grown-up world didn’t share the prejudices of eighth-grade girls. I knew, in the words of the great video series that’s been making its way around the web in the wake of these tragic deaths, that It Gets Better.

Gay and lesbian kids don’t always get the message that It Gets Better. They don’t always get the message that they’re OK and the bullies are the ones with the problem. And they certainly don’t consistently get the message that God created them and loves them unconditionally.

And their classmates and friends don’t get the message, loud and clear and consistently, that gays and lesbians are loved and cherished by God, that they have the same rights as everyone else, and that it is flat-out wrong to tease, hurt or torment them.

There are a lot of people to blame for the fact these messages don’t get out there, but some of the blame has to fall squarely on the shoulders of conservative and evangelical Christian churches. We say that we “hate the sin, but love the sinner.”  But it’s easier to talk about the hate than the love.  We don’t talk about loving gays and lesbians, and we rarely demonstrate that love.  We talk about God’s unconditional love and acceptance, but some of the things we say about sin and society and politics send a very clear message that we put limits on that unconditional love.  And kids hear those messages.  Gay kids hear that they’re not quite as good, quite as loved, quite as created-in-the-image-of-God, as their friends and classmates.  Straight kids hear that Evil Gay People have an Evil Gay Agenda they’re trying to push, and they translate that, sadly, sometimes, into thinking it’s OK to push back at the queer boy or the butchy dyke girl (or the kids who even appear to be queer or butch, just in case).

And we know, most of us adults, that it’s not OK, because we know cruelty and hatred are never OK.  But we rarely say that out loud, because we’re afraid we’ll have to re-think our whole message on sin and salvation, and how we read the Bible. We’re afraid of “watering down the truth” and in the process we’re willing to allow a pernicious lie to spread: that some people are not created in God’s image; that some people are less than others; that some people — including some kids — are acceptable targets for hatred and bullying.

This is wrong. This is a sin.

Does addressing this issue honestly mean asking hard questions about how we read the Bible and how we define sin? I suspect it does, but that’s a big issue I’m not going to tackle in a blog post.  At the bare minimum, the absolute lowest possible, entry-level standards for human decency, Christians — of all denominations and all stripes — need to speak out loudly and clearly against all forms of hatred, all forms of abuse, all forms of bullying.  And, because we have a history that isn’t always proud in this area, we have to make a specific point of saying, not just that it’s wrong to hurt people, but that it’s wrong to hurt gay and lesbian people. That gays and lesbians are loved and cherished by God … just like we all are.  And maybe, someday, they really will know we are Christians by our love, rather than by our prejudices.

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16 thoughts on “Would You Pick on This Child?

  1. Wow Trudy! I can actually remember you looking like that!
    Coming from a poor family living in the slum neighborhood I did, I faced my own demons at school as well and was so oblivious to yours. (who knew with such a small school eh – maybe I was self – absorbed I dunno)
    I assume it was because we were poor that my parents didn’t supply me with eye glasses that I desperately needed to see the chalkboard in class. This lead me to failing grades and my not even wanting to go to school. I knew the kids with money (or at least pretty clothes) were laughing at my shoes and my clothes but they really didn’t say anything – they really didn’t have too. I got the message from their laughing that I wasn’t as “good” as they were. I felt inferior – a feeling I kept to myself for many years.
    Anyways, that is not why I wanted to post here. I wanted to post because I want you to know how I felt about you while I was in your classes in junior high. I remember especially English class how I always loved to listen to you when you read aloud. How I always loved hearing you read your poems and short story assignments we had to do. I want you to know I so admired you and I wanted to get good grades like you did because when I did good on a test I ran home and told my Dad and my Dad praised me! (something I got very little of)
    I remember too in history class how you were picked to read aloud sometimes as well – I actually understood what you were saying much more than I would have after reading it to myself 3 or 4 times. We didn’t have books at home, they were a luxury I guess that we could not afford.
    I’m sorry if I’m straying from your post message and you can delete this if you choose but, as long as you know to some you might have been a freaky geek to me you were an example of what I wanted to be and I thank you for that.
    FYI there were many times I quit in highschool because – well I was a kid and wasn’t made to go but I am so very glad I went back and graduated grade 12 with honours albeit with kids 3 years younger than myself LOL.

    • Cathy, I would never delete your post! And I know what you mean about school — I think sometimes in junior high and high school everyone is going through their own private hell and they don’t necessarily see what’s going on with others. I knew that your family had less money than some and that you weren’t considered one of the “cool” kids either, but for different reasons. (Of course, there were some kids from families with little money who somehow still managed to make themselves the “cool” kids and pick on others — not naming any names! — but I realize now from an adult perspective that they had their own problems to deal with too, and I didn’t know what was going on in their lives).

      Thanks for the kind words — I did have the comfort of knowing I could do well in school and get lots of praise and approval from teachers (though that generally only led to me getting in more trouble from bullies, who would take it out on me if a teacher praised me in class). I guess the lesson is that we all suffer in different ways and for different reasons, and we’re not always aware (at that age) of what other people are going through.

      And I’m so impressed that you came back and finished school even though it was difficult for you to do so! I think I was at your graduation and I have a picture of it somewhere; didn’t you graduate in the same class with Darryl, Dena, Sharon etc? Now that I’m teaching at The Murphy Centre I have so much more appreciation of how challenging it is for some people to come back and finish school, and the reasons why they don’t. Good for you!!!

      • I was proud to have graduated and yes I did graduate that same year. I am so glad I went to the school we did and they kept welcoming me back. It was their support that helped me through.
        Lorraine Best was at my Dads funeral and she taught all of us from my oldest sister who is 56 to my youngest brother who is 36 and when she came to talk to me and I introduced myself to her she said, “Oh you were the smart one.” I will never forget it! A few kind words like that meant so much to me and I don’t think I stopped smiling that whole evening.
        So even though I thought I was so inferior and invisible I was noticed and I was noticed for something positive and that made me so happy.
        I do believe I know at least a few of your bullies and I am sure I have met one since high school and she has suffered a failed marriage and doing a job she hates. It’s Karma baby!! 🙂

  2. LOVE this post. I can so identify with you. I was also kinda geeky, the pastor’s kid and seen as too holy to play with the other kids. But it always gets better! 🙂 And there are always those watching you, admiring you. I praise God, too, for my supportive circle of adults, parents and church family.
    Thanks for opening my eyes wider to the fact that many gays/lesbians don’t have that support and often feel that they weren’t created quite as perfect by God as others were. That is sad, and shouldn’t be. Yet hard to know how to change that message, without condoning the sin. It is high time we think of how to truly love and value the sinner as a human being and hate the sin. After all, we all sin, even pastor’s kids. (ha, ha…) Thanks for making me think.
    Your post is really well thought out and balanced.
    I will share this with others.

  3. Thanks for expressing yourself so well. You’ve given me words to use and I will share them.

  4. LJ and Liz, thanks! It’s nice to know when people have read and responded to what I’m trying to say (in my wordy way).

  5. We are all sinners. And, yet it is difficult to have unconditional love for people who are not like us. Yet, if we are willing, God will give us what we don’t naturally have. God’s grace is for everyone!

  6. I didn’t get picked on for it…but would have if I had been open about it. I’m sure some people knew, probably even more than I did.

    If churches would stop worrying about condoning or condemning the sin and leave that up to God, maybe it would be easier for them.

    I still hold a lot of anger toward churches…I try not to, but if I’m honest, it is there. I think they’ve laid the groundwork for this kind of abuse toward GLBT people.

    • I think that anger is justified, Jamie. I could see trying not to hold onto the anger for your own sake, because resentment is so corrosive, but for the sake of the church, I think it’s necessary to hear the voices of GLBT people, not just the hurt but the anger too. If we don’t know what we’ve done, how can we ever change? (I suppose “can we ever change” is a question in and of itself, but I’m an eternal optimist).

      • I think the church will change, but only as the “old guard” die off. I’d say forty years or so.

      • I’d like to think you were right about that, Jamie, but in my home church, it’s many of the “old guard,” of my parents generation, who are actually a bit more open-minded and tolerant, while the hard-line conservatism is coming from a lot of younger people, newer converts and in some cases immigrants from other places where the church is more conservative generally than it is in North America. And that’s just talking about what I think are pretty obvious issues like women’s ordination, never mind our attitude toward GLBT people which is a whole other can of worms. It doesn’t give me as much hope for the future as I’d like to have, despite my inherent optimism.

  7. Thanks for this post. I remember when I was teaching Bible at the St. John’s Seventh-day Adventist Academy, and the issue of homosexuality came up, while studying the book of Genesis. I listed all the texts about homosexuality on the board, and we read them. Then I asked the students to imagine that they had a friend who had come out to them, and write that gay friend a letter that described the love of God to him or her. I was shocked at how many of the conservative Christians from a variety of denominations, did not believe that any gay could receive God’s grace. They argued vociferously with me on this topic, insisting that they would never have a gay friend. I later learned, a subcommittee went to the principal complaining that I wasn’t teaching Biblical teaching and that I was a lesbian, a label that, while untrue, was not one I minded, since I’d had good friends who were lesbians.

    • I was interested to note on looking through the Earliteen Sabbath School curriculum recently that the lesson on homosexuality starts out with a very strong message AGAINST bullying gays (or those perceived to be gay). Then I thought — because I’ve done some writing for them over the years and it’s always a long time between writing and publication — could I possibly have written that lesson? I’m still not sure, but I don’t think I did, which is a good sign as it means I’m not the only person writing kids’ curriculum for the SDA church who’s anxious to get that message out (actually, even if I had written it, the fact that it got accepted and printed would still make me happy).

  8. Trudy, I found your site by following your book blog, and I am going to add it to my blogs. I wrote a post recently about being bullied in junior high too:
    http://marie-everydaymiracle.blogspot.com/2010/10/more-bravery-it-gets-better-videos.html
    And several other posts about homophobia and bullying.

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