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.