Monday, October 11, 2010

I Need a Dump Truck, Baby, to Unload My Head

Okay, I don't know where to begin so let's just open up my head and see what tumbles out. The matter I'm probably most conscious of not having written about here sooner is the spate of attention given recently to the suicides of several young men -- some in their early teens -- who'd been bullied as fags, whether they were actually gay or not. (That's something that needs to be noticed more, just as girls are bullied as sluts for reasons having nothing to do with their actual behavior.) One, a college student, jumped off a bridge after his roommate secretly recorded him having sex with another guy, and put the video on the internet. These are terrible events, and worthy of everyone's attention. But the attention they've been getting seems to me inadequate, just another media fad which, Columbus-like, "discovers" a continent that was there and full of people all along, and quickly moves to more important matters that concern us all. It's hard to tease out all the strands of this mess, though. For one thing, concern about suicide among youth has erupted into media storms in the US before, in the mid-1980s for example. (That one was an inspiration for the great 1989 movie Heathers.) Where gays were concerned, suicide was a favorite subject for concern-trolling among antigay bigots: Tim Lahaye's notorious 1978 tract The Unhappy Gays stressed our suicidal tendencies as much as the mainstream gay movement does nowadays; gay activist and scholar Eric Rofes attacked the theme in his 1983 book I Thought People Like That Killed Themselves. But there's been a steady drumbeat since then in the American GLBTQ+ π movement, especially its therapeutic wing, about young gay kids and suicide. Intertwined with suicide in the cases before us now, though, is bullying. That's not new either. During the past few years I've begun sampling the academic / therapeutic literature on bullying in general, and while everyone agrees it's a serious problem, no one seems to know what to do about it. (What does seem to work would probably be rejected by enough parents to block it in most schools in the US.) I suspect it has something to do with the concentration of children in large schools, which creates large groups of age mates together and contributes to bullying not only of sissy boys but of girls. I'll come back to that in a moment.) In 1991 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick published a great, furious paper called "How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay: The War on Effeminate Boys", which showed how effeminate boys were tormented not only their peers but by adults, and that this assault was justified by the psychiatric profession even after homosexuality itself was officially de-pathologized in 1973. In 1996 Phyllis Burke offered more horrifying evidence in her Gender Shock, which described among other cases a preadolescent boy who was institutionalized and subjected to electroshock in the 1950s for being a sissy. More recently, in Dude, You're a Fag the sociologist C. J. Pascoe wrote about the policing and bullying of boys and girls by elite boys, teachers, and administrators in a California high school, despite the presence in that school of a Gay Straight Alliance and the existence of a California law which forbade discrimination based on sexual orientation. In the current flurry of publicity over these recent suicides, a lot of history has been lost -- some of it disturbingly recent. It's a terrible thing when a fifteen-year-old is so beaten down by the abuse of people around him that he hangs himself, as Billy Lucas did. It's also terrible when a fifteen-year-old kid is shot to death in his eighth-grade classroom by another fifteen-year-old, as Larry King was by Brandon McInerny in 2008. (King's family sued the school for failing to enforce its dress code and make Larry butch up his act, thus blaming the victim rather than the perpetrator; McInerny's defense lawyer concurred.) Or when seventeen-year-old Simmie Williams, wearing a dress, was shot to death at the other end of the country a few weeks later. And it seems that many people have forgotten Matthew Shepard, gay-bashed and left to die exactly 12 years ago, in Wyoming in 1998. Shepard's killing made the cover of Time and was memorialized in TV movies and the documentary play The Laramie Project, as King's made the cover of Newsweek. (A few years later, ABC News helpfully told us that Shepard had told a limousine driver "he was HIV-positive and was considering suicide." Leitmotif!) But that's how it goes in the United States of Amnesia: people are shocked! shocked! to learn that some people won't embrace diversity -- and then it's back to sleep. In a few years there will be another highly publicized suicide or murder, and everyone will run around expressing their horror and shock and making lovely symbolic gestures of support until they get tired of it, and another shiny gewgaw distracts them. Before I wrap this up, though, I want to give credit to the director of our campus Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Student Support Office, who told the student paper the same thing, only (as is his manner) more nicely:
GLBT Student Support Services coordinator Doug Bauder said the deaths are not indications of a disturbing new trend in bullying, but a problem many gay teens have faced for years. “A year ago, someone kept urinating on a student’s door,” Bauder said. “Someone would write ‘faggot’ on the door and then piss on it. Other students that year were repeatedly harassed by phone. The point being, that nasty cases of harassment have happened and continue to happen on this campus.” Bauder said as far as he knows, there has not been an IU student who has committed suicide because of anti-gay bullying in recent years, but incidents such as these have led to IU students transferring to other schools.
More to come.