Is “Affirmation” Enough To Prevent Gay Teen Suicides?
If you’ve been following Care2’s LGBT cause, chances are you’re familiar with the drama unfolding in the Anoka-Hennepin school district, where a wave of student suicides has some parents and activist blaming district policies for failing to protect gay teens from harassment and bullying.
Last week, Rolling Stone published an article taking an intimate look into the lives of a few of these teens…and their surviving friends and family. The article is chilling: students complaining of anti-gay slurs were ignored or brushed aside as faculty attempted to remain “neutral” on issues of sexual orientation.
One student, Brittany, details her abuse and the inaction of school administrators:
Brittany didn’t look like most girls in blue-collar Anoka, Minnesota, a former logging town on the Rum River, a conventional place that takes pride in its annual Halloween parade – it bills itself the “Halloween Capital of the World.” Brittany was a low-voiced, stocky girl who dressed in baggy jeans and her dad’s Marine Corps sweatshirts. By age 13, she’d been taunted as a “cunt” and “cock muncher” long before such words had made much sense. When she told administrators about the abuse, they were strangely unresponsive, even though bullying was a subject often discussed in school-board meetings. The district maintained a comprehensive five-page anti-bullying policy, and held diversity trainings on racial and gender sensitivity. Yet when it came to Brittany’s harassment, school officials usually told her to ignore it, always glossing over the sexually charged insults. Like the time Brittany had complained about being called a “fat dyke”: The school’s principal, looking pained, had suggested Brittany prepare herself for the next round of teasing with snappy comebacks – “I can lose the weight, but you’re stuck with your ugly face” – never acknowledging she had been called a “dyke.” As though that part was OK. As though the fact that Brittany was bisexual made her fair game.
The article also follows Samantha, a 13-year-old tomboy who was spearheading efforts to start a GSA at her school – who, after bullying from classmates and conflicts with the school and local conservative groups over the GSA, shot herself in the bathtub with a hunting rifle. Then there’s the case of Justin, a gay 14-year-old who hung himself in his bedroom after enduring two years of non-stop bullying.
The Anoka-Hennepin school district is understandably upset about Rolling Stone’s article, complaining that it mischaracterized the district’s response to the rash of student suicides. Superintendent Dennis Carlson claimed in a statement to Pioneer Press that none of the suicides were linked to bullying, despite the claims of parents to the contrary.
Julie Blaha, the head of the Anoka-Hennepin teacher’s union, expressed that the article glossed over some of the progress the district has made recently. For instance, the teacher’s union has recently introduced a proposed “Respectful Learning Environment” policy. Rather than simply telling faculty not to comment on sexual orientation positively or negatively, this proposed policy requires faculty to “affirm” the dignity and self-worth of all students, regardless of gender, sex, religion, race, or sexual orientation.
The part of this policy that’s troubling is this stipulation:
The draft proposal says it’s not the district’s role to take positions on contentious political, religious, social, or economic issues, and teachers and staff should not try to persuade students to adopt or reject any particular viewpoint on such issues. It says discussions of these issues should be presented in an impartial, balanced and objective manner, allowing a respectful exchange of views.
While this policy may make it easier on LGBT students by allowing teachers to defend them without worrying about losing their jobs, it doesn’t address the fundamental root problem of allowing bullies to go unchallenged. It would be problematic and unconstitutional for a teacher to try to persuade a conservative student that their deeply-held religious beliefs about homosexuality are wrong – but how are teachers supposed to remain impartial to religiously-motivated hate speech and affirm gay student’s identities at the same time?
There is no “respectful” exchange of views possible when someone is attacking a student’s right to exist. Studies have shown staying in the closet and anti-gay bullying are harmful to teenagers, contributing to depression and suicide. The stakes are too high for schools to worry about offending conservative parents – the cost of inaction isn’t merely the hurt feelings of gay students. The Rolling Stone article makes it quite clear that what is at stake is literally gay students’ lives.
Frankly, the proposed policy sounds like an attempt to avoid problems with both the parents of gay children and conservative, anti-gay activists, and it may not effectively change much on the ground. It may be a step in the right direction, but it is not a victory yet by any stretch of the imagination. Until a zero-tolerance policy for bullying is implemented, one that wastes less effort on sparing the feelings of the bully, queer students will continue to suffer.
Affirmation is fantastic, but what the students of Anoka-Hennepin really need right now is action.
Photo by: Guillaume Paumier