Friday night, my wife wrote a letter to “vehemently” oppose HB1153, a bill that would support children who bully anyone not protected by current human rights law, as long as they bully their victims for religious or political reasons. She sent the letter to all members of the Tennessee House and Senate. The next morning, she received a response from Tennessee State Representative John Ragan that sounded as if it had been taken straight from Hitler’s playbook. I am not exaggerating, even a little, and invite you to go here and read for yourself.
I cried as she read me the message. I thought I would throw up. His final point literally took my breath away:
“Examining another statistic, it has been well known for a decade that suicide is attempted much more frequently in the homosexual community than in the heterosexual community (Mathy, Cochran, Olsen, & Mays, 2009). This same source pointed out that, on average, suicide is approximately three times more likely among homosexuals than heterosexuals.
“As a fitting critical thought question, it could be asked if other identifiable groups that engage in behavior of which ‘others may disapprove’ commit suicide at similar rates? In other words, do prostitutes, pedophiles, polygamists, murders, etc., commit suicide at the same, or similar, rates to homosexual behavior practitioners? If similar rates were hypothetically so (not proven to be the case), do these behavior practitioners commit suicide at a higher rate because someone may have disapproved of their behavior or for other reasons? Should society avoid disapproving of pedophilia, prostitution, murder, etc., because practitioners of those behaviors may commit suicide at higher rates?”
There were a thousand things that needed to be said, dozens of wrongs that needed to be made right, and rather heavily weighed the reality that changing his “beliefs” is beyond our control. Stunned. Speechless. For a moment, my wife just sat there, rereading parts and shaking her head, while I wept a bit more. Right there in our hands was a single email that represents the entire disaster which is homophobia today. That moment was bigger than this man and the two of us. That is “the problem.”
Eventually, I said, “I guess it’s time to start that equality blog we’ve been talking about for two years.” Just a few hours later, before we could even get the thing up and running, we learned that another gay kid was dead.
Phillip Parker, age 14, of Gordonsville, Tennessee, killed himself last Thursday, just one day before my wife wrote her letter to the political leaders of our state with her concerns about homophobic bullying in our schools. Just a month ago, another young man named Jacob Rogers (age 18, of Ashland City, Tennessee) took his own life. Both Phillip and Jacob were openly gay and both of them were bullied in Tennessee public schools because of it.
To clarify, when I say openly gay, I do not mean they were having sex with boys in the cafeterias of their respective schools. I mean that they were gay as they walked through the halls, sat in their classrooms, and checked books out of the libraries. They were simply being them, which meant being gay in the same way that any given heterosexual classmate is just straight, even without skipping class to have sex with someone of the opposite sex under the bleachers.
We can’t peel back the layers of Phillip’s and Jacob’s existences far enough to see how long their lives might have been in a world without homophobia. The toll that bullying takes on the human spirit is incalculable. We cannot undo the consequences of living for 14 or 18 years in a world where they could be hated, rejected, and even abused for simply being who they are, in order to evaluate if they would have been suicidal without all that being gay cost them.
Much like we cannot untangle the consequences of years of oppression because of the color of one’s skin, we can never truly understand this. Just like we can’t really comprehend the countless ways women’s lives have been altered, possibly forever, by those years that women were considered inferior to men, we can’t see who these children would have been without being bullied because they were gay.
As a society, we can begin to realign ourselves with the truth–that we are equal, regardless of the color of our skin and the nature of our sex organs–but the consequences of being so far out of our integrity are epic, the toll is extensive, and the recovery is possibly even more extensive. The same is happening today with bias based on sexual orientation, not just in our schools but in our society, not just to young people but to people of all ages who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered. And it’s not just the bully on the playground, there are bullies everywhere.
Consider the intersection of this latest bill, the letter from an elected state official, and all of these gay kids who have taken their own lives, and tell me this: How are they supposed to keep from giving up? What are we–their parents, teachers, neighbors, elected officials, etc.–doing to convince them that their life is precious and sacred when so many others are either targeting them or denying that this part of their identity even exists?
Where are they supposed to find the strength to stick it out until “it gets better” when there is so much to prove that it is not getting better?
Two years ago, a 14-year old boy died in the school gymnasium during the first practice of the boys’ soccer team. That boy’s death brought my community to its knees, but now that same community is allowing, and in some cases even perpetuating, treatment of gay kids that has already been shown to be life-threatening. If we could have done anything to prevent that boy’s heart from stopping, there is no doubt in my mind that literally thousands of people would have done whatever it took to make that happen. So, why wouldn’t every single one of those same people go to any length to save another child’s life? Why wouldn’t we do whatever we can in my community to create a loving, supportive, accepting environment for kids now that we’ve seen so many kids take their own lives after being bullied because of being gay?
Instead of doing everything we can to make this community a safe place for kids, there are people doing their part to make it worse.
On the very same day that the homophobic underbelly of Tennessee politics was being exposed again (because of the proposed legislation), my own daughter was subjected to an anti-gay lecture delivered by one of her seventh grade teachers. Yes, you read that correctly. I said that my 12-year old daughter sat in a classroom in a public school in Tennessee in the year 2012 and listened to her teacher deliver an anti-gay message. What follows is my daughter’s account of the “lesson” that day (not to be confused with an actual transcription of what the teacher said, which I would gladly pay a hefty sum to get my hands on but have no reason to believe exists).
“She said, ‘Maybe you’ve heard about the boy in Gordonsville who killed himself over some choices he made’ Now there is no reason for anyone to be bullied whatsoever. You may not agree about the choices or what’s going on at home but there’s no reason to bully. You can maybe pull them aside and talk to them about their choices and show them how they are wrong. There is no reason for them to be bullied. They probably just believe that it is right for them to do this thing because of their home life– because their home life is bad and they believe they can do that.’
“Then she went on for like 30 minutes saying that same thing nine times and then (male classmate) raised his hand and said, ‘I had a family member who made some of those wrong choices because of their home life. They believed that their choices were right and we had to teach that person about the right choices, and that it wasn’t okay to make the wrong choices.’ Not the other kid’s parents but (male classmate) and his family had to teach that person the ‘right choices.’ Then, (the teacher) said that same thing about nine more times again and then class was almost over and so she made us start on our work.”
My daughter added that her teacher is legally prohibited from saying that the boy was bullied because he was gay but “everybody knows that he was bullied about being gay because it was on the news! So, when she said he made these ‘choices’ we all knew she was trying to say he made this choice to be gay.”
I don’t know exactly how many children are in that classroom but it’s close to 30. Yes, 30 seventh grade children sat in a classroom this week and listened to a state employee teach that being gay is not just a choice–a position that is wildly rejected by almost everyone, including the scientific and medical communities–but that it is a bad choice. She told them that being gay was about making bad choices and that while no one should ever bully, they can just talk to that person about how they need to make better choices so they won’t be bad any more.
Are you kidding me?? In the exact moment that my wife is working to raise awareness about this issue, my daughter is experiencing it. Seriously?
It was then that a couple of my wonderfully compassionate friends suggested that we had to get out of this place, and I was overwhelmed by the reality that “this place” is the America. Sure, I live in a tiny community just outside Nashville, which is in the state of Tennessee, but this is America. We live in a small town in the United States of America. If this place is allowed to continue to consider (let alone pass) legislation like this, then no place in our country is safe.
We have the obvious political and civil challenges of these policies but it’s all being driven by the beliefs of those like this teacher. And there are many other well-meaning citizens who believe that change is coming, that those who believe gay people aren’t equal are extremists and powerless but I want you to know– No, I need you to understand that they are teaching our children. They are currently holding political office. They are crafting, lobbying for, and voting for policies and legislation that do everything from denying marriage equality to protecting children who bully because their faith compels them to. They are “educating” the public through their organizations and websites.
The list of the others–the “they” who are allowing their fear and hatred to erode our National integrity–goes on and on, but the truth is that this radical lesbian-headed household doesn’t even believe in “they.” We teach our children about how everyone is equal, even those who think we are not. We believe that human difference is real, that it’s important, and that diversity, inclusivity, and integrity are what make us strong–as individuals, families, communities, states, counties, and as a planet.
We live by one guiding principle: Be nice or leave.
That means we don’t make life harder for other people (rinse your dishes before they go in the dishwasher and dispose of your waste responsibly). It means do your best so the collective “we” can be at our best. We tread lightly on the planet. We disagree respectfully because we certainly won’t always agree, but we can always do it respectfully and intelligently.
Oh, and we ask for what we need because we understand that it’s codependent and manipulative (prime examples of the “not nice” that can result in being invited to leave) to expect others to know what you need and desire. It is in that spirit that I offer you the following insight into what young gay people need:
I once almost drove my minivan into a concrete barrier on the interstate. I was alone. My children were at home with my husband, and I was frantic and desperate, anxious and miserable. I needed out–out of my body which felt foreign to me as I walked through a heterosexual life that was wholly incompatible with my truth. I almost did it because I so desperately needed to be free to be me. While years of therapy and recovery made me healthy, they could not make me straight. My healing journey brought me back to myself but made me absolutely incompatible with my husband. I was finally a whole person on the inside but the outside was totally wrong for me, and the tension between the two was killing me. I lost a great deal when I came out–some of those losses unspeakably painful–but there is no loss so great, so devastating, as the loss of our true self.
In that moment just before the concrete wall, I accepted that being gay is part of who I am. When I accepted myself, it gave me the strength to move my outside life into alignment with my inside life. It gave me the ability to live in my integrity. Was that transition into my truth an easy one? No. Absolutely not. There was a great deal of pain for people who were and are very important to me. But the roots of that pain weren’t planted in that moment where I chose life over death. Coming out didn’t cause all of that pain. The roots were all the way back in my childhood, in puberty, in middle school when I was a lesbian but wasn’t able to recognize and accept that about myself.
Honestly, I had no idea I was gay. There were no gay people on tv. I don’t remember knowing any gay people. Nobody told me people could be gay, or that it was something I should at least pause to consider before roaring off into the heterosexual sunset. There were no signs. I had no idea.
Gay people need to have the opportunity to discover and accept their sexual orientation in the exact same way that straight kids discover and accept theirs. We need to create an environment for them that is safe and respectful and empowering because being gay is already there, the switch is already flipped, and if they aren’t given the opportunity to recognize it, they will suffer. The people with whom they have relationships will suffer. Their children will suffer because being gay doesn’t simply leave because you proceed with a heterosexual life.
If these kids are able to figure out that they are gay but are unable to accept it because their parents, friends, teachers, preachers, politicians, entertainers, etc. teach them that what they’ve discovered is wrong, is broken or bad, and that it can be wished away or prayed away or compelled away– they will suffer. The hell of being that disconnected from our own truth is disabling enough, the pain and confusion profound enough, to make even a child of God think that death has to be better than this.
We have to be the voice of reason for one another, for everyone, regardless of our differences.
We must stop pretending that being gay isn’t real, so that people can learn how to live healthy, happy, productive lives. We don’t need a whole gay world replica of the straight world. We need gay kids to see that love is love, no matter who you are. We need them to see that their relationships count just like straight people’s. We don’t need to do something special so gay people can have a special way to adopt kids. We just need the regular adoption system to treat gay people the same as straight people. We don’t need special gay schools. We need gay kids to be treated like equals in the schools we have. We don’t need a special gay marriage, just open up marriage to everyone.
Acceptance is love, and love heals. We don’t have to be afraid of that which is unknown. It is safe to open our hearts and our minds, and if it can save even one kid’s life, isn’t it worth it?
We are all the same. We are all on this planet together, as equals. Instead of building gay people a special gay world were they can be safe and respected and loved– and normal, let’s create space in our hearts for that and the world we have right now can be big enough for us all.
*We’ve been told that Jim Tracy, the sponsor of HB1153, has withdrawn the bill and replaced it with something less blatantly unacceptable (not to be confused with acceptable). We will continue to update our blog as more information is available.
*I’ve been in touch with the leadership at my children’s middle school and also had a brief conversation today with my daughter’s teacher. She was mortified to learn that my daughter took this away from her conversation with the class. We have begun to peel away the layers of this particular situation, recognizing that at least some parts were misunderstood. I’m meeting with her and the principal next week to continue our conversation. I am grateful for their willingness to discuss this issue and to work together to cultivate a safe and accepting environment for all of our children. It is my hope that everyone will consider having similar conversations in their community.