In fall of 2010, a frightening number of stories surfaced in the popular media of relentless bullying and mistreatment of homosexual children and young adults by their peers that led to tragic cases of suicide. This is nothing new. Years before, Matthew Shepard, was beaten to death in Laramie, Wisconsin in a highly publicized story. Search "suicide homosexual bullying" online and the results are shocking. The reality is that all over the country, homosexual children and young adults are teased, rejected, bullied, beaten and hazed every single day.
This simply has to stop.
Whatever one may think about homosexuality, about gay marriage or about homosexuals personally, systematic mistreatment of others, discrimination and single acts of aggression are just wrong, and often literally criminal. The reason I am drawn to address this on an early childhood forum is because this is where the education that prevents this sort of behavior in later life must begin. I am just sick to death of hearing people say "kids are mean" and leaving it at that.
Yes, kids are mean. Michael Thompson, Ph.D., a psychologist specializing in social cruelty, says in his excellent book "Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children" that 100% of children experience teasing and name-calling. He says that making successful insults is, in fact, a developmental milestone. BUT, when children are mean, at least in front of us (the adults), it is our job to tell them that it is NOT OK.
Thompson defines in his book a difference between the concepts of conscience and of morality. Morality is not a fixed definition, though many would like their morality to be the standard for everyone. Morality exists in the construct of the group. Conscience is our inner voice. Conscience is where our parents and teachers, the Jiminy Cricket's of our lives, exist. Conscience is what stops us when the behavior of the group differs from our own. It is parents' and teachers' responsibility to plant the seed that mistreatment of others is unacceptable, no matter what the morality of the group says must be feared or punished (even if we agree with the basic sentiment).
In the interest of full disclosure, I am supporter of legalizing gay marriage, find no threat to my life from homosexual relationships and am baffled by those who do. I am also opposed to hate crime legislation -- maybe the only thing George W. Bush and I have ever agreed upon is that "all crimes are hate crimes." I don't believe it is acceptable to make thoughts illegal, only actions. For me, therein lies the key. Think what you want, and live your own
life accordingly. No one says you have to be anyone's best friend or approve of the actions associated with their biology, lifestyle or choices (whatever
you may choose to believe). But you MUST treat them with civility and kindness in the interactions you do have.
While it may be my personal wish that someday homosexuality is recognized and discussed in schools as naturally as differences in skin color or religion, I
understand that in our current societal climate that is not possible or even desirable. Understanding and acceptance of homosexuality in American society
and culture is still evolving, although all indications are that the shift is toward acceptance. This is precisely why there is so much attention and backlash regarding this issue.
The reality is that, at this time, most messaging about homosexual relationships will come from parents. However, schools absolutely have a right and a responsibility to set expectations for treatment of children by other children. And parents who counsel their children that characteristics of others are "wrong" MUST also give them guidance on how to then behave when they encounter those characteristics. This is true not only of homosexuality, but also of disagreements over religion, politics, and other similar subjects.
Any adult who looks the other way when children are teased or called names because of homosexuality or even perceived homosexuality, regardless of personal beliefs, should be ashamed. Any adult who would never allow the word "nigger" on the schoolyard but ignores the word "faggot" needs to start taking action. Any adult who fails to tell children that we can disagree, and even disapprove, without teasing, without name-calling, without threatening and without mistreatment of those with whom we disagree or of those whom we disapprove needs to do so immediately.
It is not inherently immoral to dislike or disapprove of homosexuality -- in fact, the morality of some groups or religions insist upon that belief. But it is unacceptable to act upon that belief by treating others cruelly in verbal or physical ways. This is the difference between thought and action, and it is a critical difference.
We can't manage every interaction young children have. But Thompson discusses how early in life parental disapproval over name calling and teasing is paramount. But as children age, the delight of the group over a well-placed insult takes control. But the parental voice remains. They may feel the
thrill, but their conscience prickles. We count on this conscience to intervene when things go to far, and move beyond common teasing and name-calling into systematic rejection, scapegoating, bullying or hazing -- more serious manifestations Thompson presents. We can't just give our children over to the notion that "kids are mean" and that other children should learn to "deal with it."
We may not agree on the specifics at the root of disagreements, but we can all agree, can't we, that when students are driven to suicide or murder, things have gone too far? We can disagree and still treat each other decently. It is our responsibility as parents, teachers and adults to both teach and model this behavior.
Dan Savage It Gets Better Project - http://www.youtube.com/itgetsbetterproject