A few days after I became a parent, a friend sat with me as I held my son and said, “You know, being a parent is like wearing your heart on the outside of your body.” Even as a brand-new parent, I completely understood what she meant. I had already begun to feel this intense vulnerability, along with the huge responsibility I now had to provide my child with the guidance and lessons to support his growth into a healthy, well-adjusted person.
That memory was in the forefront of my mind last week as I sat in the audience watching the formal announcement of the newly-established Tyler Clementi Center at Rutgers University. I marveled at the strength and selflessness of the Clementi family, who have transformed their indescribable loss into opportunities for guidance, healing and true change for others by creating both this Center and the Tyler Clementi Foundation.
Tackling Homophobia Head-On
The Tyler Clementi Center and the anti-bullying legislation being proposed in Tyler’s name will provide important support to a particularly vulnerable population, college and university students, especially first-year students transitioning into this new stage in their lives. As my excitement grew over what the new Center and legislation promise to accomplish within higher education, I was strongly reminded of how important it is to ensure that we do not wait until young people are college-age to share the important lessons about treating others with respect and dignity and speaking up when we observe others who fail to do so. I felt like the Clementi family’s commitment was a renewed call to action for all of us, regardless of whether we are parents, to address homophobia head-on with children from the youngest ages. There is so much parents, educators and other key adults can do when it comes to preventing homophobic attitudes and bullying behavior with kids when they are younger.
For example, when we talk about respect and prejudice, we have to mention homophobia specifically. If we speak up about other “isms” but not about homophobia, our silence can communicate collusion with homophobia. Most people understand—regardless of how they may choose to behave in private versus public—that racism, sexism and ableism are wrong. But homophobia remains one of the most tolerated and even defended biases. Even college-age students will defend their use of the phrase, “That’s so gay,” because they did not mean it as a homophobic slur and “it’s just something people say.”
Sometimes, there are clear examples of homophobia that can be used as teachable moments, but other times, it is not so overt. Homophobia—like racism and other “isms”—is not limited to extreme physical violence perpetrated against someone who is, or even perceived to be, lesbian or gay. Homophobia, like racism, can be subtle yet ubiquitous, wearing away at a person’s self-esteem on a daily basis, where daily reminders of being “less than,” “different from” and so on have far too often led to young people dying by suicide.
Each new generation of young people—especially boys—is still being taught that being anything other than heterosexual is something to be ridiculed, feared, disgusted by and therefore fair game for corrective, abusive action. Boys and young men hear overtly and subtly that it is absolutely inappropriate to be gay—alongside the confusing message that being lesbian (as long as a woman fits the stereotype of beauty as defined by the dominant culture) is desirable. The pornification of lesbian and bisexual teen and adult women is an egregious form of homophobia that is demoralizing and debasing-yet passively accepted as “the way it is today.”
Start Talking to Stop Bullying
We need to constantly think about the language we use with and in front of children and adolescents. We need to use the media, which provides us with a seemingly endless supply of teachable moments, to point out and talk about homophobia whenever we see it. And if children or adolescents behave in a way that merits a punishment or consequence, we need to explain that punishment so that they understand why the language or behavior should not be repeated. Otherwise, they will remember the punishment rather than what they did to deserve it. This will also help to discourage bystander behavior—because when we speak up against homophobia, we are modeling to our children that they should do the same when they see or hear it themselves. Children then learn that there are no exceptions to the rule: bullying is wrong, no matter who does it to whom.
The Clementi family is doing more than its part to try to make a difference. We can support their efforts by talking openly and directly about homophobia and bullying. The younger we begin these conversations the better; but just like talking with your kids about sexuality, it’s never too late to start.
Answer maintains a list of resources for parents to talk with their children about sexuality and has both in-person and online professional development opportunities for educators relating to LGBTQ issues.