Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

login / register  arrows

The Answer Blog


Break the Silence on Homophobia and Bullying

February 15, 2013

No homophobia

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.

Putting an End to Bullying: Pledge to More Than Take a Pledge

December 15, 2011

Over the past few years, greater national attention has been focused on the issue of bullying, mostly because far too many young people who were bullied ended up dying by suicide. Considering that the root of bullying behavior is often found in gender norms and expectations and the targets of bullying are often young people who are or are perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender, sexuality education can and must do a better job of addressing bullying if we are truly committed to making it stop.

A few nights ago, I watched an episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, a program in which a family in great need is selected to receive a newly built, customized home. The show introduces us to the family members and shares their stories as we watch the cast create the home and make several other dreams come true for them over the course of a week. This particular episode focused on the family of Carl Walker. Carl was an 11-year-old boy who had been bullied relentlessly by students at his school for such simple things as carrying around library books and enjoying reading. He was called a girl and told he was gay, along with all the terrible epithets that are used to insult people who are or are perceived to be gay. The night Carl’s mother was planning to take him with her to a PTA meeting to address the bullying, Carl went upstairs and hanged himself while she was preparing dinner. Remaining in the home had been understandably traumatizing to the family, but they did not have the option to move. Thanks to the show, the original house was razed, and a new one built that celebrates the life of Carl inside and out, replacing the terrible memory of what happened with peace and hope.

How Sirdeaner Walker, Carl’s mother, and her family have carried on in the wake of this loss is absolutely beyond me. Somehow she, like Judy and Dennis Shepard and other miraculously strong parents, chose to use the tragedy of Carl’s death as an opportunity to reach others. The Walkers are now working with GLSEN on a project called Stand Together. This new Web site asks visitors to take a stand against bullying. Visitors can download and print out a piece of paper with their number on it, take a photograph, and upload it to the site. While watching the show, I checked the site and over 20,000 people had taken the pledge. My son and I took a photograph as one entity; our number is 60,699. As of the writing of this blog, the number is 93,069.

I have to admit, as I was watching this extremely emotional episode, I thought to myself: Will the impact of their work have a continuing effect? We are a fickle culture with a relatively short attention span. How can we work to ensure that the issue of bullying does not become a flash in the pan, today’s social issue topic du jour? I realized that standing together is a good, first, motivating step, but we must do much more.

Answer staff takes the Stand Together pledge to end bullying.

1. Take the pledge, and then talk about the pledge. Just as talking with children about sexuality is not simply about having “the talk” but a lifelong, ongoing conversation, we must constantly talk about bullying. Reminding friends and family members that we all pledged to do so is a great motivator for keeping focus on the steps we can take to end bullying.

2. Take action that resonates with young people. I have struggled with what I feel is an overly simplistic message to young people: “It gets better.” I love the reassuring motivation behind it, but from a child development standpoint, it’s nowhere near enough. Developmentally, adolescence is a narcissistic time; we have to remember that children who are bullied often feel like they are the only ones who have ever experienced it. We tell them others’ stories, but they are certain that their situation is different-that it is somehow their fault, that no one will believe them, that no one will care. They are concrete thinkers who live in the here and now, so thinking about the future can be challenging for some and impossible for others. And the scary reality is that for some people, it does not get better. We adults have the benefit of knowing things can improve, but young people who are bullied only know the pain they’re experiencing now. So while it’s fine to say, “It’s going to get better,” it is far more effective to accompany that with, “because here’s what we’re going to do to make it better,” and then actually take action. Put together a plan of action; ask a young person to write down her or his story and use it in making your case for the safety of the child and others.

3. Label sexism and homophobia and explain why they are wrong. Children learn from their earliest ages that there are “boy” things and “girl” things and that boys should behave in certain ways and girls in other ways. The social consequences for not adhering to these expectations can range from minor to quite serious. The abhorrent truth is that there remains far more flexibility for a girl to be non-conforming in her behavior (the unspoken lesson in this is that by doing something “boy-like,” she is improving upon herself). Yet every single day, boys are criticized by other boys-and even adults-for acting like girls. And, of course, a boy who acts like a girl must be a gay boy. Parents, educators, religious leaders -every adult-must nip these gendered messages in the bud at the earliest ages. There are times for open discussion: “What do you think of what we just saw on that commercial?” And times to be direct: “I think it’s completely inappropriate that that guy just called his friend a pansy because he wanted to study for a test instead of going out with him.” Strong message, strong impact.

4. Teach young people to act when they see bullying happening. We also need to remember that during adolescence the most important group is a child’s peers. I have heard adults tell adolescents things like, “Why do you care so much what other people think about you?” This confuses and minimizes young people, and I will guarantee you that the answer an adolescent will always give is, “I don’t know.”  That’s because young people honestly don’t know why their peers are so important, all they know is that without fitting in, there are no friends (regardless of whether these friends are the right types of friends). For this reason, we need to spend more time talking with young people about bystander behavior. It is relatively easy to teach a child not to bully others; it is another thing altogether to ask that child to be the whistleblower when someone (especially someone they perceive to be a friend) is bullying another child.

5. Use your “celebrity.” When I use the word “celebrity” here, I mean “influence.” Consider the social influence you do have. You may be well known and respected in your profession; you may be the power parent in your community; you may be an active member of a religious or faith group. If you choose to make a pledge to stop bullying, then pledge to yourself that you will use your influence to focus others on this issue. Post about this issue on Facebook-not once, but regularly. Tweet, post on Tumblr, write a blog-not once, but once a day, once a week, once a month, or with whatever regularity you can. Visit and comment on others’ blogs, and they will do the same in return.

With so much dreck on television, it was phenomenal to watch a program that modeled how the media can and should raise awareness about a life or death social issue like bullying. And it feels good, when we are caught up in the emotional transfer of such a powerful show, to take a picture and sign a pledge. Now we need to do the hard work, and some of it may not feel very good.  Be the parent who brings up this issue at every school board meeting. Be the adult who doesn’t have any children but who notices bullying going on as you pass a playground and says something. Be kinder to people in your own life because children are watching us for cues on how to behave-and because “do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t cut it. Young people need to hear again and again that they should never bully others, that they don’t deserve to be bullied, and that they should always tell an adult if they see bullying taking place so we can make it stop.

Get involved. Stay involved. Make this change happen.

Putting an End to Bullying: Pledge to More Than Take a Pledge” was originally published by RH Reality Check.

It Takes More Than a Month: Incorporating LGBTQ Issues Into Sex Ed

October 11, 2011

LGBTQ lockersThe first observance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) history month was seven years ago. (We add the “Q” to LGBT to include those who identify as “queer.”) October was chosen for two reasons: To commemorate the first-ever march on Washington, DC by LGBTQ individuals back in 1979 and because it includes National Coming Out Day on October 11th, which started in 1988.

LGBT History Month is more than an observance of the contributions of LGBTQ individuals throughout history; it is a call to action for those who teach sexuality education to review their curricula, materials and resources to see how inclusive they are of LGBTQ individuals and issues. And it is a call to action for state-level policymakers to look at their state’s sexuality education mandate—if they have one—to ensure that the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity are specifically required. According to The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, fewer than half of states address sexual orientation as part of sexuality education. Some that do, like South Carolina, prohibit any discussion of homosexuality unless it is done within the context of HIV and AIDS. Others, like Arizona, Mississippi, North Carolina and Oklahoma, require treating homosexuality as abnormal or dangerous.

When I was writing my doctoral dissertation, I reviewed a state with a strong sex ed mandate (on paper at least), New Jersey. New Jersey’s core curriculum content standards require that by eighth grade students will “discuss topics regarding sexual orientation” and by 12th grade, “investigate current and emerging topics related to sexual orientation.” My dissertation examined whether and how that was being done. I was stunned to find many schools were not teaching sexuality education at all, regardless of the mandate. I was less stunned, but equally disappointed, to discover that in schools that were teaching sex ed, many were excluding the topic of sexual orientation.

If people are so resistant to teaching about sexual orientation, then why teach about it? There are countless reasons. Some of the most compelling of which come from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), who found that in US schools during a given year

  • 85% of LGBT students are verbally harassed,
  • 40% are physically harassed,
  • 19% are physically assaulted because of their real—or perceived—sexual orientation,
  • 64% are verbally harassed because of how they express their gender,
  • 72% hear homophobic remarks like “faggot” or “dyke” frequently throughout the school day,
  • Nearly two-thirds of students feel unsafe because of their sexual orientation,
  • More than a third because of their gender identity, and
  • 29% missed class at least once because of safety concerns.

What about teachers and parents? The support is there. In a national study, 78 percent of high school teachers and 75 percent of parents said they thought that sexual orientation should be included in sexuality education programs and that it should be “discussed in a way that provides a fair and balanced presentation of the facts and different views in society.” Adults support schools being more inclusive; LGBT students need them to be. Here are a few quick suggestions on how to make this happen:

  • Have more than “gay day.” Young people often refer to the one day on which sexual orientation is addressed at school as “gay day” because it is discussed that day, then completely ignored for the rest of the year. LGBTQ issues should be integrated throughout the school year, across the curriculum.
  • Be clear about LGB vs. T. Far too often, we refer to LGBTQ issues, but the T—being transgender—is often left out altogether. Being transgender isn’t about sexual orientation; it’s about gender identity. If we use “LGBTQ,” we need to address lesbian and gay people AND bisexual people AND transgender people.
  • When teaching about relationship issues, include same-sex relationships. For example, in an activity in which students evaluate what makes a relationship healthy, make sure that at least one of the couples is a same-sex couple.
  • Remember the achievements as well as the challenges. We are all aware of the devastating statistics relating to rates of alcohol and drug abuse, depression and suicide by LGBT youth. But if that is all we present to young people, we are giving a very negative view of LGBT people and are communicating to those who may be LGBTQ themselves that their futures are quite bleak. Stories of courage and success must be told alongside the stories of challenges and prejudice.
  • Remember the diversity within the diversity. There is a pervasive stereotype nationwide among young people and educators of color that only white people are LGBTQ. This is perpetuated in no small part by the media and serves to further isolate and disenfranchise LGBTQ youth of color. It is important for educators to acknowledge clearly that an LGBTQ person can be of any race or ethnicity, any education or socioeconomic level, and from any geographic location.
  • There are LGBTQ youth in every school. It is imperative to remember that, statistically speaking, there will be LGBTQ students, or students with LGBTQ parents and/or other family members, in every school—and to teach accordingly.

Sexuality education is not for and about some people; it is for and about all people. If LGBTQ issues are not included within a school’s sex ed curriculum, they need to be—and not just during LGBT History Month, but all year round.

If you’re looking for more training on LGBTQ issues, add your name to our e-mail list to get more information about our upcoming online professional development workshop, “LGBTQ Issues in Schools.”

Prize-winning Novel ‘Almost Perfect’ Puts You Inside the Life of a Transgender Teen

February 16, 2011

The American Library Association’s John Newbery Medal is to young adult fiction what the Oscar is to the motion picture industry: the highest award the industry can bestow.

Clare Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest won this year’s Newbery award, and while reading about it, I found another prize-winning book for teens: Almost Perfect, by Brian Katcher. The book received the ALA’s 2011 Stonewall Children’s and Young Adult Literature Award, given to “English language books of exceptional merit relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender experience.”

Since I’d never read a book about a transgender teen, I decided to take the plunge. Almost Perfect is set in “the American heartland”: a small Missouri town. (The author lives and works as a school librarian in the state.) Its narrator, 18-year-old Logan Witherspoon, is a junior at the town’s only high school and lives in a trailer with his mom, a single parent who works as a waitress. Logan’s sister goes to the state university, and Logan’s mother hopes he will follow in her footsteps.

But Logan isn’t feeling good about anything, because he’s just broken up with his girlfriend, Brenda, and is sad and disillusioned about life. He is sure that Brenda was the only girl for him. While patiently trying to rationalize why she didn’t want to have sex with him, he learns that she cheated on him with another guy.

Into Logan’s vulnerability, confusion, and sadness strides Sage Hendricks, a new girl in town who, for reasons Logan can’t fathom, appeals to him. Her résumé is somewhat odd: She has been home schooled until high school and has an overly strict father who won’t let her date. (Her younger sister is allowed to date.)

Their friendship grows. But Logan wonders if he can confine it to just that when he feels attracted to Sage when he sees her in a bikini at the local pool. Sage also begins to push beyond the self-imposed boundary. Logan kisses Sage when they are together, and she returns it. Pulling apart, Sage says, “Logan … the reason I can’t date … the reason we can’t kiss … the reason I was home schooled, I … I’m a boy.”

While Logan recoils from this information, Sage explains that she wanted to be a girl ever since watching her mother dress her older sister in frilly pink dresses. Disgusted with himself for being attracted to Sage — and worrying that if anyone ever found out, he would be called “a fag” — Logan ends the relationship. But not before Sage tells him that she has taken hormones, brought in illegally from Mexico, to create her breasts, and that she can’t have the operation to complete the sex change, because it costs $30,000 and her father refuses to pay for it, since he’s furious about her decision to become a girl.

Logan beats himself up for abruptly leaving the relationship. Like magnets, they come together for a night of lovemaking in his sister’s dorm room at the university. As Logan remembers: “Sage. Me. Naked. Well, I was naked. Sage had never removed her shorts.

Things had started slowly. Touching. Kissing. More touching. Then … the sweat, the touch of her mouth, the prick of her nails, the noise of the bed as it scooted across the floor.”

Later, reminiscing, both agree that they had lost their virginity.

If anything, Almost Perfect gets more intense with Logan’s decision to break up with Sage again. We learn about his lies to his sister about the relationship and his pangs of remorse; the vicious beating Sage endures from a guy she hooked up with after the breakup; Sage’s father’s attack on Logan; and Sage’s decision to return to being a male, which Logan begs her not to do. We also learn of Sage’s threat to commit suicide, which she had tried once before.

Logan thinks he has learned a lesson and can resume the relationship: “Sage just wanted to be herself. To be something that half the people on the planet become when they’re born. She just wanted a little acceptance, a little understanding. And because she had the gall to look in a mirror and say, ‘I am a woman,’ she had been rejected by her father, denied a normal childhood, abandoned by a boy she thought cared for her and had her bones broken and her face smashed…”

Sage has had enough of Logan’s changes of heart and, sadly, although she cares for him, sends him away after he visits her in a psychiatric hospital. Sage does not commit suicide or return to her former gender — but the relationship ends, Logan graduates and goes off to the local university, and Sage to another out of state.

I had to keep reminding myself that Almost Perfect is a novel, not nonfiction. Yet in his acknowledgments, Katcher says that he used the online stories of many “real-life Sages” to form the core of his book.

Recently, I learned about the study “Injustice at Every Turn,” compiled by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which reports that over half of transgender teens try to commit suicide. Many of these teens undoubtedly face the same struggles as Sage.

A good first step toward improving relationships between transgender and non-transgender youth is for parents and educators to read and discuss a book like Almost Perfect with teens. Small steps like this one might reduce the loneliness that many transgender youth feel before they think of suicide as a way out of their misery.

I guess it would have been too much for the ALA to award the Newberry medal to Almost Perfect. That’s too bad, since school libraries would be more likely to purchase it, parents more likely to give it to their teens, and sex educators more likely to use it in their classes. (Of course, some school administrators and parents may have problems with a book that has a transgender heroine and a mildly explicit sex scene, even if it had won the Newbery award.)

Many might believe that Almost Perfect is only for gay, lesbian, bisexual, questioning, and transgendered teens. But it is a book for all teens. It also would help all of us know what it’s like to be a transgendered teen and feel his or her fear, pain, and desire for acceptance. There are many human lessons in Almost Perfect — lessons about dignity and acceptance, respect and understanding, fear and courage, empathy and compassion, and friendship and love.

Perhaps someday a book about a transgender teen may win the Newbery medal. In the meantime, there is Almost Perfect.