Bully/Suicides: Ending the Denial
By Warren J. Blumenfeld
The recent suicide death of 14-year-old Kenneth James Weishuhn Jr. from the northwestern corner of my home state this month tossed and battered me like an Iowa tornado. Though I never met Kenneth in life, I feel that I know him in death. His passing spun me like the death of an old trusted friend. His loss to me is palpable.
Kenneth reportedly took his life just weeks after coming out as gay at South O’Brien High School. Classmates teased and bullied him on campus and sent him mobile phone death threats, and they created a Facebook page hate campaign.
In the midst of the statewide and national grief surrounding Kenneth’s tragic and avoidable death, I just learned of the loss to suicide of Jack Reese, a 17-year-old gay Utah teen. On a Facebook group site in his memory, according to a user: “His suicide has impacted so many people. I HONESTLY hope things will change because of this, but I also wish that it didn’t have to come down to this for awareness to actually be seen in others who decide to bully others for their sexuality.”
What can clearly be referred to as a continuing pandemic, a number of gay and questioning young men have also taken their lives by all indications as a result of the unrelenting homophobic taunts, harassment, and attacks they had to endure by their peers: Seth Walsh, 13, hanged himself from a tree outside his California home; Billy Lucas, 15, hanged himself in Indiana; Asher Brown, 13, from Texas shot himself in the head; Tyler Clementi, 18, first-year student from Rutgers University took his life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge; Raymond Chase, 19, from Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island hanged himself in his dorm room; Carl Joseph Walker Hoover, 11-years-old, hanged himself in Springfield, Massachusetts; Justin Aaberg, 15, from Minnesota also hanged himself.
Bullying must not simply be seen as a “youth problem,” but must be viewed as resulting from larger societal issues. Institutional bullying and harassment do not exist within a vacuum, but rather reflect and actually reproduce the messages and actions stemming from the social environment.
I refer to this as “the social ecology of bullying and harassment.” Ecology can be defined as the relationships between organisms and their environment. We must, therefore, investigate the larger sociological and psychological environment for us to determine, understand, and if necessary, institute procedures to change our institutional environments.
Those who bully often fulfill the social “function” of establishing and reinforcing the social norms. They often justify their behaviors by blaming the targets of their attacks, and emphasizing that they somehow deserve the aggression because they in some ways deviate from the established peer social norms.
Within this continuing pandemic, I find it appalling when I hear national and state politicians running for and holding elective office not only downplaying, but, in fact, denying the tenacity of bullying in general, and specifically upon our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth, as well as upon those whose who may define as heterosexual and gender normative, but whose peers question their sexuality and gender identities.
For example, on the floor of the Tennessee legislature, State Representative Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) railed against the passage of a proposed cyberbullying prevention bill. Referring to the recent suicide deaths of two Tennessee gay teens, Phillip Parker, 14, who died in January this year, and senior at Cheatham County Central High School, Jacob Rogers, who reportedly suffered anti-gay harassment for years, died in December last year.
According to Representative Faison, however, these suicides resulted not from homophobic bullying, but, rather, from bad parenting: “We can’t continue to legislate everything,” he argued. “We’ve had some horrible things happen in American and in our state, and there’s children that have actually committed suicide, but I submit to you today that they did not commit suicide because of somebody bullying them. They committed suicide because they were not instilled the proper principles of where their self-esteem came from at home.”
Faison went on to claim that though even some of the legislators in the chamber during his speech may have acted as bullies during their youth, “But you didn’t grow up to be a bad person.”
This comes less than one year after a bill that would ban teachers from discussing LGBT issues in the classroom prior to the ninth grade passed the Tennessee Senate. Colloquially known as the “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” it is sponsored by Republican State Senator Stacey Campfield, who unsuccessfully urged passage of a similar bill while serving in the Tennessee House of Representatives. SB 49: “requires that any instruction or materials made available or provided at or to a public elementary or middle school must be limited exclusively to natural human reproduction science.”
In addition, in a move seeming more like a perverse parody or a distasteful joke than an official legislative action, the Michigan state Senate passed what I am calling the “Permission to Bully Act” in the guise of protecting youth from bullying and harassment in the schools. Divided along political party lines, Republican Senators passed the measure by a margin of 26 to 11.
The bill includes no reporting requirements, does not incorporate any type of possible best practices found effective in research and in application, and contains no enumerated categories included in many other states such as, for example, race, gender, sexual identity, gender identity and expression, disability, among others.
The bill does include, however, Section 8: “This section does not abridge the rights under the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States or under Article 1 of the state Constitution of 1963 of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil’s parent or guardian. This section does not prohibit a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or pupil’s parent of guardian.”
This extremely weak bill, with the addition of Section 8, grants anyone within the school environment permission to bully and harass on “religious” or “moral” grounds – permission as long as it stems from conviction.
The denial and resistance to facing the real problems of bullying within our society and how it filters into our schools must end if we are to reduce and eliminate the tragedies. I consider the half-truths, the lies, the misinformation, the deletions, the omissions, the distortions, and the overall censorship of LGBT history, literature, and culture and enumeration in bullying prevention policies in the schools as a form of violence, which itself promotes violence.
Unfortunately, still today educators require courage to counter opposing forces, for example, the current attacks on Ethnic Studies programs currently underway in states like Arizona, and attacks on LGBT inclusion in most states like those in Michigan and Tennessee.
Though I support the “It Gets Better Project” and the “Trevor Project” (two fine and dedicated projects working tirelessly to reduce teen suicide), I assert most emphatically that conditions must get better NOW, because later, or next week, or after high school graduation can seem like an eternity when one suffers the humiliation, pain, fear, and anger of unrelenting harassment and bullying, sometimes on a daily basis.
In the final analysis, all of us, regardless of our social identities, have been made to feel “less than” by individuals, by organizations and institutions, and by the systemic nature of the larger society. If we can remember how that has felt for us, we can begin to develop empathy for those who suffer marginalization by individuals, institutions, and a larger society that holds their identities, at best, as different, and more likely, in contempt.
We don’t have to “agree” with those identities, but through discussion, interaction, and empathy, we can begin to relax the stereotypes and the possible fear, and experience those we previously viewed as “the Other,” and begin to see their humanity and their contributions to our collective society. We have much to share with one another once we can get beyond the divide.
For all the young people we have lost too soon, and for their families and friends, and for all of us, I do believe that love will conquer the hatred. Thank you young people for the riches you have left us. We will continue the struggle in your name to make the world a safer and more supportive environment for all people. May your gentle and sensitive spirits forever rest in peace.
Warren J. Blumenfeld is associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. He is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).
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Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld
Department of Curriculum and Instruction
Iowa State University
Ames, IA 50011