Wednesday, October 20, 2010

It Gets Better: but does wearing purple really help it to?

Note: this is a "breaking news" post to address current events. Regular posts will continue on Thursday according to the new schedule.

On Wednesday October 20th, people will wear purple for Spirit Day. According to GLAAD, "Spirit Day honors the teenagers who had taken their own lives in recent weeks. But just as importantly, it's also a way to show the hundreds of thousands of LGBT youth who face the same pressures and bullying, that there is a vast community of people who support them."

According to one Facebook event page (and there are several others), at least 1.3 million people will be wearing purple Wednesday. In addition to Spirit Day, many people who were bullied in their youth have offered testimonials to tell LGBTQ youth that "It Gets Better" (heck, there's even a Broadway song). There has also been increased media attention for the Trevor Project, which provides assistance to LGBTQ youth via a 24-hour crisis hotline (1-866-488-7386), an on-line community, and advocacy and educational resources.

But are these campaigns really helping youth? According to the New York Times, the Trevor Project has experienced "a 'great increase' in calls in the last month," and troubled LGBTQ youth have reached out to people who have shared their stories in the "It Gets Better" project. On the other hand, media coverage of suicides has been correlated with an increased number of subsequent suicides among members of the same vulnerable population as the original suicide, in what is known as the Werther Effect.

While there is some controversy about whether the Werther Effect is real (or just an example of the media looking for the "big story," i.e., just an increase in publicized suicides rather than actual suicides), it is a serious enough issue that the media needs to be cognizant of its potential effect. And yet a Google news search of "Werther Effect" (and related terms) revealed only one English-language story about media coverage's effect on subsequent suicide rates in the past month, and it was not related to the recent LGBTQ suicides.

With that being said, the responses have seemed appropriate: remembering and mourning those lost, but making sure they did not die in vain by using this opportunity to raise awareness and effect change. The Trevor Project and the "It Gets Better" Project both have the potential to reach many of the most isolated teens, assuming they have access to a phone or computer that they can use safely and confidentially.

Bullying of all kinds has been increasing over the last decade, as has teen suicide. And the suicide rate among LGBTQ youth has been much higher than that of other teens for decades, due to bullying, family pressure, and lack of support. Sadly, the publicized suicides are just the tip of the iceberg. During these past few weeks, other LGBTQ youth have committed suicide, but their deaths have escaped the public consciousness. The difference is that these kids faced relentless bullying that precipitated their deaths, and their families have stood up and said, "Enough is enough."

Bullying of LGBTQ youth has risen dramatically lately; 85% have been harassed and 61% don't feel safe at school. I've read (conservative) articles that link this to the push for marriage equality, ENDA, and an end to DADT. To some extent, that's true. When some bigots feel like their backs are against the wall and others will finally be given equal rights, their hate turns into vitriolic attacks. And others who agree with them on the issues don't have the spine to stand up and say that their behavior is wrong.

This happened during the Civil Rights Era, when too many whites stood silently while a few terrorized activists' families. I've seen troubling wall posts on Facebook Spirit Day event pages: threats of violence against anyone who wears purple tomorrow, and others who "won't wear purple because I don't support homosexuals' choices." I find the latter just as disturbing as the former because they're giving tacit approval to the bullies; their message just as clearly states, "You aren't worthy of being treated like a human being."

LGBTQ youth are particularly vulnerable to bullying because many have an utter lack of support network. Sometimes they face verbal and physical abuse or even abandonment by their families. Many preachers, while maybe saying "Hate the sin; love the sinner" also spew bile every Sunday about "deviants" and "perverts," making the "love" part of their message seem like mere lip service. Too often, schools ignore bullying.

It's true that it will get better, and that in general, people are becoming more open-minded. But for the LGBTQ youth who are being bullied today, it's not enough to say "wait until you're out of school." We need to make sure our schools are safe places now.

I think that of the three campaigns, Spirit Day has the most potential to reach youth where they are, in their schools. Seeing peers and teachers wearing purple will indicate where they can go for help or advice or just to talk. But Spirit Day is just a single day; we need permanent changes in our schools.

The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network provides resources to help schools create safe spaces for LGBTQ students. If you're a parent, a student, a teacher, an alumnus, speak up! Ask what the school is currently doing, and provide information on what else they can do. Volunteer your time; be part of the solution.

My friend who teaches at a rural high school in the South has been trying to start a Gay-Straight Alliance at his school for years. The principal has told him, "I just don't think this community is ready for that yet." My friend is frustrated because to him, that just shows how much a GSA is needed. My friend was himself harassed by students a few years ago. The administration handled it appropriately, but if students feel that they can harass a teacher in the classroom, how much bullying of students is going on in secret?

There are signs of progress at my friend's school, however. The school is participating in Spirit Day, though they are only calling it "Bullying Prevention Day." But in this digital age, I suspect students are aware of what the day really is about. And discussions are underway again about the GSA (there are students who are asking for one, too).

Opponents of LGBT rights are highly vocal and mobilized. Actual LGBT people are a minority. We need allies -- or even non-allies, just people who don't want to see kids bullied for any reason -- to speak up, and demand that schools step up and protect our kids.

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