The New Millennial Gay Experience
|Posted on March 4, 2014 at 9:40 PM|
By Dennis Stone
The cry rang out on the playground, and all of the third grade kids scattered. I was eight years old, and the last thing I wanted was “Nina germs.” You got them simply by touching an unfortunate classmate named Nina. And those germs were very contagious. Once someone had them they could pass them on to someone else by touching them. And so our recess often consisted of running around frantically, trying to avoid anyone who had the dreaded “Nina germs.” And, of course, trying to avoid Nina herself. Touching or being close to Nina was about the worst thing you could do.
Today I look back with horror and shame at what we did to that poor little girl. I don’t remember anything about her that could have led to her becoming a pariah. Perhaps it started as an innocent game and then got out of hand. Perhaps it was the result of some sort of feud of which I wasn’t aware. Perhaps there was some perceived shortcoming that made her an appealing victim to some of the other kids. But however it began, it ended with a classmate being shunned so totally that any normal interaction with her was impossible.
I can’t imagine what Nina must have felt. She eventually coped by playing along with us. She’d chase us as part of the game, as if she were enjoying it. At least it made her feel a part of things, even if it was a sad, degrading way to be a part of the crowd. Her family moved away the next year, and I have no idea what happened to her. I can only hope she wasn’t permanently scarred by the experience, and that she found acceptance at her new school.
Here’s the most important consideration when considering Nina and what we did to her: we were all good kids, raised in a close knit farming community where people cared about each other. I grew up with those kids, and almost all became solid adults with good values. It was a traditional Christian community, and people taught, believed, and lived the “Golden Rule.” And yet “Nina germs” made life hell for an innocent eight-year-old child.
Human nature is a sometimes unpleasant, sometimes scary, and sometimes brutish thing. Kids aren’t immune to the downsides of human nature. In fact, in some ways they are more susceptible since they are not yet mature enough to override their base instincts with more compassionate, more philosophical ideals. And so peer pressure is a dominant force, as is an inclination to improve one’s own standing by knocking down others. Perhaps worst is the instinct to find a weakness in someone, and then take advantage of that weakness, often by belittling the person.
Those base instincts are not rare, as I discovered in third grade. To some degree they are almost universal, jostling within us to a greater or lesser degree with our better instincts. And try as we might to get rid of those instincts, whether through parenting or religion or school programs, basic human nature is always there, either bubbling below the surface, a constant battle of our good and bad sides, or rising up, sometimes in acts of kindness and compassion, but other times in acts of cruelty.
Because human nature is what it is, bullying will always be a part of the childhood and adolescent experience. Good kids will sometimes do bad things, and “bad” kids will never become extinct. People don’t want to hear that. They want to think that we can teach kids to always treat one another with respect. They want to believe that proper parenting will produce a generation of kind and considerate little people who always react as their parents teach them. They want to think that the proper school programs will succeed where generations of philosophy and religious teaching and “family values” have failed. But “kids are kids,” and sometimes it’s not a pretty picture.
Weakness will be seen, and will be exploited or mocked. The innate desire to be like everyone else, to not be different, will generate ridicule of those who are or choose to be different. The fat kid, the skinny kid, the shy kid, the kid with thick glasses, the awkward unathletic kid, the nerd kid, the “ugly” kid, the kid with big ears, the gay kid.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that schools are jungles, or that kids are animals. Most kids treat their classmates well. Or, rather, most kids treat most of their classmates well – most of the time. But most kids also fail to live up to society’s ideals now and then, and peer pressure or insecurity or the darker side of human nature sometimes take over. And, of course, some kids are just mean, and don’t have much respect for society’s ideals.
Being gay will always mark someone as different. That will continue to be true even when we have full equality, and when the overwhelming majority of people accept homosexuality as a totally normal human variation. Consider the scenario of growing up as a gay boy in a gay-accepting society. His friends and peers start talking about girls even before puberty hits. After all, that’s what they see in their families and on television. And it’s just assumed that they will all find a nice girl to marry, and raise a family.
When they are older boys start to talk about sex, often sharing stories of their exploits. Gay boys will have different stories. And most gay boys – though not all - will be different in other ways, whether it be a lack of interest in sports, or mannerisms, or voice, or sensitivity, or interest in ballet or theater, or any of a number of ways that separate us from the “typical” boy.
In those contexts the gay boy will stand out as markedly different. Societal acceptance of homosexuality will not change that. In very basic ways he won’t be like other boys. Some boys will be lucky, like our own contributing high school writer Paul Johnson, and will face little teasing or bullying or marginalization. But others won’t be so lucky, and will become victims. No matter how complete our acceptance on a societal level, gay kids will always stand out as different, and different in fundamental ways.
What’s the answer to this situation, not only regarding the gay boys and girls of the future, but all vulnerable boys and girls? Unfortunately, study after study has shown that school-based anti-bullying programs have been remarkably ineffective to this point. And parenting goes only so far, as I discovered in third grade. It will be rare to find a school with better, more hands-on parental guidance than what my classmates had back in a “Leave It To Beaver” world.
A prescription for how to deal with the bullying of the future would require an article of its own (or a book). In brief, I think it’s a three-legged stool. First, we must use experience to craft better in-school programs, avoiding those with unintended consequences such as the counter-productive “zero-tolerance” programs, which sometimes do more harm than good. Second, we must train teachers and administrators to understand and be sensitive to the problem. As part of that, we must make sure to provide students with readily accessible support structures, including some sort of gay/straight alliance, and with people they can feel safe confiding in.
Third, and this may be the most important, while also being the most controversial, we must teach kids how to deal with bullies, and with all the typical teasing and shunning and gossip that goes on in school, and in life in general. Today’s helicopter parents, fostering the “medals for all” mentality, are creating a generation of kids who don’t know how to handle difficult situations or difficult people. It’s an utterly unrealistic expectation to think that we can get through life – as either kids or adults – without encountering people who don’t like us, and who don’t treat us well. Occasionally we’ll encounter bullies, and the answer can’t be to run to an authority figure every time someone doesn’t treat us as we would like. In fact, most kids don’t run to authority figures even when they are available. Instead, they suffer in silence, often not even talking to their parents.
Many psychologists, such as Izzy Kalman of Psychology Today, who has worked in the field since 1978, are pushing programs that essentially teach kids how not to be victims. Joel Haber, a psychologist who consulted on the documentary “Bully,” says that “most kids can learn skills to make themselves less likely to have the big reactions” that gratify the bullies. Says Lisa Suhay, a mom whose son was helped by one of these programs, “It’s about respect and self-confidence. You’re not teaching them to beat up the bully. But they’re not cowering. They make eye contact. They talk to the bully. So much of the time they avert the situation because the bully doesn’t expect them to say, ‘I’m not scared of you.’” It sounds too easy, but these programs are having remarkable success for many kids.
I have read several examples of gay kids who were bullied, even while there were other out kids in the same school who had no problems. And I have read examples of bullied kids who switched schools to escape bullying, only to have the pattern repeat at the new school. Some kids are simply more susceptible to bullying than others, and it often relates to body language and how they express themselves. The new programs can work wonders in changing the dynamic.
Some people think it’s wrong to take the focus off reforming and punishing the perpetrators. But human nature makes it impossible to fix the problem by focusing entirely on them. It simply will never happen. Gay kids will always be different, and will therefore always be at risk of bullying. And human nature guarantees that bullying will continue. But a combination of the three initiatives I have talked about can make the process of growing up gay a much better experience for most kids.