My eight-year-old son Sam has hair down to his waist; he is generally mistaken for a girl. Though recently he's most passionate about Star Wars, for years he played princess dress-up games and wore a fairy costume on Halloween. I have no idea what his gender identity and sexuality will be once he reaches high school. But I want to do everything I can so that he won't be attacked for his differences when he gets there.
According to the GLSEN 2009 School Climate Report, 90% of LGBT students experience verbal harassment at school; 40% experience physical harassment, and almost 20% report physical assault. Straight, gender-normative kids can be hurt by bullying, too, as victims and as witnesses. Whoever our children are, we have a stake in changing the cultural norm of disrespecting, harassing, and bullying kids who are different. It's time to decide, as a society, that torment needn't be a normal part of growing up.
That sort of cultural shift is going to take many, many parents demanding it at many, many schools in many, many cities and towns across this country. In every school, there are gender-nonconforming kids, kids with LGBT family members, and kids who will grow up to be gay. The only way to get ahead of the bullying -- to prevent it, rather than to punish it after it occurs -- is to educate the faculty, staff, and students in age-appropriate ways about respecting difference.
Since the founding of the It Gets Better Project in September, Dan Savage's inspirational video campaign has shined a spotlight on bullying in schools, brought hope to millions of kids, and launched a national grassroots movement with over 100,000 supporters, including President Obama. It is hugely important to let LGBT teenagers know that if they can make it past the terrible years of middle school and high school, life does get better.
It is our schools' responsibility -- their job -- to keep all kids safe. I am working with our school to enhance their anti-bullying curriculum, and I encourage you to do the same. Here are some resources that you can offer your school as they develop or improve their own curriculum:
- Welcoming Schools, a program of the Human Rights Campaign, provides K-5 schools with resources on embracing family diversity, avoiding gender stereotypes, and ending bullying and name-calling.
- Teaching Tolerance supports schools (using teaching kits, tips for students, and professional development resources) so that they can create inclusive and equitable K-12 learning environments .
- Organizations like Our Family Coalition and Gender Spectrum can come to your elementary, middle, or high school to train faculty, staff, students, and parents about family diversity, gender roles, stereotyping, and anti-bullying in age-appropriate ways.
- The GLSEN Safe Space Kit is intended to help educators create a safe space for LGBT youth.
- The Trevor Project's Trevor Survival Kit is designed to facilitate classroom discussions about gender identity, sexual orientation, and suicide prevention.
- Faculty, administrators, and parents can come together by launching a Gay-Straight Parent-Teacher Alliance. We can't be effective at ending bullying until we all have a stake in each other's wellbeing -- and inviting straight families to join in the LGBT work of the community will let us grown-ups do what we are asking our children to do: to work together and respect each other's differences.
And remember to thank your school. Thank them for any anti-bullying or inclusiveness work that they have done in the past -- people hear you better when you acknowledge their efforts. And if they have done nothing, it will help if you are grateful that they are taking the time to listen to you right now. Acknowledge that it's hard work to make change, but that you are fully committed to it, that you know other parents will be as well, and that you expect the school to be, too.
I've found it exquisitely painful to watch my son be bullied, and even more so when his school drags their feet about making changes. And it has been exquisitely lovely to find teachers and administrators who are supportive and wise and understand the value to all students, not just mine, of anti-bullying work. And when I've been able to help an administrator who was unsympathetic to see the value of this work, I am in awe.
So tell your school that none of us can do it alone. That you need them, and you believe in them. And tell them that together, we can save lives.