Commentary: Stop planting the seeds of bullying and hatred

The Kansas City StarFebruary 21, 2013 

School bully ILLUS.jpg

KIRK LYTTLE — MCT

He’s found a Hurley tank top on the rack. It’s striped — yellow, orange, black, red and blue.

The teen holds it up to his mom.

And she howls: “That’s a (starts with “F,” rhymes with maggot)-ass shirt.”

He says bashfully, with an embarrassed laugh, “Thanks, Mom.”

So they head to the register with a heterosexual-approved purchase.

My stomach dropped. My face flushed red. I wanted to scream at her. But I stood there frozen, holding a Junk Food flag T-shirt that read “Love America,” feeling more broken than loved. So many thoughts rushed my mind.

How could a mom say that to her son? How could anyone feel so confident hollering that in the middle of a store? Since when did shirts have a sexual preference?

If someone said that at a party, I would take a stand. But this was a mother talking way too loudly and hatefully to her son. It wasn’t my place to step in and tell her how to parent, despite my gut instincts.

I wondered if she’s one of those people who is surprised by the news: stories like Jadin Bell, an Oregon 15-year-old who tried to hang himself and died in a hospital earlier this month. He was a victim of gay bullying. Or Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who jumped off a bridge after a roommate outed him.

So often, people are shocked by the hate in the world but refuse to acknowledge how they foster it. If you’re screaming at a child about how his fashion choices make him look gay, you are sending a message that being gay is bad.

Maybe this kid is stealth-strong and shrugs it off. Maybe he goes to school and picks on any kid wearing a colorful shirt because that’s what his mom would do. Maybe he’s gay and will live a life in the closet because of how clearly unacceptable it is to her. I don’t know what is going to happen.

But what I do know is children learn from adults. We set the example.

And we live in a world where the Boy Scouts of America is only now considering whether to lift the ban on openly gay people. We live in a country where gays don’t have the full rights every other American has — the right to marry. There were over 400,000 homophobic tweets last week. Check NoHomophobes.com; the numbers grow daily.

We wonder why gay, lesbian, bisexual or transsexual kids have it harder. We make it harder.

Last year’s National Strategy for Suicide Prevention found that gay and bisexual teens and adults are four times more likely to attempt suicide than straight guys. Lesbian and bisexual females are twice as likely as their straight counterparts. Often, intense bullying leads up to these suicidal actions.

A 2009 National School Climate Survey found that nine out of 10 of the LGBT students were harassed at school in the previous year. Nearly two-thirds of those students felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation.

Stop ignoring this. I’m not pushing tolerance. I’m pushing support. Because humanity, love and equality are not things you merely tolerate. Humanity, love and equality are things you cultivate. We can’t expect the It Gets Better campaign and all the star power behind it to do the work for us in letting the LGBT youth know they are not alone.

We have to get involved. It can’t get better until we do better.

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