by: Natalie Wendt on October 21st, 2010 | 4 Comments »
Yesterday an estimated 1 million people wore purple to raise awareness about bullying of LGBTQ youth. In light of the highly publicized series of suicides related to homophobic bullying, many of us are wondering how we can help LGBTQ youth. To answer this question, I’ve been reflecting on what helped me as a queer teenager in an aggressively homophobic community. By the time I was 15, nearly every one of my LGBTQ-identified friends had tried to kill themselves. I was alone in not attempting suicide. There are many factors of course, but I keep thinking of Noach Dzmura’s comment in the current issue of Tikkun,”Liberal religions save queer lives daily.” Having a loving, inclusive religious community was the biggest sources of inspiration and support that I had, one that my queer friends and peers lacked.
I grew up in a fairly rural small town in an extremely conservative state. Bullying because of queerness, perceived queerness or gender difference was common and ranged from verbal harassment, threats, and having our lockers defaced to being kicked, pushed, beaten, and pelted with rocks. In high school, one of my out gay male friends received death treats at school, and as far as I knew, nothing was ever done about it. Though the peer bullying was terrible, it was adult acceptance of our harassment that wore us down.
I had a handful of wonderful teachers who I knew cared about us and would fight for us, but many others who ignored or even encouraged homophobia. There was no gay-straight alliance at our school and starting one, even less than a decade ago, felt impossible and unsafe. More than one teacher told their class that homosexuality was wrong or that gender nonconforming people were “mixed up” and needed fixing. Most teachers and administrators simply said nothing, especially when they needed to speak up. This wasn’t limited to homophobia. They were just as silent when boys groped objecting girls in class or when racial slurs were casually used by white students, even when students asked them to intervene. My town was just a few hours away from the then-headquarters of the Aryan Nations, and I remember very few teachers ever speaking a word against the violent hate group. (As I left for college, the Aryan Nations was sued into bankruptcy for shooting at two Native Americans who’d pulled over near the group’s compound).