One of the great myths of the recent spate of suicides on the part of gay youth is that their deaths are the result of homophobia. The problem is not Homophobia. The problem is bullying.
This is not a semantic distinction: homophobia is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for the kind of bullying that may force someone to take his or her own life. You cannot learn to be cruel to sexual minorities until you first learn to be cruel. Billy Lucas, an Indiana teenager who killed himself on Sept. 9 and was relentlessly bullied because he was allegedly gay, did not identify as such. He didn’t need to. Being different was enough.
Yet in the national press, bullying is now a “gay issue.” The case of Billy Lucas shows that it is nothing of the sort. It is instead a massive failure to teach values and decency at a young age and it impacts everyone in our community — gay, straight and otherwise.
The response to this slew of bullying-linked suicides has been a touching nationwide movement to record messages to bullied (implied to be gay) teenagers declaring that “it gets better.” Once you get to college — or maybe the workplace — just once you get out of high school, they say, the bullying will stop. It is certainly a heartwarming message. Pity, then, that it simply isn’t true. It Does Not Get Better.
It does not get better in college. Tyler Clementi went to Rutgers University —hardly a bastion of homophobia — and was cyberbullied repeatedly by his roommate and killed himself. Much as in the case of Lucas, the school authorities failed to detect and appropriately respond to Clementi’s ongoing bullying. This is college, and this is not better.
It does not get better in the workplace, either. “Workplace bullying,” Gina Vega and Debra Comer wrote in the Journal of Business Ethics in 2005, “create[s] toxic working environments and impair[s] organizational productivity” yet remains “exceptionally pervasive” in the United States. Another study suggested that many as 66 percent of workers experience or witness workplace bullying. We’re now out of college and in the workplace and it still isn’t better.
But what about Penn? We’re a welcoming school. Here, at least, it must surely get better. In the absence of specific studies, I can’t offer a definitive answer, but consider one final case study.
I was bullied throughout middle and high school — nothing as serious as experienced by the suicide victims, but the picture was similar if the colors less vivid. I survived, but went to Penn with the full expectation that it would get better. In many ways it did. But bullying continued — via e-mail, via text message, under the guise of it being politics as usual. And the voiceless students here who have been hazed, exiled from a group for being unpopular or subjected to pernicious gossiping and backbiting will join with me in saying that if this is “better,” it needs to get better still, fast.
Bullying is everywhere. It knows no creed, race, sexuality or geography — these are merely the excuses by which it is justified. It will never be stopped by telling victims that “it gets better.” “It gets better” rings hollow when bullying the vulnerable never ends in this country. It will only get better if we make it better.
I cannot offer any policy prescriptions or easy solutions to bullying. Bullying falls into the cracks of a just system of crime and punishment. Befitting a complex problem, it must be attacked in a complex way. Yet attacked it must be, at school, in college, in the workplace — even at Penn. For all of our sakes.
Alec Webley is a College senior from Melbourne, Australia. He is the former chairman of the Undergraduate Assembly. His e-mail address is webley@theDP.com. Smart Alec appears on Thursdays.Comments powered by Disqus
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