Bullying gays in God’s name?

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 9: People participate in Queer Rising's 'Take Back the Night' gay rights march October 9, 2010 in New York City. Queer Rising was formed in 2009 to demand equality, dignity and battle against hate crimes and bullying for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) community. The march was organized following two hate crimes over the past week in NYC and began and ended at the locations of the attacks, beginning at West 25th Street & 9th Avenue and ending at the Stonewall Inn. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images)

Just after 7 a.m. today, I found myself driving a minivan full of middle-school students. This still-dark-outside carpool duty frustrated me for two reasons. First, I was up late last night watching my suddenly vintage Texas Rangers throw batting practice to the San Francisco Giants. Second, a school bus that my children could ride for free stops just down the street from my house.

“Why not let your kids ride the bus?” a logical person might ask.

In fact, a logical person (at least I consider myself logical) asked his wife that very question. The logical person’s wife assured him that the carpool is the best solution to the foul-mouthed bullies who were harassing our 13-year-old son on the bus. She’d tried calling the bus driver and transportation director. That didn’t really fix the problem. I proposed that I might make a single visit to the bus and employ a baseball bat. For some reason, the logical person’s wife didn’t think that was the best idea, either.

So here we are.

So, if you ask me, “Are bullies a problem at school?” I’d answer yes. If you ask me, “Are schools doing all they can to prevent this problem?” I’d answer no. I’m not at all surprised to see this CNN report this week:

Half of all high school students say they have bullied someone in the past year, with nearly as many saying they have been the victims of bullying, according to a new study released this week.

But if you ask me to tie school bullying to religion, I’d be more hard-pressed to answer definitively. My son’s bullies certainly don’t use any kind of language that I’ve ever heard from the pulpit.

Yet the national media narrative on bullying keeps focusing on what NPR this week described as “growing concern that there may be a religious undercurrent to the harassment of teens who are seen as gay.” Surely the flood of headlines making that case has nothing to do with the “growing concern.”

Actually, NPR religion reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s report is pretty good — much better than most that I have read on this subject.

For one thing, she uses real-life examples rather than vague generalities:

Consider Justin Anderson, who graduated from Blaine High School outside Minneapolis last year. He says his teenage years were a living hell. From sixth grade on, he heard the same taunts.

“People say things like, ‘Fags should just disappear so we don’t have to deal with them anymore’; and, ‘Fags are disgusting and sinful,’ ” he told the Anoka-Hennepin School Board. “And still, there was no one intervening. I began to feel so worthless and ashamed and unloved that I began to think about taking my life.”

Anderson told his story at a public hearing last month — a hearing convened because in the past year, the district has seen a spate of student suicides. Four of those suicides have been linked to anti-gay bullying.

Justin Anderson survived. Justin Aaberg did not. Aaberg, 15, loved the cello, both playing and composing numbers like “Incinerate,” which he posted on YouTube. Justin was openly gay. He had plenty of friends, but he was repeatedly bullied in his school. In July, his mother, Tammy, found her teenage son hanging from his bed frame.

“They were calling him, ‘Faggot, you’re gay,’ ” she recalls. ” ‘The Bible says that you’re going to burn hell.’ ‘God doesn’t love you.’ Things like that.”

“Fags are disgusting and sinful.” “God doesn’t love you.” Such taunts certainly legitimize the question of religion’s role.

But the anonymous they nature of the bullies makes it impossible to really know what role religion played in these specific cases. Therein lies the rub. If you see any media reports that interview actual bullies, I’d love to hear their perspective on how their faith influences them to call classmates “faggots” and tell them to burn in hell. I am only half-joking.

Concerning the “spate of suicides”: How many is a spate? What is the overall student population? How do suicides in this district compare with national averages? Are suicides up in this district? If so, why?

More from the NPR report:

Tammy Aaberg says the school never called her, even after her son was physically assaulted. She was furious at first, but then began to understand why.

“A lot of teachers do care and do want to do something, but they’re afraid to lose their job if they step in and they’re not neutral,” she says.

Aaberg says teachers felt they couldn’t get involved — even when her son was bullied — because of the school district’s “neutrality policy,” which prohibits employees from taking sides on matters regarding sexual orientation. The district says the policy is meant to apply to the curriculum. But teachers say it’s so broadly written that they’re loath to intervene even when they hear anti-gay slurs.

Look up cop-out in your dictionary. That’s my reaction to any teacher or school official who would refuse to deal with a physical assault because of a “neutrality policy.” Give me a break.

Of course, the story relies entirely on the mother’s version of events. There’s no response from a teacher or school official. I’d love to hear firsthand from a teacher, “Yes, we knew that this child had been attacked on the playground, but the neutrality policy kept us from doing anything. Hopefully, we can change school policy to allow us to keep bullies from beating up students at our school.”

The report quotes officials from the Minnesota Family Council, “an evangelical group,” as well as the Family Research Council, also identified as “evangelical.” In both cases, more detailed descriptions of the groups involved would be helpful, as evangelical can mean so many different things.

Likewise, the story features the “Christian” mother of an 11-year-old boy who committed suicide. Again, more detailed information on the family’s religious background — and their specific faith group’s teachings on homosexuality — would be helpful.

Hagerty ends her piece this way:

And yet, despite the shifting views and alliances, there is an ongoing dilemma: How do parents and schools protect vulnerable kids without turning schools into a battleground for the culture wars?

Good question.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • http:kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    I’m having some decided plausibility issues here, starting from the bizarre conclusion that it’s OK to commit assault and battery over this pretext as opposed to some other pretext. What if it were over religion itself? Or weight? The fact that there’s not even the traditional “school officials refused to comment” line is also a huge problem.

    The reports could also take a more critical look at the implication that it is really only religion that pushes the abhorrence of homosexuality.

  • Martha

    Having worked as clerical support in a school which gets the tougher end of the student population (we deal with the ones from broken homes, who turn up with psychologist’s reports, who are eligible for special needs assistants etc.) I agree with you: cop-out.

    What it means is that those teachers don’t want to intervene because the parents of the kids who are name-calling and being violent are going to turn up and be violent to and name-call the teachers. Those teachers are, not to put too fine a point on it, physically afraid. (We’ve had our share of parents threatening to call their political representative, to go on the local radio station and complain, or to sue, because the school disciplinary policy is “picking on their child”, i.e. reprimanding the brat or suspending him from class because he’s disruptive).

    Also, with regard to anti-bullying campaigns by outside bodies: they can be well-meaning but cause more trouble. One example? We got an information package from an anti-gay bullying group, including posters, which they wanted us to put up on noticeboards around the school. One look at them and the general agreement was “No way.”

    Why? Because we’re majority Catholic and this was religiously-inspired discrimination?

    No. Because in a co-educational school with an age range of between twelve to eighteen, there isn’t a snowball in Hell’s chance of putting up well-intentioned posters giving examples of terms such as “gay”, “lezzie”, “queer”, “faggot” and the like as insults where twelve to fourteen year old boys can read them. If they weren’t using those terms before, they certainly would be afterwards – not necessarily because they understood them, or because they were homophobic, but because the only message they would absorb was “These are words adults don’t want you to use”. They’d be calling each other these names in five minutes flat just because they were ‘bad’ words.

    (Girls do bully as badly and as much as boys, but in a different way).

  • Maureen

    Bullies will seize upon any pretext to say nasty things; and if you care about it, they will seize upon it more. I’ve heard bullies sneering about one’s views on poetry and physics, because I went to a school full of well-spoken kids with good educations and they mocked that too.

    So “sinful” probably came from:

    1. Kid made a comment in class about something being sinful.

    2. Kid pointed out to bullies that beating people up was sinful.

    3. Bullies were drawing on previous repertoire from insulting other kids from more religious backgrounds.

    Most bullies aren’t at all interested in God, though. Talk of God might distract you from them; and they want you to fear them and pay attention to them, not to God.

  • Ryan

    Is there religious bullying of gay students that occurs, my answer would be yes I am sure that occurs. But the frequency might be the same as Christian churches that want to burn the Koran. Yet it fits the narrative that many journalists want to tell.

    I can’t tell you the number of Christian youth I know who are leaders in stopping bullying of any kind in their schools, including that which is directed toward gay students. Yet none of this gets covered. I wonder why…

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    I can’t tell you the number of Christian youth I know who are leaders in stopping bullying of any kind in their schools, including that which is directed toward gay students. Yet none of this gets covered. I wonder why…

    You hit on a good point.

  • Jon in the Nati

    I was musing on this a while ago, this idea that LGBT kids are bullied because of conservative Christian beliefs on the part of the bullies. It mighty seem true; it might have an air of truthiness about it. But I don’t think that’s enough (although it seems to be for some news outlets.

    One could argue (and one might be right) that the weight of our collective Christian past is to blame for cultural disapproval of homosexuality in general. And because most people in the country are still at least nominally Christian, it might indeed come out that these LGBT kids were bullied by ‘Christian’ kids. But again, I don’t think that’s enough to go on.

    I cannot claim to know how many incidents of bullying of LGBT teens is actually, directly caused by the holding of conservative Christian beliefs on the part of the bullies (and not just kids being mean, as we know they can be). But I do think that to universally attribute such behavior to conservative Christian beliefs is not accurate, at least not without a systematic study of both bullies and those who have been bullied. Absent this, I don’t know if it should be the subject of heavy speculation in the newspapers.

  • http://www.biblebeltblogger.com Frank Lockwood

    Back 22 years ago, someone I knew bragged about assaulting a gay person who had propositioned him. The person doing the assualting had grown up in a Christian family that taught that homosexuality was an abomination. Not only did he feel justified in attacking the gay person, he felt absolutely no shame about it.

    I have absolutely no doubt that what we preach in the pulpit matters. That what we say to our kids matters. And if we leave our kids with the impression that gays and lesbians are second class citizens, it has consequences.

  • Jon in the Nati

    With all due respect, Frank:

    Anecdotes and truthiness. Just because it feels like it mighty be true doesn’t mean it is. Truthiness is fine for you and me; for newspapers, facts are usually good.

  • dalea

    The Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) does do research on the subject of school bullying:

    http://www.glsen.org/cgi-bin/iowa/all/library/record/2235.html?state=research&type=antibullying

  • Ryan

    I went back and looked at the recent news stories of gay teenage suicides and I can’t find a link between any of them and the bully being a “Christian.” It may be nice story (because it stirs controversy) to try and link them but the facts are just not there.

  • Bern

    You think the same “anecdotes and truthiness” criticism might be applied to the GetReligion posts on the MSM coverage of Islam? You know what I mean: the repeated suggestion that faithful Muslims de facto are out to get the West but the MSM simply refuses to acknowledge this.

    Seems to me that’s not much different than what the MSM seems to be doing here: conflating the idea that adherence to a religious tenet in and of itself leads to negative outcomes: that is, that Christians by being Christians are responsible for antigay bullying.

  • Jeffrey

    Yet none of this gets covered. I wonder why…

    It may be, as the NPR story points out, while Christian kids may be working to stop bullying against gay teens, Christian adults and interest groups are actively working to prevent bullying education that talks about gays. Perkins is one of the most powerful figures in the religious conservative political world in the U.S.

    I think Frank Lockwood may be the most honest person here. It’s impossible not to see that the majority of anti-gay animus and anti-gay political activity in the U.S. comes from religious circles and those connected the social conservatives. Perkins’ quotations in the NPR story couldn’t cement that point more clearly.

  • Ryan

    So wait Jeff, when a bunch of perverted, immature college freshmen decide to set up a webcam and broadcast a gay roommate engaging sexual acts, this was motivated by Christianity and social conservatism?

    As I said before, I am not saying Christian kids do not bully gay students, but I think the story has been sensationalized. Truth be told kids are just as mean-spirited, ruthless, and cruel to each other as decades past. Its just they have the technology to be much more unrelenting, invasive, and permanently scarring.

    Thinking back to my high school days I can only imagine what some of the bullies in my school would have done with a tool like facebook at their disposal. The harassment would have been constantly and widely broadcast.

    In many ways I think this is just a story about how technology just amplifies what has always been. Does not make bullying right, but it is far from new and its intensity has increased due to technological capacities.

  • Jon in the Nati

    You think the same “anecdotes and truthiness” criticism might be applied to the GetReligion posts on the MSM coverage of Islam? You know what I mean: the repeated suggestion that faithful Muslims de facto are out to get the West but the MSM simply refuses to acknowledge this.

    Absolutely, Bern. You are 100% quite right. I oppose the use of “anecdotes and truthiness” rather than evidence in any and all journalistic contexts. Liberal or conservative, whether it supports my position or not.

    If Christian kids are bullying LGBT kids because of what they hear in church, then so be it. But we should study the matter well, rather than relying on innuendo. This is not about politics; it is about good journalism.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Well, since this site is about religious journalism, perhaps there is slanted liberal PC reporting being done in order to build sentiment against Christians or against religion in general.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    The biggest problem with this whole discussion is that we are not putting enough scrutiny on the notion that the bullying, what ever its source is, “causes” teens to commit suicide. Here is an article title that says it does cause http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/5883238/teen_suicides_results_of_bullying_on.html

    While the likelihood on suicide may increase with bullying and bullying may amplify other factors that lead to suicide, suicide is not “caused” by bullying.

    Here http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/promoting-hope-preventing-suicide/201007/the-truth-about-bullying-and-suicide is an article from Psychology Today where they discuss the Phoebe Prince case and how she was engaging in suicide-risk factor behaviors like cutting herself and other forms of self-injury before she moved to Massachusetts and was exposed to the bullying that has been blamed for her death.

    While the bullying may well have been a contributing factor to her committing suicide, it is only a facotr.

    The rhetoric of bullying causing suicide causes us to avoid looking at other dactors that may well be contributing.

    This is especially at issue when headlines blast, as some do “bullying causes suicide” or things to that effect. If we are serious about reducing suicide rates we need a more broad discussion of what the causes are. This means talking about things besides just bullying.

  • Norman

    John,

    I agree that the vast majority of bullied kids do not commit suicide, but ask yourself whether bullying is something you would want your son or daughter to go through.

    I mentioned before my own experience of being bullied as a 6′, 110 lb 13 year old with acne. What I didn’t mention is that as a 6′, 190 lb 16 year old with acne I was not bullied at all, but merely teased, and rather gently. The difference lies in the feeling of impunity the bully has for his target. Among boys, the line between bullying and teasing is about perceived weakness. Any man can tell you how omnipresent the threat of physical violence is among teen boys and young men. This threatening under-current does not begin to fade until one’s early-20′s at the earliest. It’s a harsh reality. I don’t know what cruelty among girls is like. I do know that every high school in my area, circa the 1980′s, had a “hot dog” girl. I don’t know if that was a national phenomenon or if it still exists, but that is brutality of a different order. Male cruelty seems almost more direct and uncomplicated by comparison.

    The question on the table is whether Christianity causes bullying of gay adolescents. I need to see more than anecdotes. Whatever the case, no Christian, of any age, if they have any knowledge of their religion, should treat another human being with impunity. If you are cavalierly attempting to destroy another individual, than you are doing Christianity wrong, and you need to be told so.

    We certainly need to question the causes of bullying, but we should be careful not to minimize the problem. “Buck up” is not enough of an adult response to the kids going through this.

  • Ann

    I do not know anything about the organization that conducted a just released poll.

    “While split on whether same-sex relations are sinful, Americans are more than twice as likely to give houses of worship low marks on handling the issue of homosexuality, according to a PRRI/RNS Religion News Poll released Thursday (Oct. 21).”

    “Nearly three-quarters of Americans (72 percent) say religious messages about homosexuality contribute to “negative views” of gays and lesbians, and nearly two-thirds (65 percent) see a connection to higher rates of suicide among gay youths.”

    http://ethicsdaily.com/poll-americans-say-religious-messages-fuel-negative-views-of-gays-cms-16903

    Last year I watched a 2009 movie based on the book, Prayers for Bobby: A Mother’s Coming to Terms with the Suicide of Her Gay Son, by Leroy F. Aarons, which is was based on the true story of the life and legacy of Bobby Griffith, a young gay man who killed himself due to his mother’s and community’s religious intolerance.

    Bobby’s mother left Bible verses all around the house. She pushed him to pray away the gay. Bobby committed suicide. His mother eventually becomes an advocate for gay rights.

    It was one of the saddest movies I have ever watched. As a mother, I had great sympathy for Bobby’s mother because she did what her church taught her, which she did out of love for her son. She will forever have a huge hole in her heart.

    http://www.prayersforbobby.com/

  • Julia

    As the sister of 4 brothers, mother of 3 sons and grandmother of 2 boys, I agree with Norman.

    Christians teach that lying is wrong and you don’t see kids ganging up and bullying perceived liars.

    Adolescent boys are unsure of themselves and will pick on those smaller or perceived to be weak. They will also pick on those observed in the locker room not being up to the “normal” development. I had a son who didn’t hit five feet until Senior year who was thrown across fences by 7th graders wanting to prove how strong they were and then deathly afraid of gym class in high school. He wasn’t a wimp by any measure but he was small and slower to develop and it gave insecure kids a boost to compare themselves to him physically.

    A brother who was similarly slower than others was repeatedly bullied on the playground in grade school until his 15 months younger but larger brother bashed the bully. The principle called me in and told me to tell my parents, but she was proud of him for standing up to his brother’s bully.

    There’s a pecking order and adolescent boys are full of themselves and wanting to prove their virility. Comparing themselves to somebody perceived as different or not sufficiently masculine puffs up their ego. I don’t think it has anything to do with religion in most cases.

    Bobby’s mother is an entirely different matter. I attended a Mormon funeral of a 20 year old who committed suicide after the parents forced him to continue treatment to get out of the “gay” lifestyle or they were going to throw him out of the house. He had come home when they cut off financial support for his college b/c of his “lifestyle”. That’s different from bullying on the playground.

  • http://www.biblebeltblogger.com Frank Lockwood

    Jon in the Nati,
    Most of us aren’t pollsters. For most of us, our lives are shaped by our experiences — not by a scientific survey with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. We’re shaped by our “anecdotes”, if you will.

    When I recall what someone told me, 22 years, ago, I’m not telling the “truthy,” I’m telling the “truth.” Granted, I’m recalling something that I was told 22 years ago. So it’s an old memory. And it’s hearsay evidence, if you will. I didn’t witness the assault. And, yes, it’s possible that the person making the claim 22 years ago was lying. But I’ve got a fairly decent BS meter, and I really sensed that I was being told the truth. The story horrified me then. It horrifies me now.

  • Czar

    Ok, here’s the comment of someone who, though wasn’t bullied, saw how it was done to others in my school. First, Where I live there are mainly 2 types of schools: Public and religious private schools, the latter divided in Catholic and evangelical. I was raised in the evangelical, and would constantly hear students bullying the openly gay ones with ‘love and compassion’ (There were real insults, i’m just writing here the ‘loving words’that you christians don’t realize hurt as hell) things like ‘you know god loves you, but hate your lifestyle’, ‘you should change, i don’t want you to go to hell’ ‘why do you choose to hurt the lord?’ ‘Don’t hang out with him…you know those are demons and they stick to others’ and similar stuff coming from students and teachers alike. The point is you end up feeling like crap, you know whats behind everyone’s friendly comments, and can hardly say you feel bad or bullied bcuz its the prevailing world view in the institution. I have compared with friends and other people of my age (19) and found that the people who were more gay-friendly (Here in Puerto Rico) went to public schools, the 2nd, having problems with gays but not caring that much as a ‘problem to society’ were Catholic students… the ones that have really harsh comments “farifo, pato, marica, maricón…” and say that they are detrimental to society are the evangelical ones :/ I’ve heard pastors wanting to propose to ‘take all gay people to a desert island’. I love the way christians are lovingly hatefull :)

  • Frankie

    @Czar

    “I love the way christians are lovingly hatefull”

    Kind of the way I would have Atheists say to me, “I like you, but I think you are deluded” or “You seem to be a nice, reasonable person, but you need to cease with your beliefs, which cause nothing but war and hate”. or my favorite “I love you, but I hate the fact that you are religious”.

    Real nice folks, eh? I love how some atheists can be lovingly bigoted and myopic

    Oh, and as for the “no/less homophobia in public schools” thing? Oh please. I don’t know how you roll in the PR, but I was mocked, humiliated, and on three separate occasions, nearly beaten into unconsciousness because of my sexuality while I went to public school in Cali. Trust me, most of those guys were not religious (and some were even outspoken Anti-Theists).

    You see, I’m with the MCC: I’m an openly gay christian. I’ve seen the issue from both sides.

    Get it yet? Homophobia is a global issue, as at home with non-religious as it is with the religious.

    So I would recommend you get a little perspective and look in the mirror before you start pointing fingers, sunshine.


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