Fighting the Christian Right’s War Against Anti-Bullying Programs
The biggest bullies in the schoolyard may be certain Christian organizations on the right that expend a great deal of their time energy and fund-raising doing everything they can to make sure LGBT students don’t receive the protections of anti-bullying laws.
Their tactic is to encompass spreading information that many others see as outright lies, citing bogus statistics, and lobbying lawmakers in statehouses and the U.S. Capitol. They contend that anti-bullying legislation and programs single out gay students, according to experts EDGE interviewed.
So far, their strategy appears to be working, at least some of the time and in regions across the country.
While 49 states have anti-bullying laws on the books (Montana is the sole exception), only 14 and the District of Columbia specifically include protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. Wisconsin’s covers sexual orientation only.
Bullying has serious consequences for LGBT youth, who commit more than 30 percent of all reported teen suicides each year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In addition to bullying, causes of such suicides include lack of acceptance, abandonment and hate crimes. Christian groups and others then use such statistics to "prove" the harmfulness of the "gay lifestyle."
The progressive organization People for the American Way recently issued a report that spelled out the ways right-wing groups are blocking efforts to make schools safe for LGBTs. "It’s almost unbelievable that there are organizations dedicated to opposing anti-bullying programs, but they’re out there and stronger than ever," PFAW President Michael Keegan said in a statement. "These groups are so determined to fight every step of progress for LGBT rights that they’re willing to hurt children and teens in the process. That’s just shameful."
Opposing the Day of Silence
When it released the report, PFAW cited the Big Three anti-gay groups: the Family Research Council, the American Family Association, and Focus on the Family, as well as other religious right organizations. The report provided many examples of their tactics.
Many were shocked in 2010 when FRC President Tony Perkins, perhaps the best-known opponent of anti-bullying programs, was given space for an op-ed in the Washington Post. Perkins accused gay rights groups of "exploiting" youth suicide to push their agenda.
GLSEN, creator of the Safe Schools program, is a favorite target for Perkins and his colleagues. A favorite target of Perkins is the national Day of Silence, an annual event GLSEN organizes to call attention to bullying. The Day of Silence, held every April, has become popular with sympathetic heterosexual students as well as gay ones.
For Perkins, sees the Day of Silence as a sinister way of acclimating students to accepting homosexuality, or, "a cover for the promotion of homosexuality," as he put it in the Washington Post op-ed.
The AFA contends that the event is "destructive" event whose purpose is the "hijacking of the classroom for political purposes." The AFA has called on parents to keep their children absent from school that day. FRC, along with the Liberty Counsel, a far-right legal group, and Concerned Women for America, has called for its abolition. FRC instead promotes a counter-event, the "Day of Dialogue," which is meant to ""encourage(s) student-initiated conversations about the fact that God cares about our lives, our relationships and our sexuality."
Fighting Rightwing Christian Hate Groups
"For at least a decade religious right groups have opposed strong anti-bullying efforts protecting LGBTs because they claim falsely that it is an attempt to legitimize the ’gay lifestyle," said Rev. Barry Lynn. Lynn, a minister in the United Church of Christ and an attorney, also heads Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to preserving the U.S. Constitution’s religious liberty provisions.
"Bullying is a dangerous practice that needs to be stopped no matter who the target," Lynn told EDGE. "Anyone who has any understanding of bullying knows that this is an issue that needs to be taken by the horns and dealt with."
LGBT activists and their allies need to call the religious right’s bluff, he added: "Their arguments need to be dissected. They are a ploy to maintain the status quo and neglect the immediate needs of LGBT and other students being bullied."
Boys, both straight and gay, who don’t conform to society’s notions of masculinity risk becoming victims of bullying, said Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, a progressive magazine based in Berkeley, Calif.: "To be a real man in this society has been defined by our culture and our media as being strong, tough, independent, but not soft, gentle or kind in any way."
The Christian right takes advantage of boys who don’t fit the straight stereotype and are often harassed by welcoming them into their churches, where they can feel safe. But there’s a price to pay. "They tell them, ’But you need to explain our campaign against LGBTQ people,’" Lerner said. "They are allowed to once again reclaim a soft and caring part of their personality but at the expense of denigrating the gay community."
LGBT activists need to understand that strategy and discuss it in the public sphere, he added: "It’s not just a question of gay rights, but the right of all people to be gentle, kind and caring for others. When you frame it that way, the LGBT movement has the capacity to speak across the political spectrum and undermine the religious right’s peculiar dynamic where they simultaneously affirm what people feared when they were accused of being gay while simultaneously attacking gays."
Lerner envisions a broad movement against bullying LGBT youth that also speaks to the self-interests of straight people: "Harassment of gays and those who are perceived to be gay must be framed through the homophobia that is the backbone of American society."