I've been bothered for awhile by the way in which violent homophobia is now being folded into "bullying." I think Gabriel Arana gets at why:
As the discussion about gay-teen suicide has radiated outward, it's stopped being about gay teens. Kim Kardashian has a video relaying how hurt she was at online comments calling her fat. Ezra Klein's video discusses how he was called a nerd in high school. Even Obama's video steers clear of too much talk about gay people, safely focusing on the hurt that comes with "being different or ... not fitting in with everybody else." The public conversation and the policy response have shifted from stopping anti-gay harassment to preventing bullying in general...
When kids bandy about the term "gay" as a slur -- or its more derogatory counterparts, "fag" and "queer" -- it bears the force of society's homophobia. It's not just the schoolyard jerk who picks on you. It's the pastor who rails against the "gay agenda" on Sunday, the parent who stands up at a city council meeting and says he moved to your city because it's "the kind of place that would never accept the GLBT community with open arms," and politicians like New York's would-be governor Carl Paladino, who on the campaign trail said things like "there is nothing to be proud of in being a dysfunctional homosexual." Even once you get past high school, you still can't get married or serve in the military, and in most states, your employer can fire you just for being gay. This is the kind of "bullying" gay kids face, and it's the kind no one's standing up to.
When I was kid, I got jumped for not walking home without enough friends, and for being in the wrong neighborhood. I got teased for everything from the texture of my hair to the vintage of my kicks. All of this was horrible, but it was very different from being bumrushed or demeaned for being gay. Every kid I knew had to take measures to secure his safety home, and I don't know a black kid today who didn't get snapped on. In West Baltimore, at least, getting jumped was democratic. Gay-bashing, not so much.
This very much puts me in the mind of Malcolm X's critique of white Northerners going South to preach and practice nonviolence among blacks. As admirable as all of that was, what was also needed was for those Northerners to preach nonviolence in Cicero and South Boston. Likewise, while handing out hugs to gay kids is admirable, it might be worth examining the beast within
I think liberals are sometimes too quick to universalize, too swift to brandish an unearned empathy. At its worse--as Arana details in his piece-- this means avoiding uncomfortable confrontations with with a violent, and societal, homophobia, with vague, moist campaigns against "bullying." I don't think I've ever encountered a neater villain. Everyone has bullied, but not everyone has felt "the force of society's homophobia" bearing down on them.
I think sometimes, we should accept that we don't understand--at least not yet. There's nothing wrong with just being angered and appalled, but not quite getting the full depth of the experience.
The chasm is real. And bridges are built. not conjured.
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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power