Unpacking bullying

In the early aughts I had occasion to explore the offices of the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington, DC. By law, these folks must investigate every plane accident that happens in the country, even the very minor ones. It’s up to their discretion if they examine a railroad incident, car accident, metro train derailing, and so on, but of course they have all of the equipment they need to deconstruct the physical remnants of these human tragedies if they opt to take on a case. It comes down to the seriousness of the event and the staff resources at that moment.

NTSB has an electron scanning microscope to look at the tiniest of details. They have a long room with a narrow table in the middle that on any given day could support twisted metal, rows of running lights—NTSB can tell if the lights were on or not in a plane as it crashed—or reconstructed fuselage segments. They have a locked room for the replaying of the black boxes, which are themselves bright orange. And the shelves that house hundreds of these neon rectangles sometimes return to my memory like unsettled ghosts.

The reason I bring up NTSB is because even for its main limitation—that exploring transportation incidents mean an accident already occurred—it is evidence that the government is invested in human survival. People who died on a plane came from anywhere, were any age, were not necessarily citizens of the United States, were not necessarily flying aircraft made by the U.S., represent all races and ethnicities, were all over the spectrum of gender presentation, religion, sexual orientation, they were all of us. And while our investigations mean that they were maimed or killed, they happened to have met their traumas while in our country, and we will at least look at the why of it all, even if we do it squirreled behind lots of number-locked doors.

What this also means is that we now have, as a country, a database (well, we have more than one) on the kinds of factors that are generally, more or less, involved in airline incidents. And we can extrapolate from these moments in our attempts to limit future failures. That’s at least one benefit of reactively collecting data on these deaths.

We also have, in the halls of our federal-level mental health agencies, data on the factors surrounding people’s decisions to commit suicide. We know that there are internal and external forces, everything from moderate to severe levels of depression, an inability to envision any upcoming betterment of one’s circumstances, self-directed anger, financial circumstances, societal messages, access to a means of certain or likely death, and so on. Yes, as a country we have collected data on suicide, but as a collective of people we seem to know a lot more about airplane crashes than why people kill themselves.

One of the latest topics du jour is LGBT youth suicide, and as soon as we start conversing in our shared realm of popular culture, we bring up bullies. It’s about bullying. It’s attributable to seeing your gay sexual encounter online for all of your classmates to see. It’s a simple cause-and-effect that being outed so painfully and with such humiliation would of course lead to jumping off a bridge. As a friend put it last night, there must be something more in the case of Tyler Clementi. No, it’s not as cut and dry as becoming upset and leaping to one’s death. There are many, many gay and trans people who are outed in these most foul fashions and they still walk among us.

I want to put some pressure on some of the ideas swirling around this month about LGBT and youth suicide, and I’m separating those by intention. But let me say first: I am so glad we’re having any conversation at all about suicide and the lived experience of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people. I appreciate not talking about same-sex marriage and whether gays should be able to serve in the military. The survival of LGBT people has been near and dear to my heart for 20+ years now, and it’s been hard as hell to get a national dialogue going, especially without painting some desolate picture of our lives. We have finally gotten past the “but aren’t you afraid of getting AIDS” question when we come out. Well, sometimes we have.

Yes, I’m happy we’re talking about how to help LGBT youth survive. But I think we’re boiling it down to bad cases of the bullies, and I wonder if that’s not a limiting practice, because:

  1. Bullying happens for all kinds of reasons and deserves its own systemic inquiry
  2. Bullying as our primary or main focus distracts us from the other external forces at play in suicide, and warps the theory of suicide, leading us away from more effective responses for moving forward
  3. Bullying sets us up to understand suicide incidents as local incidents first and foremost, taking away from our ability to find patterns and new ways of thinking about prevention
  4. Bullying asks us to frame these incidents using a criminal justice model instead of a mental health model for victims, their families, and the bullies themselves
  5. Bullying overshadows suicides that didn’t occur as a direct or indirect result from harassment, and makes less visible non-physical or assumed disapproval from others
  6. Bullying gives us an easy answer when almost certainly more complex systems are at play

Scott Farkus from A Christmas StoryLet’s not run out into the streets and shout that Everett doesn’t care about bullies and the damage they cause to young lives. Of course I care. I’ve been the target of bullies myself and I’m thankful that at 40, I have to deal with fewer of them on a regular basis. But I don’t want to let culture off the hook here. We want to point to Biff and say, clearly, he’s the bully. But it’s folly to think bullying plays out so easily.

Masculine girls and effeminate boys are called out all the time for not fitting neatly enough into their gendered boxes, and it’s early on, when kids are figuring out how things work, noticing that there are power dynamics among children, asking questions that could be hostile or could simply be read as hostile. Some boys treat girls they like with great cruelty, suggesting something about how we teach masculinity and male-branded communication. When a child decides to say something mean, they’re not necessarily (or often, for that matter) selecting a castigating remark based on what they think is the best “fit” for that target; they go straight for the thing they think is most hurtful. Often, that is a gay slur. They didn’t invent epithets, we adults taught it to them. We also showed them how to use these words with the sharpest points and manner of presentation possible. When we focus on bullies, we seem to forget that we ourselves are implicated in their behavior.

We also affect how we think about bullies by focusing only on two extreme responses: the kids who commit suicide, and the kids who then hurt or kill other kids, as in the Columbine school massacre. But there are a whole host of other responses that get no media attention, and thus only a thin slice of the conversation. These are the kids who walk around with self-hatred, who insist they’re not gay for years longer than they may have otherwise, who become bitter or dysfunctional, who join ex-gay or gay reformer organizations, and so on, and that is another big price to pay for avoiding a subject or looking at only a few aspects of it.

We need to be more honest about LGBT/youth/LGBT youth suicide, because we care about human life and living it with happiness. This means we need to get honest with ourselves about how well we support our youngest generations’ emotional needs, and what we’re willing to do to make material improvements in their lives.

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5 Comments on “Unpacking bullying”

  1. Kramer
    October 12, 2010 at 12:52 pm #

    I think we can see the effects of culture pretty clearly in Zack Harrington’s suicide. Even though no one was targeting Zack at the time, being the subject of constant contempt is not good for you.

    • evmaroon
      October 12, 2010 at 12:58 pm #

      Thanks for this, Kramer. Yes, we have way more evidence than we need to step away from our focus on bullying, and looking at teen suicide more systematically.


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    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jason, Everett M. Everett M said: Bullying and LGBT suicide are more complex than we give them credit for. Unpacking bullying: http://t.co/xY7pvVj […]

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