In the ominous news of the week last week, the Michigan Senate attached an exception to an anti-bullying law that was working its way through the state legislature. That’s right, an exception for bullying youth. The text of the exception read:
This section does not prohibit a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil and parent or guardian.
To clarify, the state senators wanted to exempt any individual who stated they were using their “sincerely held” religious or moral belief to bully others. This represents nothing less than another over-the-line moment of an increasingly strict fundamentalist, conservative few attempting to dictate its values to the rest of the country. In context with the attempt to redefine personhood in Mississippi (which failed on election day), destroy collective bargaining rights, and undermine the federal budget with still more tax cuts for corporations, the ability of state senators to validate harassment against children is a fine example of just how off the rails the GOP has ventured.
Looking at the problem of hostility in America and our legislative system, however, I worry that uber-conservatives have taken a few lessons from the progressive left. The language “sincerely held” preceding “belief” and “conviction” is included in several regulations and laws that protect gender variant people. When I was working with the DC Trans Coalition on amending that city’s human rights act, we talked about using “sincerely held” identities as the benchmark for creating a class of people deserving of protection. It’s not that a man in a dress can walk into a women’s room, or so went our defense against conservative hysteria, we’re talking about protecting people who sincerely identify as transgender or who sincerely need to express their gender in a way that doesn’t comport with their assigned sex at birth.
Oh so careful was our word choice. And oh so easily do words get taken up for entirely different purposes. So let’s examine this beyond words.
In saying that an individual’s sincerely held beliefs give them the right or privilege to harass, mock, insult, tease, taunt, intimidate, or humiliate another person, we have warped both the concept of sincerity and of the religion or morality one would espouse that allows for such behavior. Where is it, after all, in any mainstream religion, this directive to bully others? When does a person’s right for something end and another’s to be free of something begin?
Held against the right of a child to be protected against bullying–when all peer-reviewed and accepted scientific evidence suggests that such protections are critical for the well-being and future success of that child–how can a legislature endowed to do right by all of the people in its jurisdiction, find themselves writing such hurtful exceptions into a protection law?
In the last week–and here I should mention that the House in Michigan removed this exception from the bill after the Senate inserted it–two 10-year-olds have committed suicide due to bullying. Ten, both girls. One girl in Illinois saw her bullying increase after she got a short haircut, and in North Carolina, the other girl told people shortly before she hung herself that she saw no way out from the teasing.
So tell me, would these children understand the difference between being bullied from someone who holds a “sincere” religious or moral belief, and someone who bullies ad hoc? That’s the level of ridiculousness that the Michigan Senate GOP reached last week, a.k.a. some heretofore undescribed circle of Hell.
Next question: Where is Dan Savage on these latest deaths, one of which is almost certainly gender-related? He keeps insisting, through two glitterbombing incidents now, that he is not transphobic. It could do wonders for his image for him to step forward and renew his commitment to It Gets Better, or Make It Better, or The Trevor Project. Instead, silence.
I thank the Michigan House delegates for being reasonable and striking such offensive language and ideas from the anti-bullying legislation. Meanwhile, the LGBT community, as cobbled together as it is, needs much, much better spokespeople for our youngest generation.
The stakes for us could not be any higher.