In the past few weeks, six teenagers, some as young as thirteen, killed themselves after being taunted by peers for being gay. These deaths are heartbreaking and senseless.
Adolescence is a time of physical, emotional, mental, and sexual upheaval. It’s when young men begin constructing their fantastically fragile sense of masculinity. They do it by internalizing opinions and behaviors gleaned from influences near and far, from not just family, friends, neighbors, coaches, and teachers, but movies, TV, the Internet, and video games.
For some boys, a man is someone who wins. Their approach to life is to prevail in the classroom, on the playing field, and in the school hallways. For those boys born natural leaders, this competitive spirit is leavened with compassion and an intuitive grasp of what makes people tick. Great leaders understand, rather than fear, others.
For others, winning is less important than doing or creating. This doesn’t mean guys who fix cars or write short stories aren’t competitive; some want to be the best mechanics or writers. It just means that, to them, undertaking a task or creating something is more pleasurable than simply dominating a person or a situation.
Appropriately channeling the competitive spirit is tricky business. What about the hyper-competitive boy who repeatedly fails to taste victory? He’s frustrated, and sees himself as a loser. Depending on his personality type and his upbringing, this misperceived weakness may foment a desire to project and feel strength. He attempts to create a win-win world by attacking someone “weak”—usually young males who are by nature gentler, shyer, and emotionally more sensitive than the norm.
There you have your bully.
Picking on a “weak” target ensures that the bully will win, although he’s engineered a lopsided fight. So whether or not he is capable of acknowledging it explicitly to himself, he may still feel like a fraud—or worse, a coward. This feeling further fuels his outward projection of rage and self-hate, and so the cycle continues.
Add to this volatile concoction the bedlam of budding sexuality and you have a possibly violent—and potentially deadly—combination.
By puberty (or before it), most of us know who we’re attracted to. Our bodies sort it out when our minds cannot. Some males are born heterosexual. I know this to be true because I was born homosexual.
Unlike many men who come out as gay, I’ve never had sex with a woman. I’ve never even been curious about it. I can recognize that a particular woman is beautiful—even sexy; but that recognition never produces a sexual charge. (Now, if she had a brother … ) When straight friends have told me they’ve just never been curious about fooling around with guys, I believe them.
But sexuality is fluid and adolescence is hormonal. What about those boys who mostly like girls but find their eyes wandering in the locker room shower, or who know that guys, not girls, arouse them?
Those who are otherwise frustrated and ashamed of what turns them on often find ugly coping mechanisms. These closet cases have a stake in more than just figuring out a way to be “a man” by winning—they have to figure out a way to “pass” as straight.
I know this from personal experience. I am still ashamed, at age fifty-three, to say I made “fag” jokes in high school. I did it to “pass.” I never attacked anyone personally—or physically—but my joking facilitated the mental and emotional abuse of others.
If you want a surefire way to identify the closet cases, boys or men, just listen for the guy making the “fag” jokes—or supporting anti-gay legislation. I promise you, he’s the one.
Who are his adolescent victims? Whether openly gay, closeted, or heterosexual, but naturally gentle or otherwise “effeminate,” they’re the kids leading lives of mostly silent misery. Society makes it plain there’s no solution for them.
At the extreme, the peace they believe will come from ending their lives appears more attractive than living with daily bullying. The bullying itself might not be perpetual, but the shame and dread it engenders must.
But there are solutions to this conundrum.
First, we continue the national anti-bullying conversation that’s going on everywhere. Pop stars, TV figures, entertainers, and others are speaking to gay kids directly through the media, including non-filtered platforms such as YouTube. We can keep offering the message that we’re here—and though we may believe we understand completely what they’re going through, first and foremost we are here to hear.
Second, we decry bully culture from the top down: from blowhard TV “pundits,” reality-show sociopaths and anti-gay politicians, all the way to the kids in the corner of the schoolyard. Bullying is a tensile and destructive thread in America’s political and cultural discourse, and it needs to be called out and cut down.
Third, we make the conversation local as well as national. Parents and school administrators need to treat the bullying-unto-suicide situation as a crisis, because it is one. An ongoing conversation in schools—naming the behavior and offering protection to those suffering from it—is key.
It’s equally important to establish and maintain clear lines of right and wrong and consistent consequences for crossing them. Some kids report being bullied only to have school administrators ignore them, or deliver only empty promises. We can’t expect kids to feel safe and to act consistently if the adults around them don’t act consistently themselves.
Next, we need to honor everyone’s humanity. This means empathizing with the bullies—without condoning their behavior. Kids who bully are troubled kids themselves. It’s important to understand that they’re acting out of pain, and to give them space to draw out that pain in ways that can transform it positively.
Finally, adults have to model some level of integrity in word and deed. No one is born a bully; the behavior is learned. If a father bullies his son, that kid is likely to mirror the behavior. If a coach berates his players by calling them “a bunch of girls” or “sissies,” he’s teaching them that gentle people—whether male or female—are to be hated.
It is especially vital that fathers and mentors guide their boys with great care and love through adolescence. To do so is to be—and to help create—a decent man. True power and leadership are borne from understanding; to create powerful young men is to promote understanding, and it has the potential to save lives.