As I watched an episode of Extreme Makeover Home Edition, I was overtaken by emotion.
The episode featured a story of Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old African-American boy who hanged himself after constant bullying from others who accused him of being gay. I am sure everyone can sympathize with a senseless loss of a child’s life, but my tears were for more than sympathy. I could empathize with that little boy.
Memories flooded me of dodging the cafeteria to go to my library escape, something I didn’t tell my parents growing up. They often wondered why I came home hungry. I got flashbacks of the girl in the hallway calling me “a baldhead b-word” for no apparent reason.
I relived memories of seeing my oldest brother being chased home by the neighborhood “cool kids” because he would rather write a beautiful poem than pretend to be cool.
My brother, a sensitive boy in tune with his emotions, now stands more than 6 feet tall and is still as good a writer and sensitive a guy as he once was. I doubt, however, some of those same guys would even lift a look his way now out of fear. And the ladies love him. He has no problem there.
I am not 100 percent sure why my brother and I were bullied, but I can assume that it was because we fit outside the societal norm, just as Carl was viewed as being outside of his gender norm — he was seen as gay.
As parents, we tell our children to be nice to the kids with less money. We tell them to embrace the racial “other” and to respect the nerdy kid. But when there is a kid who’s believed to be gay, we participate in the bashing. (I don’t personally, but I will address this in the collective.)
This is no time to point the finger. That perceived gay kid seems to lose all human rights because of certain mannerisms or inflections in his or her voice. The point I am trying to make is that this is not a sexuality issue. Perceptions often deviate from reality.
This is about lives being lost because of misconceptions that are often perpetuated by parents. Parents are allowing and in some ways causing this generation of suicides due to bullying, specifically when it comes to real or perceived sexuality. These bullied little kids are often not yet engaging in any kind of sexual behaviors.
At a diversity conference held at Richland Community College in Decatur, I was fortunate to hear Dorothy L. Espelage. She’s an expert on bullying and professor in educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She shared her research on the correlation between bullying and homophobia.
In one of her articles, she highlights some statistics that show adults’ involvement in the bullying crises.
According to the article, “91.4 percent of a LGBT middle/ high school sample reported that they sometimes or frequently heard homophobic remarks in school, such as faggot, dyke or queer. Of these students, 99.4 percent said they heard remarks from students, and 63 percent heard remarks from faculty or school staff.”
As parents, it’s important for us to protect our children and other people’s children. We must model behavior that will ensure a safe environment for our kids to grow and become the great explorers, entrepreneurs and successful adults we want them to become.
Imagine if some of the great African Americans whose poetry and literature we hold dear would have died at age 11 because of their sexuality or perceived sexuality.
Imagine what Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover would have become. As a community of African Americans, parents, teachers and fellow human beings, we need to do a better job of protecting our children. I know that even bringing up this issue may further push me outside of the societal norm, but I’ve become quite accustomed to it – and it isn’t so bad out here.
I am privileged to be able to be alive to speak on such an issue, and I owe it to that little boy who felt so hurt that he felt his only recourse was to hang himself.
This isn’t a gay issue. It is a responsibility issue.