Anti-Gay Bullying, Suicide and the Need for Empathy

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September has been a grim month.  Three boys—15-year old Billy Lucas in Indiana, and 13-year olds Asher Brown in Texas and Seth Walsh in California—took their own lives after being subjected to relentless anti-gay bullying in school. 

And then, just one day before this miserable September ended, news came of another tragedy. This time, Tyler Clementi, an 18-year old college student, believed it was better to jump off the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River 600 feet below rather than live through being outed and humiliated at the hands of his homophobic roommate who streamed video of Tyler’s sexual encounter with a “dude” for the world to see.   

I suppose the best one could hope for is that the roommate now understands that it was a stupid, terrible impulse on which to act. And that he knows, now, that a single stupid act can have unimaginable consequences that rip a jagged tear through time and people’s lives.  

A few months ago, researchers at the University of Michigan issued a study reporting that today’s college students display significantly less empathy than their peers from 30 years ago. Their data showed that the decline had grown precipitously in the last 10 years. They speculated that overexposure to media had desensitized an entire generation.

I did not want to believe the study. I did not want to believe that a rising generation had less empathy than those that came before. I did not want to believe that new technology, which holds such promise for forging new communities, would instead desensitize its natives to the humanity around them.

But I wonder. A colleague told me about a website popular with the students in the college class she teaches. I will not name it. It features a person who deliberately race-baits and pulls “pranks” on marginalized people. Gleefully, her students described the episode in which the protagonist, posing as a contractor, packs his truck with Latino day laborers, makes hateful remarks during the ride that they don’t understand, pulls up to a federal immigration office and tells them to get out, this is where the work is.  He then removes a whistle from his pocket and blows it loudly. The pay-off for viewers, the boffo moment, is the sight of the workers scurrying off in all directions.  

Some will say that the audience for this sort of entertainment—and for the illicit sex video filmed in a college dorm room—are sophomoric college students who will, in time grow up and become responsible adults.

Let’s hope so. And let’s dedicate ourselves anew to the work needed to make it more than a hope.  

Costello is the director of Teaching Tolerance.

Comments

To be empathetic and

Submitted by Pat on 10 October 2010 - 12:20pm.

To be empathetic and understanding of the feelings of others is something we all should do out of love for our fellow man. We should be caring and loving to get to the root causes of suffering. We must face the truth without compromise, in a loving way, but not waver in showing them the truth of the error of there way, or the cause of there suffering, and to help them rectify themselves in a loving way. In an example, those who make choices concerning morality that may affect them in a negative way, they must realise these choices may cause them embarrassment or shame or even ridicule, for there decisions, which will be judged by there peers. But when decisions are made which go against there own truth, where embarrassment and self persecution results, they should be helped with caring and love, so they do see how there choices led them to this place they did not want not be in, and the consequences of them, so they can learn and deal with there self generated consequences, and to show them how the way out of future self persecution is to remove the choices which prevent the possibility of making another decision of the same, by removing the choice, but not ones self. It stands to reason, that something is wrong with the choice's offered, if they cause us ill feelings as a possible consequence, especially if these choices go against ones own sense of truth. If we know something is wrong in our heart, we should not allow ourselves to be talked into it, and be firm in the truth within you. It is a disservice to man, in trying to remove the consequences of what one feels is wrong, as it is only denying the truth, and it does not make what is wrong, into something right, because the truth is within us, and denying truth only serves the moment, but causes hardship in the end. We must raise our children with good moral values which would prevent the consequences of ones own conviction. Perhaps the teachings of Jesus had it right after all, as sin does lead to heartache and suffering, by our own conviction.

Wow, I guess it a gay

Submitted by Richard on 11 October 2010 - 6:25pm.

Wow, I guess it a gay person's fault for being bullied. Becouse if he or she was not gay then people would not be making fun of them. If they did not make that choice then those bullies would leave them alone. If they did not choose that sinful life style those good christian boys and girls would not have to beat them senseless and try to turn them to God. I bet you might also beleive that african americans in the 1950's would not have been lynched if they just were not black. But of course we will hear that they did not have the choice to be black. Whatever happened to what Jesus taught, "Treat your neighbors as yourself"?

Being gay is not a "choice."

Submitted by Catholic#1 on 19 October 2010 - 4:30pm.

Being gay is not a "choice." It's absoloutely terrible that you would go so far as to say "I guess it a gay person's fault for being bullied." With all the anti-gay hate there is today, why on earth would anyone choose to be gay? And allow me to correct you- "good" Christian boys and girls don't beat others senseless. There is nothing wrong with being gay. And before you pull out the "you're an aetheist you don't know about this" on me, let me say that I am as devout of a Christian as you'll meet. That, in fact, is the reason I accept gays. Nowhere in a legitamate copy of the bible does it plainly say that being gay is "sinful" or "wrong." That's all a load of misinterpretation. So perhaps YOU, Richard, should "Treat your neighbors as yourself."

I think Richard was being

Submitted by Eric on 1 December 2010 - 1:11pm.

I think Richard was being sarcastic and merely pointing out the fact that he viewed the previous post as wrong and hypocritical.

Did you have to include this

Submitted by Phil V. on 30 September 2010 - 10:54pm.

Did you have to include this part? "I suppose the best one could hope for is that the roommate now understands that it was a stupid, terrible impulse on which to act. And that he knows, now, that a single stupid act can have unimaginable consequences that rip a jagged tear through time and people’s lives."
The only thing you've done is to foster more hate and finger-pointing. It distracts us from finding a solution to finding someone to blame. The healing process starts with forgiveness and you should be encouraging that. Jeez! You make it sound like you were the perfect adolescent and never hurt anyone or broke any rules.
It never ceases to amaze me how "grown-ups" forget that they too were young and stupid once. They look at children and young adults as if they're a different race. Get real people! These "stupid kids" (including that "dumb-ass roommate" as Richard Gregory put it) that you're so critical of...? They are redeemable, even in cases as tragic as this.

I read that part a little

Submitted by Laura on 1 October 2010 - 3:23pm.

I read that part a little differently than Phil. To my mind, the writer was trying to suggest what good could come out of a tragic event. I can see why Phil would read it as he did, but I didn't see it as unforgiving finger-pointing. The truth is, it was a tragic event, and there are many contributors to it, including the thoughtless person who seized the opportunity that invading someone's privacy gave him. I have been thinking a lot about that person, and how wretched he must be feeling. I sincerely hope the people who love him are taking good care of him, because unless he is a heartless, soulless monster, he must be choking on his actions, and I can't imagine he's sleeping or functioning very well.

We will never know what these

Submitted by Susan on 30 September 2010 - 9:52pm.

We will never know what these young men might have achieved.

The one positive note is that more people are aware of the extent and consequences of the bullying of kids who are gay or perceived to be gay or to be vulnerable or different. I've seen many thoughtful comments posted by readers of newspaper articles about these tragedies. In addition, Ellen deGeneres did a commentary that is available online and is being shared via social media sites.

I hope that schools will add and enforce rules prohibiting the use of electronic devices to record and broadcast the activities of others without their permission.

So very, very sad...and

Submitted by Richard Gregory on 30 September 2010 - 4:28pm.

So very, very sad...and senseless.I can't even imagine this poor young mans parents grief. Too bad the dumb-ass roommate can't be criminally charged with manslaughter & sent away for, say about 20 years or so.

Please make sure that all

Submitted by Shelley Young on 30 September 2010 - 2:56pm.

Please make sure that all your info here is correct. I do believe that one of the young men that you listed by name might not have been gay and that there were other issues with the bullying that happened in the school. There was much publicity on this and it is possible that there is some misinformation within the media.

Only two of the young men,

Submitted by Maureen Costello on 30 September 2010 - 3:52pm.

Only two of the young men, according to media reports, were openly gay. But all three mentioned in the first paragraph, to the best of our knowledge, were harassed with anti-gay taunts. Anti-LGBT bullying isn't limited to students who are in fact gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. It can be aimed at people who are perceived to be LGBT. It's used against kids who don't conform to a narrow notion of what being masculine or feminine are supposed to be. What these bullying episodes have in common is fear and loathing of LGBT people.

Discussed with Asst. Attorney

Submitted by Feed Up MI Resident on 30 September 2010 - 1:58pm.

Discussed with Asst. Attorney General in Michigan (who is a University of Michigan Alumni):

http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2010/09/homophobic_harassing_assistant.html

Homophobic Assistant Attorney General Gets to Keep His Job Despite Harassing Student President

When the news first came to light that Andrew Shirvell, an assistant attorney general in Michigan, had been waging a hostile, unprovoked campaign against Chris Armstrong, the University of Michigan's gay student-assembly president, Shirvell's employers mostly stayed mum. Attorney General Mike Cox declined to comment except to note Shirvell's "immaturity and lack of judgment outside the office." Last night, on AC360°, Cox emphasized again that Shirvell's actions against Armstrong are extracurricular, adding that Shirvell is within his rights to be a bigot and that he'll continue to work at the attorney general's office.

Calling Shirvell a "frontline grunt assistant prosecutor" who does satisfactory work, Cox said that according to the rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court, Michigan Supreme Court, and the state's civil-service regulations, Shirvell wasn't doing anything wrong by pasting a swastika and a gay flag over a photo of Armstrong's face or calling Armstrong "Satan's representative" when he protested outside the student's house. Said Cox:

"Here in America, we have this thing called the First Amendment, which allows people to express what they think and engage in political and social speech. He's clearly a bully ... but is that protected under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution? Yes."

Shirvell might be within his legal rights to hate-blog and peaceful protest. But shouldn't a legal representative for the state of Michigan, especially one associated with public prosecutions, have a vested interest in fairness and justice even for people unlike himself? Or did Shirvell bring his legal training to bear to make sure his actions appear impeachable?

Michigan attorney general defends employee's right to blog [CNN]

What a sad state of affairs - I don't believe 1st amendment rights should tolerate hate, especially from a person in a position of power.

Tragedy on the

Submitted by Deciminyan on 30 September 2010 - 1:53pm.

Tragedy on the Banks:
http://www.deciminyan.org/2010/09/tragedy-on-banks.html