For the last few days, an “educational analyst” for Focus on the Family has been getting a lot of press. She’s been suggesting that anti-bullying efforts that draw attention to the harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students are part of a “gay agenda” to “sneak homosexuality lessons into classrooms.”
One can argue, as some have, that Focus on the Family is a fringe group that doesn’t represent the majority of Christians in the United States. That’s true. But it’s also true that Focus on the Family has an outsized impact on conservative thought in this country. And by using deception and spin, the group has managed this week to grab the media spotlight. The goal is apparently to make schools less safe for LGBT students and more safe for their harassers. That cannot be ignored.
It’s also impossible to ignore Focus on the Family’s smarmy tactics. Taking a page out of George Orwell, the group has developed a website for parents designed to “challenge the monopoly.” They’ve named it TrueTolerance.org. Sound familiar?
Teaching Tolerance has been fighting for children and teachers for 20 years. We can say with certainty that the Focus on the Family campaign has nothing to do with tolerance. And it has nothing to do with keeping children safe. The harassment of LGBT students is rampant and destructive, as has been detailed in the new Teaching Tolerance documentary, Bullied: A School, a Student and a Case that Made History. This film tells the story of Jamie Nabozny, a gay student who was tormented and beaten by bullies while school officials steadfastly looked the other way.
Be assured of one thing: Today, thousands of other LGBT students face this same hell just by going to class. Focus on the Family admits that 30 percent of American children report being involved in bullying at school. But all the evidence shows that LGBT students are disproportionately represented in that 30 percent.
According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), 86 percent of LGBT students report being bullied - a rate almost three times higher than students in general. The federal government reports that openly gay and lesbian students are at an even higher risk of bias-related violence and physical assaults. Lesbian, gay and bisexual adolescents are more than twice as likely as their straight peers to be depressed and contemplate suicide. More than 60 percent report feeling unsafe at school.
But we don’t need statistics to tell us this. Anyone who has spent any time in a school, especially a middle school, knows that the words “gay” and “faggot” are hurled casually—and they are not intended to be kind. Students who are gay, lesbian or questioning live in fear of exposure. Others dread the ridicule that comes with being seen as different, and may side with the bullies, or decline to stand up for the harassed, out of self-preservation. The people at Focus on the Family know this as well and they want to keep it that way. The group has its own agenda that could be roughly boiled down to three points:
- LGBT students should be invisible. The group argues, with absolutely no evidence, that generic anti-bullying policies that don’t name LGBT bullying are “most effective.” GLSEN, on the other hand, offers plenty of data to show just the opposite. Schools become safer for everyone when they adopt anti-bullying policies that spell out the categories of students most frequently targeted by bullies—including race, religion, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.
- LGBT allies should be silent. Focus on the Family says essentially, “Don’t focus on the victim, focus on the bad behavior of the bully.” But handling each bullying event in isolation ignores the environment in which bullying breeds. Bullying usually begins with name-calling and then escalates. It escalates because too often neither the school staff nor the other students realize that they have a role in stopping it. Bullying thrives amid passive bystanders.
- School administrators and teachers should be very, very afraid. After terrifying parents that their kindergarteners are soon to be the target of homosexual indoctrination, TrueTolerance.org offers up a menu of deception designed to rally the forces of fear. Parents—armed with misinformation about their taxpayer rights, screwy science about childhood sexuality and bad legal advice—are urged to apply pressure. The group knows that fearful administrators will want to avoid trouble, so teachers will find it harder to stop LGBT harassment.
Focus on the Family’s biggest fear is that schools will reflect a diverse U.S. society—one that includes LGBT students. They do not want to be challenged in their belief that homosexuality is immoral, abnormal and changeable.
We don’t expect to change those personal beliefs. Simply put, our goal is to ask those who would ignore the pain and suffering of these children to understand that acknowledging the problem of anti-LGBT bullying—and wanting to make schools safe from harassment for all students—doesn’t require that you approve. At the risk of sounding pedantic, we would remind them that living in a democratic and diverse society means living alongside people with whom you disagree
The alternative is to stay silent and stand by while terrible things happen to other people’s children. Terrible things that no parent would ever want to happen to his or her own child.
We are glad to stand up for LGBT students and we will not rest until educators across the country do so as well. We are glad to work with groups like GLSEN, PFLAG and Welcoming Schools (a project of the Human Rights Campaign), three of the “gay activist” organizations Focus on the Family is gunning for. And we are proud that they have endorsed the movie “Bullied” as a tool for fighting against anti-gay bigotry.
Costello is the director of Teaching Tolerance.