Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Battle For Our Lives

Earlier this week, I got an email about a young lesbian in a small town in Oklahoma who has been harassed for years, and not just verbally. She's reportedly been "run over by a car, cornered by a football team, her family completely abandoned by the entire town." She fought back for ages, thinking her struggle would make it easier for the kids that followed her, but she finally dropped out of high school when her mother was recently diagnosed with a serious illness. It was the last straw, but shouldn't have been.

There's been anti-bullying legislation in Oklahoma for several years. It was even updated in 2002, and 2008 when they included a provision for electronic harassment on social networking sites like Facebook. Every school district is required to have a Safe School Committee. Every district is supposed to have their own anti-bullying policies and programs, though with the caveat, "Nothing in this act shall be construed to impose a specific liability on any school district."

The problem is enforcement. Without an educated staff committed to safe schools, or a powerful LGBT community willing to make a ruckus, embarrass themselves or their opponents to put policies in effect, laws are nothing but squiggles on paper that betray LGBT children.

Tortured with impunity, a lot of queer kids skip class, skip school. Some drop out. Some kill themselves, which is when we finally hear about the years and years of bullying. If they stick it out, many queer students graduate as walking wounded, with faulty educations that don't prepare them for work or college where they might finally get a chance to flower.

It's our fault, and the fault of our national organizations that increasingly focus on passing laws and winning court cases. We rejoiced a couple weeks ago when the California court overturned Proposition 8 which banned same-sex marriage, and ignored how our earlier loss at the ballot meant we squandered a gazillion dollars and the perfect chance to educate and persuade Californians that lesbian and gay families are perfectly normal, and weren't going to bring traditional marriages crashing to the ground (unless they were already in freefall).

Now, we have the right to get married again, but California society hasn't changed. We didn't do the work, and all those queers still have to live next to the same straight neighbors who voted for their second class citizenship, and go to work next to the same hateful hets that wanted to grind them under their boots.

Worse, queer kids are still stuck in school with barbarian students that see them not just as pervs, but pervs with special rights protected by a liberal activist court guided by a Muslim mafia and probably the Jews. They don't even get the benefits of same-sex marriage, not for yonks. A law got changed, not minds. The shame is we had the chance to do both.

The underlying failure of the Prop H8 campaign wasn't just at the polls, but in the minds of organizers that saw stopping the measure as an end unto itself, not part of the larger battle to change society's perceptions of LGBT people, and create a strong, visible LGBT community that would be ready, win or lose, for all our other battles including bullying in school.

That will never be resolved by laws alone, but active participation from strong communities. And like so many issues related to hate and violence, the stakes aren't just high for LGBT kids, but for their tormentors, and everybody else on the sidelines.

Bullying children grow up to be bullying adults. In America, we don't have public debates anymore, but fear-mongering, name-calling, and hate-fests. Instead of beating somebody up in the locker room, we stick a knife in them in a cab. Mobs take to talk radio and tea parties. The bullies may not run the school yet, but they're damn close.

More and more, the LGBT fight for legal equality, community, and respect represents not just a battle for our lives, but for that embarrassing word "democracy," and the country's own soul.

There must be some good left in it, even in small towns in Oklahoma where extremely traditional life revolves around football, cheerleading, the county fair, watermelon festival, livestock judging, and lately, dyke-bashing.

Activists would do well to keep their strategies in perspective by considering what serves us all, not just middle-class, middle-aged folks ready to settle down. They could start by remembering what it's like to be a queer kid at the complete and utter mercy of our schoolmates, teachers, pastors, preachers, neighbors, siblings, and parents. Your courthouses and laws are nothing compared to them, and the only counterbalance is vigilance, and a strong community.

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