Yesterday, in a New York Times article titled, “In Suburb, Battle Goes Public on Bullying of Gay Students,” Erik Eckholm reports that, in the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, eight student suicides have taken place within the last two years. Four of those students who committed suicide had been struggling with their sexual identity. While suicide rates among LGBTQ youth have always been high (studies cite between a 30-42% suicide rate among gay kids), the fact that so many suicides have occurred within such a short period of time is disturbing. What’s particularly important to note is that the Anoka-Hennepin school district lies within Michelle Bachmann’s Congressional district. And therein lies the backdrop to the suicide contagion we’re seeing within this school district.
Michelle Bachmann and her husband, Marcus Bachmann, run a Christian counseling center that has been accused of providing “conversion therapy” to clients. While those allegations haven’t been clearly substantiated, Michelle Bachmann’s attitudes towards homosexuality leak out in her words. For example, in 2004 Bachmann was quoted as saying, “We need to have profound compassion for people who are dealing with the very real issue of sexual dysfunction in their life and sexual identity disorders” (emphasis mine). That homosexuality-as-pathology belief system has infiltrated the public school system, contributing to a heated debate resulting in a “gag order” on any discussion involving sexual orientation. More specifically, the Anoka-Hennepin school district has adopted a policy of “neutrality” regarding sexual orientation, stipulating that sexual orientation should not be taught in the schools in any way, and that school personnel shall remain neutral on issues involving sexual diversity. Although this seems on the surface to be the best “agree-t0-disagree” solution, I think it’s important to question whether a “neutrality” stance is truly neutral.
Anti-gay bullying is not a new phenomenon. High schools have been something of a battleground for gay teens (or teens who are perceived to be gay, regardless of their true sexual orientation). Teens repeatedly say things like, “That’s so gay!” They bully gay kids by using anti-gay epithets against them. LGBT teens get verbally harassed and physically assaulted, and they are routinely subjected to intimidation tactics. According to one study, 80% of gay youth are subjected to verbal harassment, 45% are threatened with physical violence, and 20% are physically assaulted. And sadly, many of these incidents – particularly those incidents involving anti-gay comments and name-calling, and incidents involving intimidation – result in no intervention whatsoever by school personnel. It’s not just the Anoka-Hennepin School District that practices a code of silence around LGBT bullying – it’s almost every school district in the country. And yet, when we stay silent about bullying, discrimination, and oppression, we are ultimately engaging in complicity. Sadly, the LGBT students end up being collateral damage.
What the “neutrality” policy does, in essence, is that it contributes to a hostile campus climate. It also straitjackets teachers who want to intervene on behalf of LGBT students. And it shuts down any potential for conversation.
I’m reminded of a distinction made by Gregory Herek, professor of psychology at UC Davis, who has conducted scores of research studies on sexual prejudice. In his arguments in support of overturning the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, Herek underscores the difference between social cohesion and task cohesion. Social cohesion involves liking each other and forming close personal and emotional bonds. Task cohesion, on the other hand, refers to the shared commitment among group members to work towards a common goal. It seems to me that public schools need to step up to the plate and engage in task cohesion regarding ensuring the personal safety and respect of all students. And ensuring that personal safety requires that school personnel be able to exercise the right to intervene when an anti-gay bullying incident is occuring (or, for that matter, any bullying incident). A policy of neutrality does nothing to achieve that goal.