Homophobic bullying (things can only get better?)
I came across this very moving video the other day (I found it on TED, but this is the YouTube link).
Three thoughts occurred to me.
It brought back some very painful memories
Our eldest son (the Big Boy Wonder) was bullied at school because of his sexuality. For us as parents, the experience really only lasted one day. For him, there was much, much more to it. I will never forget him sitting on our sofa aged 14 sobbing uncontrollably and pleading with us never to send him back to his school. If you had asked me beforehand what my reaction would have been, I would have predicted that I would tell him he had to go back and face things, but that we would give him all possible support in doing this.
In fact I found myself saying that he wouldn’t have to go back. And he never did.
It emerged from many conversations over the next few days that the bullying had taken two forms.
There had been the sort of name-calling and harassment you would expect from meat-headed older boys. This was very public and very humiliating. Our son hadn’t come out to the world at this point, but he did attract attention by spending most of his time at school with a group of girls (who were probably beginning to attract attention of their own from the same older boys). And he also dressed far more smartly and with far greater attention to his appearance than most of his peers.
But there had also been some more complex behaviour within his friendship group, within that group of girls in fact. What seems to have happened is that the BBW confided to one or two of them that he thought he might be gay. Being fourteen year old girls, those confidants swore to keep this secret. They then promptly spread it around the rest of the group. At this point he retracted what he had said, I suspect fearing the consequences of its wider transmission.
The girls then rounded on him, not for being gay, but for changing his story. In a way which is almost unfathomable to me, they felt genuinely and deeply affronted by one of the versions (“I am gay” or “I am not gay”) having obviously been false. This was much more important to them than anything BBW may have been feeling. And from what I can work out, his life became a living hell. There isn’t anything you can do to our son likely to hurt him more than to withdraw affection, to make him lonely. This is what they did.
There are a couple of ironies in this story. The first is that BBW had one special friend, an angel of a girl who has been his life-long soul mate. If she had been around she would not have betrayed his confidence, and she may have been a refuge for him. She wasn’t around because her parents had sent her to private school the year before. They felt they had to offer her the same chance as her older brother, who had been bullied out of the same school, by similar homophobic idiots as the older boys who tormented our son (despite the fact that this other boy wasn’t gay at all).
The other irony is that BBW remained friends (in some cases, good friends) with some of the girls who had tormented him. He still counts a couple of them amongst his friends, more than ten years later. My wife has shown herself to be capable of acts of profound forgiveness at times in her life. She still struggles to forgive these girls. I don’t see it in quite the same way. Whilst the effects of what they did were awful, I don’t think they had any real idea of what they were doing. They were just being teenage girls.
It reinforced the feeling I have that, despite the seriousness of the issues we have faced as BBW’s parents, we have in fact come off relatively lightly
We spent a lot of time over the next week talking to the school. This is not some inner-city sink school, but one of the best schools in the region. Many people move into the area so that their children can go there.
We received a lot of help from one of the deputy heads, a man of many years service nearing retirement. However, the main thrust of his advice, and therefore of the school’s advice, was that if we could afford to put our son into private school (which we had indicated we could), then that would be the best course of action. This turned out to be excellent advice, but it still amazes me that it was given. There was virtually no suggestion that the bullying be tackled. The implications of this for anyone who couldn’t afford to move their child are very worrying.
Two weeks later, BBW started at a private school in the city we are nearest to. It’s a highly regarded school, and to send him there was indeed the best thing to do in the circumstances. It transpired that this school was genuinely concerned about the whole child, and in his time there BBW was encouraged to do things he might not otherwise have done (such as competitive sport, and the Duke of Edinburgh awards).
The school was also very sensitive to his issues and it had a strong pastoral system. There were one or two very isolated incidents of homophobic behaviour over the next year or two, and the school dealt with them effectively and immediately.
The pain that the bullying caused our son was profound. It is undoubtedly still with him today, and will be for years. I don’t belittle or underestimate what he went through. But when I watch Joel Burn’s video, it makes me realize how relatively lucky we have been.
If anyone reading this ever comes across homophobic bullying of any kind, I would beg you from the bottom of my heart, whatever your views might be on homosexuality or any other subject, to consider the child, consider the human being on the receiving end.
It reminded me of the strong feeling I had about my son, that one day it would come together
The change in BBW’s schooling arrangements meant that he and I spent an hour together in the car each morning over the next five years. He was obviously going through a tough time, and these journeys were sometimes the scene of arguments and parental lectures.
But they were also the scene of many, many conversations about his life and his hopes and fears. It took two or three years for him to feel completely confident about the new environment, and I often had to do what I could to reassure him about the day ahead, and to help him feel strong enough to face it.
I remember telling him one day that I did have a very strong feeling that however difficult his teenage years might be, he was growing towards a time when it would all feel very different. And I think that has been true. He is still a long way from leaving his teenage issues behind, but bullying has not been a part of his life for some years now, and I think he has lost his fear of it. Joel Burns’ words in the video are very moving, and I hope that they provide some comfort to any child or teenager who is going through what Joel, my son and so many others so sadly have to go through.