Strange Fruit

Commentary: Center Field

The recent suicides by hanging of two 11-year-old boys in response to anti-gay bullying — Carl Walker-Hoover in Massachusetts on April 6 and Jaheem Herrera in Georgia on April 16 — bring to mind a song first sung by Billie Holiday in 1939, describing a lynching: ”Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black body swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

There is no nice way of talking about the suicide of a child. We owe it to other anguished children to confront this problem before another child is driven to the final act of despair.

Most of us found the strength to get us through our pre-teen insecurities and peer-enforced rankings of social status, sometimes by teaming up with other nonconformists, sometimes by escaping into literature. We were lucky. Children who are not blessed with the same defenses need us to defend them.

It’s not just that adults who know better remain silent about bullying, but that many at some level agree with the playground taunts. It is as if the destruction of some children is accepted as a cost of maintaining gender norms — arbitrary, often stifling standards to which some cannot begin to conform.

Judith Warner wrote in her New York Times blog on April 16, ”Being called a ‘fag’ … actually has almost nothing to do with being gay. It’s really about showing any perceived weakness or femininity — by being emotional, seeming incompetent, caring too much about clothing, liking to dance…. The message … is being heard loud and clear: to be something other than the narrowest, stupidest sort of guy’s guy, is to be unworthy of even being alive.”

What Ms. Warner glides past with that first sentence is that anti-gay epithets are the worst thing children can think of to call someone they want to hurt. They did not think that up by themselves.

The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) confronted the problem proactively on April 17 with its National Day of Silence, which, according to dayofsilence.org, ”brings attention to anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment in schools.”

You might think that even homophobes would make a show of compassion after the recent children’s deaths. You would be wrong. Peter LaBarbera, president of the inaptly named Americans for Truth, calls the Day of Silence ”a thinly-veiled attempt to propagandize students using the time-tested technique of hyping homosexuals as victims.” He claims the real victims are anti-gay Christians. He cites a New Mexico ruling fining a photographer for discriminating against a lesbian couple, and Canadian efforts to shut down anti-gay Web sites. (The latter example overlooks the fact that America has the First Amendment.) Essentially, the religious right insists that their freedom requires enshrining their intolerant beliefs in public policy.

LaBarbera urged parents to pull their children out of school on the Day of Silence in protest against it, and repeated allegations of ”the serious health risks of homosexual behavior.” He cited a 1997 study from the International Journal of Epidemiology showing a shorter life expectancy for gay men, ignoring the fact that the study’s authors wrote to the same journal in 2001 objecting to the misuse of their findings. The study involved gay and bisexual men in Vancouver, Canada, in the 1980s and early 1990s — that is, in an urban center at the height of the AIDS epidemic. As the authors noted in 2001, ”Deaths from HIV infection have declined dramatically in this population since 1996.”

Some people make an annual donation to their alma mater. I suggest giving instead to GLSEN. The relentless lies and ridicule to which sexual minority youth — and those mistaken for them — are subjected require an organized, ongoing response.

There is so much that Carl and Jaheem will never know. Who can say what intervention, what voice of reassurance, might have made the difference between life and death, hope and despair? But we do know that suffering children are helped neither by right-wing slanders nor by school officials who regard peer harassment as normal.

We must challenge adult reinforcement of the crudest gender stereotypes, and oppose the voices of intolerance and invisibility in every state and school district. We must fight unreason with reason — not just to prevent suicides, but to help create a climate in which all children’s gifts can blossom.

Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist whose work has appeared on Salon.com and the Independent Gay Forum. He can be reached at rrosendall@starpower.net.

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