Bullying of young gay men by their peers is in the news. It happens all the time in schools and on playgrounds, so often that the NBA is running a series of commercials against using the word “gay” as a slur.
Gay bashing is in the news because of two serious incidents that have become public knowledge. Dharun Ravi just received a 30-day jail sentence, because his secret videotaping of his gay college roommate at Rutgers contributed to that student’s suicide, two days after he discovered it.
This was a difficult legal case, because Ravi engaged in no physical harassment, just the broadcasting of a homosexual encounter as an expression of his own homophobia. The linkage of this social bullying to the suicide is speculative, so the sentence was light. The judge emphasized that jail time was intended for crimes of violence. Out of this tragedy comes, one hopes, a greater awareness of how homophobia at the individual level hurts its victims in ways that may be unintentional, but are nevertheless predictable.
The other incident happened long ago. At a private high school mainly for the sons of the wealthy, a group of boys attacked another boy in his room, assaulted him, and cut off his long hair. The gang was led by young Mitt Romney, who wielded the scissors and taunted his classmate. Romney also humiliated other students whom he thought were insufficiently masculine.
Romney defenders trivialize his actions with a variety of excuses: people did not use the word “gay” in the mid-1960s; homosexuality was not a big issue then; boys will be boys, especially at prep schools.
Romney said in a radio interview: “I don’t remember that incident and I certainly don’t believe that I thought the fellow was homosexual. That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s, so that was not the case. . . . I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school, and some might have gone too far, and for that I apologize.”
I went to school and college at the same time as Romney did. Homosexuality certainly was an issue for boys and young men in the 1960s. Wearing the wrong clothes, speaking in the wrong way, having the wrong haircut could earn taunts of being queer. Once you were labeled queer, it was difficult to become “straight” again, no matter how much you tried to prove your manliness.
Homosexuality was not in the news, because few men dared to reveal any sexual preference besides lust for women. But the dangers of being called “homo” were everywhere for boys. Showing artistic interests, being athletically challenged, or lisping were taken as signs by boys everywhere that one of their classmates was different in a bad way. I can’t remember any of my schoolmates who would have wanted to be seen as a homosexual, because that meant daily disdain from peers, daily comments meant to hurt, daily bullying.
But not everybody bullies. Many boys whispered that so-and-so was light in his loafers. Many boys shouted “Homo!” Many boys pointed fingers and giggled about those who did not fit the crude version of masculinity that passed for normal among adolescents in the 1960s. But gang-leading bullies, assaulting other boys who were different and laughing about it, were as rare then as they are now. I could tell lots of stories about juvenile “hijinks and pranks”, but none of them involved physical attacks, because those are not pranks, they are assaults.
How could Romney, the ringleader, have forgotten that incident? Was the physical assault on another boy so routine for him? Does he really still believe that group violence is a prank?
Bullying is currently an Illinois issue. A bill before the state legislature would have schools go beyond criticizing bullying and adopt “a bullying prevention policy”. These policies would define bullying and be clear that it is illegal; explain how allegations of bullying could be made anonymously; and describe what penalties bullies would be subject to, such as counseling or community service.
Apparently Illinois Republicans are not as worried about bullying as they are about anything which might prevent homophobic behavior. When the House voted 61 to 49 in favor of the bill, the Republicans overwhelmingly lined up against it, including local representative Jim Watson.
We won’t get rid of bullying if it is called as prank, or, worse, seen as an understandable reaction to queers and homos. A North Carolina Baptist pastor just told his congregation that the way to deal with homosexuals is to put them behind barbed wire until they die off. Another advised his flock to beat their children if they showed signs of being gay. Talk about a bully pulpit.
What does Romney think of that? What about Jim Watson? Why do so many Republicans wink at gay bashing?
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 29, 2012