'Oddly Normal,' by John Schwartz: A family's struggle to help their teen son come to terms with his sexuality (excerpt)
Frankly, we’d been waiting for what seemed like forever for him to work up the courage to tell us what we already knew. Coming out to us went well, but his second act, at school, had gone very badly.
This is a frightening, telling, important moment–one for which I could think of just the right adjective. It says so much about how even a teen who has a loving, supportive family can feel lost and hopeless. It says so much about how much of an influence, especially in those volatile teenage years, one’s peer group can be.
I know someone who called anti-bullying programs “misguided”, who said that the focus should be on kids who feel bullied to “man up” rather than trying to get other kids to alter their behavior. Not only was it a cheap bit of victim-blaming, which I told him, he had also forgotten what it was like to be a teenager.
You nailed it. Despite all the apparent progress, a lone LGBT teenage kid can face a frightening world. The idea of “manning up” has been suggested by someone who has never had to “man up” in such a circumstance. I’m glad the boy had such insightful and caring parents. Even after all those years since I was a teen I remember just how scary it was to be different. It’s still helpful to read and remember just what that struggle was like.
Or perhaps he was just one of the teens on the “supply” side of the bullying market.
He probably was–and hasn’t outgrown it either.
Maybe I’m being overly generous, though, but I tend to assume that being a teenager was rough for all of us–even for those who acted like bullies. They weren’t bullies all the time, right? I was a victim myself, and even though it never really helped I still looked at the kids who tormented me with pity mixed with contempt rather than hatred. At least that’s how I felt when I wasn’t wondering why they didn’t just leave me alone.
I can see where that person is coming from, in that it’s hard to stop the bullies completely, so teaching coping strategies is often a good alternative (I was on the end of some bullying in school, although nothing too severe, and being able to shrug off the stupid shit people said was helpful). The thing is, when I was in high school five years ago, there were anti-bullying programs that emphasized changing would-be bullies’ behaviour, but they never really had a tangible effect that I saw.
The problem is that the people who need to hear those sorts of messages (about alcohol abuse, about bullying, and any number of other things) aren’t going to listen to anything but a stupidly harsh punishment, and that’s too easily abused. I guarantee that any skilled bully can get that sort of accusation leveled at their target easily and get it to stick a lot easier than the victim can, because if the teacher asks for corroboration, the bully’s friends will close ranks, bystanders will be too scared to come forward, and the victim will be alone. Now, a smart teacher might see through that, or have seen enough of the interactions over the course of the year to work out what happened, but not all teachers are smart enough or care enough to work it all out.
What effective anti-bullying programs need more than new regulations or ad campaigns are observant teachers and administrators who care. Right now, many teachers will ignore the situation if at all possible because it’s too much hassle (and risk, if the bully has sue-happy parents) and most administrators just want a quick fix so the kids are out of their office and the minimum number of angry letters come in. That needs to stop. My school didn’t have a real bad bullying problem and a bully who was hassling some of my classmates (and me a bit) still got ignored by the staff until I snapped and hit him, hard. There were teachers within sight most of the time, because this all happened right outside a classroom just before school started, and I went to a teacher about the issue at least once, and there was still no response from the staff until it escalated. We both got detention (he got more than I did), but he stopped bothering people, at least that I saw. Violence is sometimes the fastest way to get staff involvement, but it can often land the victim of the bullying in a heap of trouble, too, depending on school policy and how insightful the vice principal you get sent to is. In the above case, I got a slap on the wrist, punishment-wise, because the VP determined that I was provoked. I also stopped fighting after the initial swing, so the fight quickly became the bully and two friends beating on little 5’2", 98-pound me curled on the floor, which didn’t look good for them.
TL;DR: The current programs don’t work. What we need are better staff at the schools who will enforce the rules that already exist intelligently. In lieu of that, teaching coping strategies to the victims is a valid solution. Also helpful is a safe place where kids who are being targeted can come, eat their lunch in peace, and maybe talk to someone who cares if they so desire.
I consider myself lucky to have avoided all this back when I came out much later in college. I was afraid stuff like this would happen, so I just hid. Hearing John’s account on Fresh Air just reinforced my view that no matter what parents do to provide a supportive and loving environment, kids have to go through their own process to come to terms with coming out.
I’m in the midst of writing fiction and didn’t feel I could talk about a teen’s coming out today because my own process was so different. John’s account gave me a new foundation. Thanks for posting this here.
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