by Terry Messman
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he most heartening and compelling moment of Urvashi Vaid’s interview with Street Spirit came when she made a simple statement about the need to stand up against bullies.
In describing what it was in her own personal make-up that had led her to become a lifelong activist for social justice, Vaid said, “I think I’m kind of built in a way that questions authoritarianism and dogma and that is very skeptical of bullies. I’m very infuriated by them and feel a responsibility to do something about it. I’ve always felt that responsibility. I can’t remember not feeling it.”
That is a powerful statement in light of the centuries of cruelty, persecution and condemnation that many LGBT people have endured at the hands of bullies, both on the personal and the societal level.
Not everyone can sustain a fighting spirit when they are facing bullies who have them vastly outnumbered. Yet, somehow, many people have found the courage to take a lonely stand for human dignity and justice. We never even hear of most of them. They are unsung heroes. As an act of solitary witness, they have found the strength to stand up to bullies — with no help, no support, no legal protection.
Urvashi Vaid’s fighting spirit really struck home because I had just learned how much it can cost to confront these kinds of tormentors. Countless people, young and old, straight and gay alike, have taken principled stands against bullies and paid a heavy price. But when a friend of the family, in this case a young girl who is small for her age, faces cruel attacks, it shows how much is at stake in every such confrontation.
Grace, age 11, is the daughter of a close friend of our family who lives in Independence, Missouri. In her interview with Street Spirit, Vaid pointed out that people living in the Midwest or in the South often face much heavier forms of social intolerance and hostility than people living in Massachusetts or California.
In September of this year, at the beginning of Grace’s sixth grade math class, her teacher told the students that she wanted to get to know them, so she asked each student to introduce themselves and write one interesting thing about themselves on a piece of paper.
Grace wrote, “I support gay marriage.” Grace’s mother told us that Grace had become very supportive of LGBT rights without any encouragement or even parental discussion with her at all. As many parents find out, ideals and values often begin appearing unpredictably when our children begin to form their own ideas about the world. These ideals can suddenly blossom in young people without any outside help, just as perennial wildflowers blossom all by themselves, because they are so deeply rooted.
The teacher read each student’s response out loud to the class, and after Grace’s support of gay marriage was read, other students began staring at her and whispering about her. After the class, things got meaner and uglier.
Several kids began calling her “gay girl” and started saying mean things about Grace, purposely insulting her so that she could hear the cruel put-downs. Another student came up to Grace in the hallway and said, “Why do you believe in that crap? Do you know gays go to hell? So you’re going to go to hell.”
Then, the bullying escalated even farther. Kids began shoving Grace in the hallways. They tripped her, elbowed her, pushed her into the wall of lockers, slammed their locker doors so they would hit Grace, struck her with their binders and called her names.
Grace is small for her age — small, but valiant. The bullying was very upsetting, but she never wavered or took back what she had said in defense of gay marriage. This is not a seasoned activist. This is just a kid, the daughter of straight parents, who simply believes in equality.
Grace’s parents went to the assistant principal, and she was very sympathetic and understanding. The school immediately moved Grace’s locker to a place where many teachers are nearby and there is camera coverage. They asked Grace to come to them right away if she is bullied and the school’s bullying policy would go into effect. That level of support from the school administration can be crucial in cases of bullying.
The physical bullying was soon stopped, although students still gave her dirty looks and called her “gay girl.” She told her parents she wasn’t going to back down. She wears the equality sticker of the Human Rights Campaign on her clothes and has a rainbow flag sticker on her locker.
Grace said, “I don’t think I should have to hide. This is what I believe in, and I think more people should think this way. I think you should be able to express what you want to express without being judged.”
Grace’s mother said, “Homophobia is alive and well in the Midwest. I hate that she’s taking the social heat for it, but I’m so proud of her for taking this stand.”
Multiply Grace’s case a million times over to get a picture of the terrible costs of anti-gay bullying. Despite increased support for the rights of LGBT people, bullying occurs across the nation and causes untold suffering and anguish. Along with physical abuse, it causes mental torment that sometimes becomes suicidal despair.
One well-known response to this persecution is the “It Gets Better Project,” a website that began as an attempt to help LGBT teenagers who felt isolated, bullied, victimized or suicidal. (See www.itgetsbetter.org) The website features videos of people sharing their stories of overcoming and outlasting societal persecution and testifying that life does get better.
The pledge of the project says: “Everyone deserves to be respected for who they are. I pledge to spread this message to my friends, family and neighbors. I’ll speak up against hate and intolerance whenever I see it, at school and at work. I’ll provide hope for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other bullied teens by letting them know that it gets better.”
When I consider the words of this pledge, I feel great admiration that Grace, at the age of 11, figured out this message of respect all by herself and bravely spoke out against intolerance in her school. And when the bullying started, she refused to back down, even though she was all by herself in taking this lonely stand.
This is just one small example of the thousands of untold stories of courage and compassion around the nation — and it also reveals the deep currents of bigotry and cruelty and intolerance that still exist in this country. Many thousands have suffered far worse persecution, and some have lost their lives to hate crimes.
When I first learned about Grace’s ordeal a month ago, her story struck me like a hammer blow, in part because Grace is so young, and small and thin for her age. The fact that she would be bullied and treated so cruelly, largely because of the intolerance of the society that adults have created around her, seems so unfair that it is hard to fathom.
It was stunning to learn of the contempt and bigotry visited upon a young girl still in the rainbows-and-unicorns state of supposedly carefree childhood.
At the age of 11, Grace had to summon inner resources of courage and make the difficult choice to stand her ground. She took a solitary stand for human rights that would have been difficult for most adults.
In a national climate where prominent political leaders and even Supreme Court justices have accepted same-sex marriages, it would be easy to misread the signs of the time as pointing towards greater tolerance and respect for all.
This very recent example shows how much hostility and intolerance still remains to be faced — and it is usually faced by isolated and outnumbered individuals who have done nothing to deserve such cruelty.
What lesson can be drawn from this? That so much depends upon the courage and conscience of people like Grace and Urvashi. I see these two women — one at the very beginning of her life, the other having spent 30 years working for social justice — as moral examples to all of us. It is a privilege to witness their lonely stand for justice and human decency.