Sara Whitman

Faith Community and LGBT Community Come Together

Filed By Sara Whitman | April 14, 2009 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, The Movement
Tags: African-American, anti-gay bullying, bridging communities, bullying, LGBT community, suicide, teen suicide

I went to a funeral yesterday. Of a little boy. 11 years old. He lay in the coffin, in a grown up suit, dead.

So little.

He killed himself last week because he was taunted, over and over, for being gay. Who knows if he was or wasn't - not really the point. He was a sweet kid, they said, who loved to sing and dance. Very bright.

The school did not respond to his mother's repeated attempts to have the bullying addressed, to have it stopped. Instead, they sentenced the kid to have lunch with his abuser, for five straight days.

He told his mother he was suspended. It seems he was desperate to get out of those lunches. When they proceeded, anyway, he hung himself. It was too much.

I went today with a friend. The woman sitting next to her told her it wasn't the first time. There had been two other students at the same school, who suffered the same taunting. One girl, one boy. The girl tried to kill herself, her mother found her OD'ed on pills and got her to the hospital in time. The boy left the school, to pursue music.

This is baked in, deeply rooted homophobia. And just like baked in, deeply rooted racism affects us all, so does the homophobia. Sitting in that church today, I knew one thing for certain- This community of African-American Pentecostal church members and the gay community have a great deal in common.

A dead little boy.

If there is ever a time to make that bridge, it's now. No where in the national media is this story. No where. Is it because he was poor and black? Maybe. Is it because he was called gay and we're just not going to deal with that? Maybe.

I don't really care. I want to make that bridge. Because together, I think we can change things.

One of my sons is eleven. He came home from school and saw the picture on the service program.

I think I know him, he said. He looks... so familiar.

He doesn't, and didn't but ... we all do.

Please make this story get out in the media. We should be outraged it has not made the evening news, the NY Times, the talk show circuit. An eleven year old boy killed himself because he was bullied. Maybe the queer community is the only one who really understands.

Let's stand behind this family and make a roar so loud no one can ignore it.


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You'd think anti-bullying bills would be a no brainer and a shoe-in. We still haven't been able to pass one here in New York.

With the religious right it always boils down to "we must protect the children"........unless it's our children.

A. J. Lopp | April 14, 2009 6:09 PM

Sara, thanks for writing this disturbing post.

I would also suggest, Sara, that when you have a national or cyber-international audience, to always mention that this school district is in Springfield, Massachusetts of all places. Because Massachusetts was the first state with full SSM, and has a famous out US Senator, that Massachusetts is a mecca of gay acceptance. Such a mecca really doesn't exist anywhere, and this sad incident underscores that fact.

Children need to be protected from bullying, and adults have to be the ones to do it. Even in San Francisco. Even in Greenwich Village NYC. Even in Massachusetts.

A. J. Lopp | April 14, 2009 6:13 PM

Correction: Sorry, I meant to type: "... and has a famous out US Senator, many people get the impression that ..."

Proofread, A.J., proofread, proofread!

My son didn't reveal his systematic bullying in middle school until he was in high school—rebellious, using drugs and threatening suicide. When his school counselor stated he was exhibiting "classic" signs of abuse, we were stunned. In therapy he revealed he was accused of being gay and was tormented by kids who were strangers for two and a half years. We pulled him out that last year without knowing why it was the right thing to do. We just knew he couldn't stay.

We were lucky; we found out in time and he got help in time. He is now happy and at peace. My heart goes out to Carl's mother and family and friends. Sometimes we feel helpless at the hands of "experts." Those who love Carl will never forgive themselves for allowing these events to unfold.

What this school did is unconscionable. They must be held accountable. And this tragedy must be held to the light to prevent more suicides, because lives are at stake, the lives of children too young to fend for themselves.

In fact, the little boy wasn't gay or straight- he was just too little to know.

it doesn't matter. what matters are the words that were flung at him. he wasn't one of "ours" or "theirs" he was just a boy.

yes, AJ, everyone- even people on this blog- think MA has it made. We have marriage and make life miserable for everyone else. Not so.

Today, it was reported that a gay man was brutally attacked in Glouster. No question it was a hate crime.

yeah, it's pretty sweet here in the land of total acceptance.

Chitown Kev | April 14, 2009 9:42 PM

I'm am going to say it:

Whether he was gay or not, who knows.

This young boy probably committed suicide because kids teased him about "acting white." Good grades in school, active in church, etc.

You can't imagine how debilitating that is for a young African-American child.

I was teased and bullied about stuff like this constantly and I wanted to commit suicide too. At an even younger age.

This is one thing that goes on in some black communities that I find to be totally disgusting.
There was a similar case of this in Evanston, IL earlier this year.

This is a taboo topic to touch. I am glad we are talking about this in the blogosphere.

Locally, this story is huge and mainstream. My (college) students brought it up again today, and seem deeply troubled by it, as is pretty much everyone around here, as far as I can tell. Almost everybody in Western Mass. likes to think of this area as the most gay friendly in the country, and so there is a collective sense of shock not just that this could happen, but that it could happen here.

I think it's important to acknowledge that it's not just that we've had gay marriage for 5 years now. We also have had sexual orientation in our anti-discrimination laws for 20 years. It was in 1980 that our state Supreme Court first held that sexual orientation could not be a factor in custody determinations. And most relevantly, we've had gay-specific anti-bullying programs in our schools for 15 years.

The media reports have been a little unclear and/or contradictory about the extent to which this school participated in the anti-bullying programs.

But I think it is very clear that it's not just that SSM is not enough. It's that all the laws in the world are not enough. Homophobia, like racism and sexism, persists even when the laws do just about all that laws can do.

That's the challenge I find much more difficult to wrap my brain around. Yes, the school could have done more to respond to this mother's pleas for help for her son. But it's so much bigger than this one school, this middle school cruelty that so often dresses itself up in homophobia (but also frequently in sexism or racism or classism or ableism etc.).

As a country, we're still raising really mean kids.

The more I hear, the more I realize how lucky I am.
I can understand and relate to the abuse that 11 year old boy suffered.
Like a lot of us, I had to deal with those same issues when I was growing up.

For me starting at 10 I had to learn how to put up with taunts, harassment, abuse and even assault. (The usual names of faggot, queer, sissy) Every time I went to the teachers or faculty they did nothing, it only encouraged the bullying to not just continue but it emboldened them to escalate the abuse.

At 10 while in 5th grade it escalated to a knifing. It was minor (3 quick jabs to the arm), but deliberate. Nothing was done. The school actually insisted that it was an accident.

By the time I got to Jr. High it had gotten to the point that I averaged more than 1 beating at day at school. I never knew where it would come from. The stress was so bad it caused stressed induced migraines. The school wouldn’t even let me take an aspirin for the migraines.

High School only made it worse. An adult sized 16 year old is way bigger than a 13 year old. In the 70’s the football teams used steroids and were really strong.

By then I knew that if I did go to the faculty to complain that the best that could happen was the bully would be put in detention and when they got out I’d get pounded. If they were suspended and sent home, they would just be waiting for me at the end of the school day.

The second week of High School was my worst beating ever. A broken nose, dislocated jaw, cracked ribs, concussion…more. That was when the school finally sat up and took notice, but they still did nothing.

That was the 1970’s, a lot of time has passed and more is now known about bullying and how it affects students. The fact that this school system’s teachers saw these things going on and did nothing is unconscionable. The fact that they obviously have had previously had the EXACT SAME ISSUE WITH THE SAME RESULTS AND STILL DO NOT UNDERSTAND IS FREAKING STUPID! They need to pull the administration at that school and replace it with people with an education or at least some common freaking sense.

*sigh* I found out about the Day of Silence the year before last. When I found out about it I was amazed that someone was finally saying and doing something about the harassment in schools. This year my Day of Silence bracelet has the name of an 11 year old boy on it.

Chitown Kev | April 14, 2009 10:07 PM

Sara, I am not saying that white boys don't go through this, they do.

But this type of bullying hits young African-American boys in very culturally specific ways.

There is the notion in some African-American communities that to aspire and to achieve is equated to being "white." I remember being teased when I would pray over my meals during lunch time.

I remember bricks being thrown at me in the first grade because I was "a smart kid."

I remember my own family members telling me that I acted white because I spoke standard English (like my Mom actually).

I remember my brother and I being beaten up as we were walking home from the local Catholic school. Our school uniforms gave us away and marked us as...I don't know, "uppity?" "Smarter than?"

I remember when I attended an HBCU right out of high school and I was being harrassed by some of the students, a school administrator telling me that "you know how we are."

I dropped out of school at the end of that semester and did not return to college until I was in my 30's.

I have many, many more stories like this.

And I remember wanting to commit suicide from the age of 9.

Why talk about this on a gay blog? Because, if folks are talking about working with "the black community" you will run up against homophobia like this that probably has nothing to do someone's sexuality. You will also run into cuturally specific notions of "masculinity." And here is one of them.

You are absolutely correct --- black kids should not be teased or bullied for being good students.

But let's not get into the "my suffering is bigger, deeper, more valid than your suffering" because that is a victim's game and doesn't lead toward solving the problem for anyone.

I am confident to say that everyone here opposes all types of bullying, including the type that you suffered. At this moment, we may be focusing on sexual orientation bullying because sexual orientation discussion is one of the things this particular blog is about. Also, it is something that many, many of us have experienced ourselves. But even so, we take an instance such as yours very seriously. We are not discounting it, nor are we claiming that "being bullied about this is worse than being bullied about that."

On the other hand, certain types of bullying tend to be tolerated more than others. Briefly, evidence indicates that sexual orientation bullying is more likely to be ignored by the teachers and school officials than bullying about, say, race or physical appearance or a "deficiency" in athletic ability. And this conspiracy of silence is one of the special facets of bullying that the GLBT community is challenging in particular.

Chitown Kev | April 15, 2009 2:00 PM

I am not get into the my suffering is more than yours argument, A.J.

I am saying that, based on my experience, I am pretty certain there is an ugly racial component to this. I am not saying that this was worse than the case in Ohio. I am saying that it does take on a culturally specific form.

Example, why did this mother go to The Advocate and not an African-American media org (as far as I know)? I'll give the African American media another look-in tonight, but they are silent.

I am just saying please, please understand that there may be a powerful racial component to this. That's all.

Rick Elliott | April 15, 2009 2:09 AM

I was raised in blue-collar, Deep South East Texas. I was called a sissy as far back as I can remember. What made it worse was my spontaneous response of crying. I learned quite early how to force back tears and it cost me dearly. As an adult I had to learn how to "feel" again.
What was so sad is I had no idea what they were talking about. I enmeshed myself in such a protected cocoon I didn't know what gay was until my freshman year in college when I got hit on.
I had one victory. An obese, dumb kid got mad at me--I don't remember why. He spit out, "I'm going to meet you after school in the parking lot!" I had some time to think up a response. When we met I said, "When someone is challenged to a fight, it's the one challenged who has the choice of weapons. I CHOOSE WORDS!" When he was speechless, I taunted him, "You have nothing to say. So I win!." And I walked calmly to my car.

I have heard about the "acting white" peer bullying problem too, from 40 years ago, so not much has changed qualitatively. However, the plural of anecdote is not data. Sometimes, to get people off their rumps to do something about a problem, it is necessary to show that it is common and happens in their own community. Otherwise the tendency is to blow off the situation by blaming the victim. How common is bullying of non-oppositional, geeky, and/or achieving black children as "acting white"? How have parents and teachers dealt with the problem, and have they been successful? Which grades and which types of schools have the most problems? Does "Afrocentric" enrichment of curriculum and extracurricular activities help? Ideas?

Chitown Kev | April 16, 2009 2:12 AM


1) The subject matter itself is taboo in lower socioeconomic African American communities. If there is any "data" that exists, I wouldn't trust it. People don't talk about this. But it is very, very common.

2) The only evidence that I know that exists is ancedotal evidence. Pam Spaulding has an archive of several stories on the subject. Many contemporary (in the past 20-25 yrs.) African American biographies and autobiographies also go into this subject at some point, in various amounts of detail.

3) In my experience, it varies from teacher to teacher. Overall, I found white teachers to be more sympathtic than black teachers, but that may just be my experience (but the African American teachers that were supportive were realy, really supportive Mrs. Ellison, my 7th grade English teacher, stands head and shoulders above everyone else).

4) It happened at all levels to me but for different reasons. "Acting white" wasn't a feature at my high school because I went to a magnet HS; bullying would happen along class lines (with very little of a race factor).

5) Afrocentrism has too much sexist and homophobic baggage, IMO, to be much of a help. Plus, it's rather seperatist, so it may actually reinforce these stereotypes a bit.

I will sleep on any ideas that I have, it's late LOL. But...

I don't mind, personally, the work that Sara and the Advocate has done with this case so far, I hope to see more of it. And of course, anyone who has been bullied can strongly identify with this story. But if noone understands the racial angle on this, this could easily become another episode of the gays v. the blacks (and it already has to a certain extent). That would do no justice to Carl's memory.

Thanks for keeping us updated, Sara.

This also seems like a response to that mini-brouhaha over that one high school student who testified in VT that bullying would end if same-sex marriage were legalized.