Youth Suicides, Andrew Shirvell, and America’s Tolerance of Anti-LGBT Hate

Yesterday, we found out about the fourth teen suicide this month after bullying and/or harassment by their school peers for being gay or perceived to be gay:Photobucket

I’ve never really been a fan of the use of the words, “tolerance” and “intolerance” when talking about marginalized groups. Folks should have “tolerance” towards people who are “different” from them. “Intolerance” is bad. To me, it always seemed a very watered-down way to talk about “sensitive” issues when what people really mean when they say it are the more scary words tiptoed around: Hate. Bigotry. Homophobia. But considering what we’ve seen over the past month, this is scary. This is the reality that are leading youth in this country to kill themselves.

So maybe the word should be used in its other context — how about flipping the script and looking at the tolerance of hate by our culture, schools and elected officials? Why do school officials tolerate anti-LGBT bullying? Why aren’t there anti-LGBT bullying policies in place in the majority of states in this country? Why are TV shows still airing anti-gay and transphobic jokes? Why did CNN not even mention that Tyler Clementi was gay?

A recent example is how Assistant Attorney General Andrew Shirvell has been blogging against and publicly harassing Chris Armstrong, the openly gay student body president at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Shirvell puts up swastika signs on top of gay pride flag images, contending that Armstrong is promoting a “radical homosexual agenda.” And what does Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox have to say or do about it? Not much besides say that Shirvell’s “personal opinions are his and his alone and do not reflect the views of the Michigan Department of Attorney General [...] But his immaturity and lack of judgment outside the office are clear.” In other words, not cool at all! (But not my problem.)

This really isn’t about being against a word — what I’m against is people ignoring the fact that these tragedies are not just about bullying, it’s not just about violations of privacy or cyberstalking (while these are all problems that obviously contribute). It’s about the fact that people turn a blind eye to the reality that youth in this country are dying because of anti-LGBT messages that bullies are emulating — from adults with a platform like Shirvell and from this larger culture of fear and hatred. It’s time America holds itself accountable before more lives are lost.

Join the Conversation

  • nazza

    I would add that bullying is a major issue regardless of one’s sexual orientation, and one never addressed adequately by parents and school administrators. But it is particularly cruel towards anyone different, particularly those who are LGBT. I was lucky in that I do not present as queer, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t given a hard time for being intelligent and conscientious about school.

    I did notice the ways that other boys who I recognize now were queer were treated. Location made it worse. The middle class, more tolerant suburb where I was in school wasn’t nearly as awful as it is for LGBT kids in rural areas. Those are the ones who I pray for the most.

  • Sam Lindsay-Levine

    I’m curious what action you think Mike Cox should be taking. As a general rule don’t we oppose the firing of government employees for their speech outside their place of employment?

    I’m pretty willing to bet Shirvell’s name is basically mud around his office and he’s not exactly going to be rocketing up the promotion ladder after having the head Attorney General publicly rebuke him on the national stage.

    I mean, clearly Shirvell is a horrible anti-gay bigoted slimebag and this is an unassailable reason to never hire him for anything, but the principle of “existing employees should not be fired for their personal speech outside the office” is one that in general I like. I mean, I bet a lot of our employers would want to fire us if they heard all of the things we say?

    • Sam Lindsay-Levine

      Obviously if this guy worked for me I would still keep a vigilant eye to see if he ever took one step over the line at work, and fire the hell out of him if he did. I’d tell him that in advance, too.

      • andrea

        In Canada there are ‘hate speech’ laws. A public official doing that kind of crap would be sacked, charged, and probably fined.

    • Angi

      IMO, there’s a world of difference between “speech outside of the place of employment” and “hate speech outside of the place of employment.” I agree that in general, a policy that allows employees to speak their minds outside of the workplace is a good thing, and that any termination of an employee for such reasons should be reserved for very, very extreme instances. But in my mind, this is one of those extreme cases. I think this case speaks very much of a general resistance to taking hate speech on the basis of sexual orientation as seriously as we take other forms of hate speech; I find it difficult to imagine that Shirvell would still be employed had he created a similar blog that was, say, anti-Semitic or racist. And I don’t at all mean to downplay the seriousness of those forms of bigotry, only to say that anti-LGBTQ bigotry needs to be taken every bit as seriously, just as it needs to be taken seriously in schools.

      Of course, to me the further irony of the whole Shirvell case is that a large part of his blog was dedicated to calling Chris Armstrong out for things he posted on his facebook. Clearly Shirvell thinks that a student body president should be held accountable for his speech “outside of the office,” but our Assistant Attorney General shouldn’t be.

  • radishette

    Additionally upsetting is the following excerpt, from a psychologist quoted in an ABC article about the Rutgers student:

    “The impact of the incident may have been made worse by that Clementi was reportedly captured in a romantic encounter with another young man. Public revelation of a person’s sexuality can be tremendously humiliating.

    “The perfect analogy in the straight world is when the police used to round up men who frequented prostitutes and publicly paraded them and had the newspaper run their pictures,” Kaufman said.”

    Is public outing humiliating and inappropriate? Yes! That should be up to the individual.

    Is hiring prostitutes on par with two men having sex? NO! How offensive.

    • z

      As long as we’re talking about two consenting individuals, what makes this comparison offensive?

    • Vanessa

      I don’t find the comparison of outing men hiring prostitutes to outing two men having sex offensive at all (but then I don’t see hiring a prostitute as a morally wrong act in itself). Both are examples of sexual practices that are shunned by mainstream culture, which is what causes them to be seen as shameful when participants are publicly outed.

    • gregoryabutler10031

      Well, since in both cases we’re talking about consensual sex between adults, a straight man hiring a sex worker is exactly comparable to two gay men having a sexual encounter.

      In both cases, as long as everybody is consenting and of legal age, it’s nobody’s business but their own and the willing parties involved should not be exposed to public humiliation by having their socially stigmatized sexual activity exposed to the general public.

  • Jessica “Jess” Victoria Carillo

    How long will this go on? Does anybody care if their children will be one of those unfortunate gay kids that get assaulted and harassed to death? It’s upsetting, since many members of my family don’t approve of homosexuality.

  • khw

    My thoughts and positive energy are with these young men’s families and loved ones.

    When will we realise the terrible costs that hate produces in our society.

    We must not tolerate intolerance.

  • Katie

    We are having some serious issues with bullying where I teach, and several teachers have informed our principal about it, but nothing has been done. A lot of teachers deal with this problem where they report a problem, which is required by law, and administration sweeps it under the rug hoping that it will just go away.

  • davenj

    Two quibbles with this post, both of them not-so-minor:

    a. The criticism of the CNN article for not identifying Tyler Clementi as gay: We really do not know Tyler Clementi’s sexual orientation. We know that his roommate and a friend broadcast video of him having a few sexual encounters with a man. Perhaps Tyler was gay. Perhaps he was bisexual. Perhaps he was exploring his sexuality. The need for media outlets to label him as gay is at best exceedingly questionable, and at worst it ties into the gendered notions of sexual identity that exist for men and women. Put succinctly, any man who has sexual relations with a man is identified strictly as gay, whereas the rules for women appear to be very different.

    CNN got it right. They gave the info that they could support (Tyler Clementi committing suicide after a sexual encounter between him and another man was broadcast on the web) and left out the utter inanity of editorializing about the sexual identity of someone who committed suicide without apparently informing anyone of this facet of himself. How can CNN know if Tyler Clementi was gay? They reported the facts and avoided speculation, something they ought to be lauded for, and that other media outlets should stick to as well.

    b. For a site that concerns itself with gendered problems and the way structures can disproportionately affect people by gender there is a reverberating silence here about suicide as a gendered problem. Successful youth suicide attempts affect males as much as five times as much as they affect females. The list above is comprised entirely of adolescent or young adult males.

    I mean, if this post is going to be critical of CNN not mentioning that Clementi was gay then how can it possibly ignore the way gender plays a role here?

    Suicide is a gendered problem at every age, and I would hope that there would at least be some acknowledgement on a site like this about that issue. It’s vaguely disappointing to not see even a smidge of this.

  • F.Toth

    By not reporting that Clementi’s encounters were with a man, CNN did the classy thing of pointing out that violating one’s privacy is wrong — and that has nothing to do with orientation. It’s just wrong.

    That the perps tormented Clementi because the experiences were with a man is a separate and serious issue. As another poster said, we don’t know whether he was gay, but we know he was violated.

  • athenia

    I think media outlets are having a hard time deciding how to handle Tyler Clementi’s case. On one hand, if he was filmed with a girl, would he have committed suicide? Would the guy have filmed him in the first place if the sexual encounter was with a girl?

    On the other hand, whether Tyler was with a girl or a boy or someone in between, that’s really beside the point—his invasion of privacy led to his death.

  • jason m.

    Bullying is a serious, persistent problem requiring thoughtful, even canny policies to address it. This post suggests official intolerance of expressions of hostility based on sexual identity. This response seems likely to be of very limited effectiveness, at least by itself. It absolutely could give gay kids more visibility, which might be somewhat affirming, but it wouldn’t necessarily change the way kids treat each other outside of official settings. After all, let’s be realistic enough to remember that school administrators tend to have other priorities than getting this issue right. They’re beset by their own professional pressures. They’re apt to focus on smoothly functioning institutions and parochial sources of prestige, whether they be a successful football team or high standardized test scores. Even when they have good intentions, in most cases they are not attuned to the minutiae of youth culture and will be apt to produce legalistic and somewhat out-of-touch anti-bullying policies. The result of such efforts would likely conform to the general tendency of bureaucracies to issue pronouncements that have little lasting effect on how people think, feel, and behave.

    In my view, students, and especially teenagers, just don’t pick up much on adults’ injunctions to be nice to each other, but they do take in the broad messages their school sends them about its priorities. So long as schools view students as workers with academic responsibilities more than as people with developing personalities who deserve support in growing to adulthood, kids will seek ways to vent their frustrations at being managed more than cared for, and will tend to form narrowly self-protective, exclusionary, and competitive cliques that marginalize outsiders in a compensatory effort to achieve a sense of belonging and identity. Sexuality will be one of the more tempting outlets for this sort of collective self-affirmation by exclusion, since it’s already to some extent the site of a painful, confusing developmental transition.

    While not necessarily endorsing every aspect of their proposals, I’ve found some other work to offer informed, thought-provoking, somewhat empirically tested efforts to think about how to address these problems in a creative, effective way. See Twemlow and Sacco (I haven’t read this book cover to cover yet) and the brilliant work of Aronson.

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  • artofme

    News like this makes me so, so sad and I just don’t know what to do about it. I hate very few things more than I hate bullying and administrative ignorance of it. There is something wrong in our culture when this is happening.

    I’m currently in training to become a teacher, and I know I will be dealing with these issues. If I can be a voice for these children then I will do everything in my power to help them, though hearing about how the administration often doesn’t listen disheartens me. I suppose all I can really do is make my own classroom an environment of respect and safety, where bullying is never tolerated, and to report problematic instances that would interfere with a student’s self-esteem and academic success.

    But… I just don’t know how much help I can really be. News like this makes me feel that nothing an individual person can do will really change anything. The entire society needs to change in order for bullying and teasing of those who are “different” from the norm to stop.

    I feel powerless, angry, and sad that these young people were driven to harm themselves because of the cruelty and inaction of others.