Fighting the Christian Right’s War Against Anti-Bullying Programs

by Peter Cassels

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday June 4, 2012

The biggest bullies in the schoolyard may be certain Christian organizations on the right that expend a great deal of their time energy and fund-raising doing everything they can to make sure LGBT students don't receive the protections of anti-bullying laws.

Their tactic is to encompass spreading information that many others see as outright lies, citing bogus statistics, and lobbying lawmakers in statehouses and the U.S. Capitol. They contend that anti-bullying legislation and programs single out gay students, according to experts EDGE interviewed.

So far, their strategy appears to be working, at least some of the time and in regions across the country.

While 49 states have anti-bullying laws on the books (Montana is the sole exception), only 14 and the District of Columbia specifically include protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. Wisconsin's covers sexual orientation only.

Bullying has serious consequences for LGBT youth, who commit more than 30 percent of all reported teen suicides each year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In addition to bullying, causes of such suicides include lack of acceptance, abandonment and hate crimes. Christian groups and others then use such statistics to "prove" the harmfulness of the "gay lifestyle."

The progressive organization People for the American Way recently issued a report that spelled out the ways right-wing groups are blocking efforts to make schools safe for LGBTs. "It's almost unbelievable that there are organizations dedicated to opposing anti-bullying programs, but they're out there and stronger than ever," PFAW President Michael Keegan said in a statement. "These groups are so determined to fight every step of progress for LGBT rights that they're willing to hurt children and teens in the process. That's just shameful."

Opposing the Day of Silence

When it released the report, PFAW cited the Big Three anti-gay groups: the Family Research Council, the American Family Association, and Focus on the Family, as well as other religious right organizations. The report provided many examples of their tactics.

Many were shocked in 2010 when FRC President Tony Perkins, perhaps the best-known opponent of anti-bullying programs, was given space for an op-ed in the Washington Post. Perkins accused gay rights groups of "exploiting" youth suicide to push their agenda.

GLSEN, creator of the Safe Schools program, is a favorite target for Perkins and his colleagues. A favorite target of Perkins is the national Day of Silence, an annual event GLSEN organizes to call attention to bullying. The Day of Silence, held every April, has become popular with sympathetic heterosexual students as well as gay ones.

For Perkins, sees the Day of Silence as a sinister way of acclimating students to accepting homosexuality, or, "a cover for the promotion of homosexuality," as he put it in the Washington Post op-ed.

The AFA contends that the event is "destructive" event whose purpose is the "hijacking of the classroom for political purposes." The AFA has called on parents to keep their children absent from school that day. FRC, along with the Liberty Counsel, a far-right legal group, and Concerned Women for America, has called for its abolition. FRC instead promotes a counter-event, the "Day of Dialogue," which is meant to ""encourage(s) student-initiated conversations about the fact that God cares about our lives, our relationships and our sexuality."

Fighting Rightwing Christian Hate Groups

"For at least a decade religious right groups have opposed strong anti-bullying efforts protecting LGBTs because they claim falsely that it is an attempt to legitimize the 'gay lifestyle," said Rev. Barry Lynn. Lynn, a minister in the United Church of Christ and an attorney, also heads Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to preserving the U.S. Constitution's religious liberty provisions.

"Bullying is a dangerous practice that needs to be stopped no matter who the target," Lynn told EDGE. "Anyone who has any understanding of bullying knows that this is an issue that needs to be taken by the horns and dealt with."

LGBT activists and their allies need to call the religious right's bluff, he added: "Their arguments need to be dissected. They are a ploy to maintain the status quo and neglect the immediate needs of LGBT and other students being bullied."

Boys, both straight and gay, who don't conform to society's notions of masculinity risk becoming victims of bullying, said Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, a progressive magazine based in Berkeley, Calif.: "To be a real man in this society has been defined by our culture and our media as being strong, tough, independent, but not soft, gentle or kind in any way."

The Christian right takes advantage of boys who don't fit the straight stereotype and are often harassed by welcoming them into their churches, where they can feel safe. But there's a price to pay. "They tell them, 'But you need to explain our campaign against LGBTQ people,'" Lerner said. "They are allowed to once again reclaim a soft and caring part of their personality but at the expense of denigrating the gay community."

LGBT activists need to understand that strategy and discuss it in the public sphere, he added: "It's not just a question of gay rights, but the right of all people to be gentle, kind and caring for others. When you frame it that way, the LGBT movement has the capacity to speak across the political spectrum and undermine the religious right's peculiar dynamic where they simultaneously affirm what people feared when they were accused of being gay while simultaneously attacking gays."

Lerner envisions a broad movement against bullying LGBT youth that also speaks to the self-interests of straight people: "Harassment of gays and those who are perceived to be gay must be framed through the homophobia that is the backbone of American society."

Boys want to prove they are men by dominating girls and harassing those who they perceive to be gay. "Things are changing, but there's still a lot of bias and homophobia out there," said Mark Friedman, who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health, who believes young men need to be taught that they can define themselves as men in different ways.: "One way of being a man is to help people and intervene when others are being harassed or attacked," he said.

'"Give them scientific studies showing how disproportionally gay youth are abused. The religious right really distorts that data. They claim it's not a problem.'

Friedman has done research to prove that, while proportionally far more LGBT youth are bullied in schools, the number of straight youths who are attacked because they are perceived to be gay is much higher -- up to four or five times the number of those who are abused for being gay.

Just last month in a school district near Tampa, Fla., a student, 18, attempted suicide because of incessant taunting. As was reported here, Zachery Grey had had a girlfriend, but that didn't deter students in his school from harassing him.

Enforcement Varies

Even within the states that have anti-bullying laws specifically protecting LGBT students, enforcement varies. As an example, Friedman cited a report issued several years ago by the Seattle Safe Schools Coalition that compared anti-bullying programs school districts were required to implement under a Washington State law.

"The reality was that there was not that much going on outside of Seattle," Friedman said. "What school districts are required to do and what they actually do are often two different things."

To counteract the religious right, Friedman recommended that LGBT activists and allies meet with school boards, religious organizations and others to emphasize the seriousness of the bullying problem.

"Give them scientific studies showing how disproportionally gay youth are abused," Friedman suggested. "The religious right really distorts that data. They claim it's not a problem."

He also advised building relationships with policy-makers. "Once they form long-term relationships with LGBTs, they see the seriousness of the situation," he explained.

Best Counter-Tactic: The Truth

The truth is the best weapon against attacks on anti-bullying programs, PFAW's Keegan added. "The best weapon the LGBT rights community has to fight them is the facts," he told EDGE.

"Supporters of LGBT rights need to be very clear about the real harm that anti-gay bullying does to kids and the clear benefits that anti-bullying programs provide," he said. "There is no such thing as a comprehensive anti-bullying program that doesn't protect gay kids. The religious right knows this -- we just need to make sure parents, teachers, administrators and lawmakers know it, too."

Because state anti-bullying laws vary and most don't protect LGBT students specifically, Jody Huckaby, executive director of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays, believes it's past the time to pass federal legislation, according to Jody Huckaby."We have a patchwork of laws in place and that's not sufficient to stem the tide against bullying all students," he told EDGE.

Is a Federal Law the Answer?

Two bills introduced in Congress last year, the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act, do address that problem. SNDA covers all students and specifically enumerates sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, as well as discrimination by race, religion, disability and language.

Last November, PFLAG held a lobbying day in Washington, to secure support for the bills. "We received word from the offices of legislators who attended that they would sign on because of the sad reality of bullying in schools," Huckaby reported.

Educating federal lawmakers is raising the profile of the bullying problem, he said. "More often than not, they say they understand," said Huckaby. "They say they will go back to their districts and educate their constituents. This is an issue that resonates with many of them. We are going to continue to push, educate and inform members of Congress through our chapter network about why these bills are important."

Because the federal government hasn't been tracking incidents of harassment, PFLAG launched a program with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights that's called Claim Your Rights. "It provides a confidential venue for parents, school teachers and administrators to report incidents of harassment to the federal government so it can provide resources," Huckaby explained.

Corporate Support

To support PFLAG's efforts in schools, Johnson & Johnson and Walgreens have launched a nationwide anti-bullying campaign called Care with Pride. The home-products company, along with the drugstore chain, is supporting PFLAG's efforts in schools across the country, with money, videos a "Safe Schools Action Pack," visible store decals and visibility at Pride festivals.

Such corporate support is important, not only for the dollars they provide, but also because it shows how mainstream anti-gay bullying has become. As such, it is an effective counter to the Christian groups' maintaining that such programs are some sort of Fifth Column meant to drag youth down to degeneracy.

Christian Right Plays the Bullying Victims Card

Lately, the Christian right has taken on a new tactic: maintaining that it's actually Christian students who are the targets of bullying. Stories like this one on the ultra-rightwing "news" site Townhall is typical of the strategy. A particular subject of their complaints is Dan Savage the nationally syndicated sex columnist who launched the highly successful "It Gets Better" series after a teen suicide.

The Christian right apparently is taking the tack that playing defensive is sometimes the right position. As this article in Time shows, the Christian right is even using the pretext of anti-bullying to promulgate legislation that actually enables Christians to bully others. The Democratic leader of Michigan's State Senate cites a proposed bill: "Bullying kids is okay if a student, parent, teacher or school employee can come up with a moral or religious reason for doing it."

The writer of the Time article, Amy Sullivan, wrote that "social conservatives consider themselves the real victims"; and that they "believe that efforts to protect gays from assault, discrimination or bullying impinge on their religious freedom to express and act on their belief that homosexuality is an abomination." Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed the bill into law late last year.

Peter Cassels is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's Excellence in Journalism award. His e-mail address is [email protected].