Bullying is Not a New Issue

by Tommi Avicolli-Mecca on October 6, 2010

School bullying is not a new issue. You wouldn’t know that to see all the reports popping up in the mainstream media. America has suddenly “discovered” that LGBT kids are being terrorized every day in schoolyards all over the country. They’re even committing suicide to escape the torment.

While it’s good that the nation’s waking up to a problem that has become epidemic, it’s disheartening to know that so many lives have been ruined while teachers, principals and school boards looked (and in many instances continue to look) the other way.

I was bullied in school, bullied to the point that I wanted to die. My crime? I was, as they now say in academic circles, “gender non-conforming.” I liked to play with dolls instead of guns. I preferred jump rope to sports.

I was a sissy. In the 50s and 60s, that was a serious crime. Men were supposed to be like John Wayne: tough and invulnerable, the bullies, not the bullied.

It wasn’t just the other kids. In fifth grade, a nun at the annual parents night told my mother I was a good student, but she worried that there was “something wrong” with me because I draped my sweater over my shoulders “like a girl.” She said it in front of several other parents. It didn’t take long for word to spread like wildfire all over the neighborhood. The harassment and the threats of violence intensified.

That nun was as much a bully as any kid in the schoolyard.

They all were, all of the adults who saw what was happening and did nothing. It wasn’t a secret. They all knew, yet they stood by and watched. They were complicitous by their silence.

Fortunately for me, the bullying stopped in my final years of high school after I started growing my hair in defiance of school policy and mouthing off in religion class about how I doubted the tenets of the Catholic faith. One priest made me stay after school and scrape gum from the bottom of desk tops. Another threw me against a blackboard. It was okay to be bullied, but not to question the faith.

I may not be an expert on how to stop bullying, but I know instinctively that legislation alone is not going to do it. Nor are all the well meaning policies in the universe, unless they address the culture of bullying and the homophobia and transphobia that is entrenched in the halls and school yards of educational institutions throughout this country.

One need only walk through a high school corridor anywhere and at any time in America to hear the litany of “faggot” and other anti-gay words that are such common put-downs among the young.

Kids aren’t born hating queers or those who are different from them. Church and family must share the blame for fostering anti-queer attitudes that feed bullying. They must become part of the solution.

Otherwise, more bullied kids will opt to end their misery in the only way they think works.

In 1982, Tommi Avicolli Mecca wrote “He Defies You Still: The Memoirs of a Sissy” for Radical Teacher. Since that time, the article has been reprinted in several anthologies, including “Reconstructing Gender” ( Disch) and “Intersections of Gender, Race and Class” (Segal and Martinez). It’s also been used in classrooms throughout the country.

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