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Get It Better

Bullying is wrong, but so are facile solutions

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Nelson, from The Simpsons. (Fox)

In the past few months, eight teenagers have committed suicide because of homophobic tormenting. A young girl killed herself after being repeatedly called a whore and a slut by her classmates. A group of young men in the Bronx brutally attacked two teenage boys and two adults for the crime of being gay. And The New York Times’ “Sunday Styles” section just ran a trend story about how girls are meaner at younger ages than ever before.

And the Jewish community is responding. On October 5, Keshet, a nonprofit organization that works for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews in Jewish life, published a petition called Do Not Stand Idly By: A Jewish Community Pledge to Save Lives. More than 3,000 people have already signed, committing to end homophobic harassment in synagogues, schools, and organizations. Non-Jews have their own initiatives under way: Dan Savage, the advice columnist and gay activist, recently started a project called It Gets Better, in which adult gays and lesbians post videos of themselves urging bullied LGBT kids to hang in there, because their lives will get better.

These initiatives are admirable. The only trouble with them is that they won’t do any good.

First, let’s talk about why Savage’s project, while well-meaning, isn’t very useful. If you look at Savage’s video, the one that launched a thousand narcissistic and dull videos of poorly lit gay people sincerely telling the camera that their lives got better (while also, frequently, dwelling on how crappy their lives used to be), you’ll see how it typifies a lot of the problems with the genre. Dan and his hot husband talk about how they used to be bullied, but then they moved to hip cities and met at a hip gay bar and now they have a hip kid and look, here’s a picture of their family in Paris! Unfortunately, for many tortured LGBT kids, there’ll never be a Paris.

“It’s a video for classist, privileged gay folks who think that telling their stories is the best way to help others,” as Rebecca Novack, a very smart blogger who wound up facing threats for daring to criticize the project, put it. “Telling folks that their suffering is normal doesn’t reassure them—it homogenizes their experience. It doesn’t make them feel like part of a bigger community, it makes them feel irrelevant.”

Worse, these videos, taken as a whole, are full of anti-religious fury and city-centric fervor. But in reality, not all religious people are haters; not all urban types are tolerant; and not everyone is going to have the financial wherewithal to move to Seattle or Manhattan or take trips to France.

Don’t get me wrong—I love some of these videos. Tim Gunn of Project Runway talking about how he tried to kill himself as a teenager? Heart-rending. The Youth Pride Chorus, non-white gay teenagers singing “O-o-h, Child,” with its “things are gonna get easier” chorus? Sweet! But I think most of the videos are much more helpful to the person recording them than to currently bullied kids who feel isolated, lost, loathed, and misunderstood by their own parents. It’s easy to hold out a nebulous promise that things will get better; it’s a lot harder to address kids’ current realities. Teenagers are not known for fabulous impulse control; suicide is about agony felt at this very second. They need help now.

I feel similarly about the Keshet petition. It’s preaching to the choir; anyone who signs is already opposed to harassment. The problem is that many Jews do not see their actions as hurtful, and that the most prejudiced people will never sign such a petition. There are certain populations who will never accept gay folks; we know that. But forget about them; let’s think about our own supposedly tolerant communities. When there was an outcry against the Jewish Standard’s homophobic kowtowing to Orthodox leaders offended by the engagement announcement of two men, did we look at our own houses? Do our synagogue bulletins encourage the announcements of same-sex engagements and weddings? Do our shuls truly include them in religious life, or do they only say, “We don’t have any in our community, but we’re tolerant.” That’s hurtful. You have to reach out, not just tolerate.

Signing a petition is like wearing a pink ribbon. Most of us already have awareness of breast cancer, just as we have awareness of bullying and homophobia. Lose the pink and go get a mammogram. Donate to organizations that work for access to health care; black women and poor women die disproportionately of breast cancer.

And this brings me to the bullying problem. When we divide the world into bullies and victims, demonizing the former and beatifying the latter, we don’t do actual kids any favors. For many kids, power dynamics can shift. A kid can be a loser or cool kid from one school year to the next, from one social setting or peer group to another, during the school year as opposed to the summer. When we ponder how to stop bullying, we need a nuanced approach.

The New York TimesMean Girls” piece was irresponsible in part because it suggested that mean girls have mean parents. Sometimes that’s true; sometimes it isn’t. Parents of strong-willed, socially savvy kids may need help nurturing their kids’ empathy. These parents aren’t mean; they’re trying. A lot of us have a hard time with discipline or are secretly pleased that our kids are strong and confident and way more popular than our nerdy selves at their age. We may not have as much time as we’d like with our kids. We hate saying no—to TV shows that treat meanness and teasing as a joke, to music that says that having a boyfriend or making conquests is the most important thing in the world—and we’re exhausted with trying to keep up with our kids’ multimedia, overscheduled, socially networked worlds.

So, what’s a thoughtful parent to do? There’s an elementary-school teaching approach called the Responsive Classroom that I think is also a great parenting approach. It fosters bullying prevention. The principles include valuing kindness and empathy as much as academic achievement. (Too many of us convey that good grades are responsibility number one; what if we insisted that values were?) Being responsive parents also means understanding that we learn through social interaction. When our kids see us bullying a telemarketer, making a fat joke, treating workers dismissively, calling someone stupid, they’re learning from us. If we don’t stand up for the downtrodden, if our kids don’t see us walking the walk as well as talking the talk by volunteering and by being kind, they’re seeing that words mean nothing. And finally, we need to stress constantly the importance of cooperation, assertion, responsibility, and self-control.

Bullying is a trendy topic right now, but it’s a problem that’s always been with us. The prefix “cyber” and the phrase “mean girl” have made a perennial concern seem new. It’s easy to mock helicopter parents, but a benefit to having parents trying to be more involved in their kids lives is that they can see bad behavior up close. But then we must own our responsibility rather than blaming others or dismissing bad behavior. Perhaps most important of all, we need to talk to our kids about being bystanders. The girl who giggles when her friend teases someone, even if she doesn’t engage herself, or the boy who says “dude, lay off” when his friend calls another kid a faggot have chosen to be allies instead of bystanders: The first kid has allied with the bully, and the second has allied with the victim. The latter kid is displaying behavior we have to model and talk about at home.

Easy solutions and easy outrage are just that: easy. We owe it to our kids to go deeper.

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RevJDSpears says:

Marjorie, “We owe it to our kids to go deeper” this is absolutely true BUT to go deeper one must first step in! All the efforts that you have identified as “facile” are merely stepping in! Public awareness must be raised while more effort to create and provide a safty net is being accomplished. Far too many glbti youth do not see that there are others like them and therefore take actions that they can see that would stop the harassment. By providing a human face of other glbti persons, some of whom are very accomplished, may provide that last connection needed to help prevent their suicide.

Supporting these “facile” efforts while going deeper is what is needed!

RNBaum says:

You are right that we should absolutely do more, but I am dismayed by your rejection of ordinary gay men & women’s videos as “narcissistic and dull.” Dan Savage asked ordinary people to make these videos precisely because he realizes that 99.9% of gay teens will not grow up to be Tim Gunn (or Dan Savage, for that matter). To reject them out of hand seems quite arrogant — And it seems intellectually false to decide from the beginning that these videos don’t mean anything to gay teens. The comments of blogs about GLBT issues suggest that there are indeed a number of gay teens out there who are desperate for positive role models and for whom the sheer number of “It Gets Better” videos might suggest the existence of a different reality than the one they inhabit.

J Carpenter says:

Mean kids come from parents, mean or not; parents teach kids either actively, directly how to be mean by their own example, language and attitudes—or indirectly by their example, their inaction, their silence, their lack of compassion for others, leaving the kids to listen to their darker angels and social influence on how to behave. Good, active and pro-active parenting rarely has negative outcome—maybe some rebellion, some anti-behavior, but in the long run, good outcome, I am convinced of it. Not helicoptering, not overbearing, but positive, engaged leading the child to love and serve God, love neighbors—-

I agree with your emphasis on parenting, but I do think the videos are helpful.

I had kids call me “faggot” and “queer” from the moment I set foot in middle school. In my typically overly intellectual way, I pointed out to them that, as a virgin, I didn’t have a sexual orientation, which confused them but generally shut them up (yes, I was a huge geek). My step-father taught me to box, which I hated but the couple of times that kids physically bullied me they didn’t walk away unscathed and that was enough to discourage others.

Starting about the age of 10, I loved going through the personals section of the alternative Atlanta paper “Creative Loafing” because seeing all of the “GWM seeks…” and “GJM seeks…” made me feel less alone and confirmed that there were others out there like me that I would meet and maybe fall in love with one day. That small thing was enough to sustain me.

I can only imagine how much more I would have been lifted by seeing these videos and imagining having the lives some of these people lead and having people like them as friends or lovers, having dinner with them or traveling with them to Paris. The videos aren’t a solution; they are a lifeline, they are people sharing the possibility of hope, and they are a record of how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.

“It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.”

As the rabbi of a congregation whose Board of Directors will consider Keshet’s “Do Not Stand Idly By” petition tonight, I must respectfully disagree with Marjorie Ingall’s assessment of the worth of such gestures. Symbols and symbolic acts are powerful to the extent that we imbue them with the meaning that comes from what we do after we sign the petition or take part in the protest march.

If, as I am confidrnt it will, our congregation’s Board signs on to this petition, it’s message will be disseminated within our congregation, another message among many that we, as a community, are concerned about diversity and, especially, the safety and well-being of those who are victims of hatred and oppression.

Joanna Brichetto says:

My daughter (now in 10th grade) is in a K-12 school that practices Responsive Classroom from day one. It works. I’ve never experienced a more supportive school environment.
Thank you for mentioning it and providing a link. The site is designed for teachers, but parents can get an idea of the overall approach.
Here are two links on the Responsive Classroom site that pertain specifically to bullying:

http://www.responsiveclassroom.org/newsletter/19_1nl_3.html
http://www.responsiveclassroom.org/pdf_files/11_2nl_3.pdf

Yeah, sorry Marjorie, but I agree with the above rabbi. I sincerely have to ask, “what is the point?”

And to critique your approach: Gee, that blogger, Rebecca, you quote certainly deems herself fit to speak for a very large group of people!

Whatever.

I agree with many of your comments Ms. Ingram. “It Gets Better” is a pretty anemic response to a very serious problem. That being said, you underestimate the importance of role models for LGBTQ youth. Isolation and hopelessness are the all too common experiences of those who are facing anti-gay harassment. To the average teenager it’s difficult to imagine that this will ever end. Anything that creates a chink in the the wall of hate can instill hope for a better tomorrow. We may not reach every affected kid; but at the Talmud says “he who saves a life …”

Steph F. says:

I’m with Bryan on this: for an LGBTQ kid, any sense that there might be another life out there can be a lifeline (at least, that’s what I think, drawing on my own experience). Just telling a kid “It gets better” might sound too facile to be useful in the moment for that kid, but I think being able to look through all of the videos that have accrued, in their sheer number and variety, could be instructive and helpful.

I agree with many of your comments Ms. Ingram. “It Gets Better” is a pretty anemic response to a very serious problem.

That being said, you underestimate the importance of role models for LGBTQ youth. Isolation and hopelessness are the all too common experiences of those who are facing anti-gay harassment. To the average teenager it’s difficult to imagine that this will ever end.

Also your criticism of Keshet is misplaced. Keshet directly intervenes in religious communities and schools. It is a great model and one that deserves study and duplication.

Anything that creates a chink in the wall of hate can instill hope for a better tomorrow. We may not reach every affected kid; but as the Talmud reminds us, “He who saves a single life, it is as if he saved the world.”

If only there were a solution… to the oppression and persecution of minorities by the majority. Then Jewish (and world) history would be a far different tale.

It only got better…for Jews in Nazified Europe…when they fled…to safer lands.

Sadly…but realistically…is this is the case too…for persecuted LGBTQ youth?

A.L. Bell says:

Maybe some schools are truly horrifically mean, and, certainly, adults ought to do whatever they can to change the culture in those schools.

And there are some kids out there who simply are very unusual and may face problems in any junior high or high school, no matter how accepting; maybe it would be good if we could create “boarding schools of refuge” for those kids, so that they would know that, if worse came to worse, they could just go to a boarding school somewhere and never have to deal with nasty dorks ever again.

But my guess is that most kids of any kind who feel depressed and ostracized are suffering more from a reasonable reaction to the lack of control associated with being a kid, internal depression, social phobia, high-functioning Asperger’s (or some Asperger’s like communication disorder that doesn’t have a name) etc. than from outrageous bullying.

After I filed this column, an acquaintance pointed me toward the Make It Better Project, dedicated to making life better and schools safer for LGBT kids RIGHT NOW. It looks great: http://makeitbetterproject.org/.

Last week, after Keshet launched their pledge, both NFTY (the Reform Movement’s youth group) and USY (the Conservative Movement’s youth group) sent out messages to their entire lists taking a strong stand for inclusion and against bullying.

When I was a teenager, pretty much the only thing that kept me in the closet was a sense that USY didn’t have a place for me as a gay kid. I can’t imagine what a difference receiving such a letter (signed by Rabbi Steven Wernick, the #1 guy at United Synagogue) would have made for me. But it would have been huge. I doubt that USCJ and Wernick would have been spurred into taking such an active stance had it not been for the petition.

This doesn’t get them off the hook. There’s still a lot to do to make Jewish spaces safe and inclusive for everyone. But each step matters. Symbolic steps matter not only for their messages, but because they also allow us to hold our leaders accountable. So look at the list of signatories, and find the leaders of institutions you care about. Challenge them: You signed this pledge? Great, let’s talk about what the next step is.

The world will ALWAYS have to deal with bullies- if they are not attacking the gay kid, they’ll attack the kid they brand as “other” or different. Parents AND teachers are responsible for raising menschen. At least we in the religious educational setting are allowed, encouraged and (personally) enthusiastically teaching ethics and derek eretz. Public school settings need to up their ante, instead of taking the hands off approach.

Marjorie, thanks for continuing the discussion.

I have to say, I have had concerns with pledges in the past. As a recent colleague graduate, I’ve been signing petitions up the wazoo, and the redundant ones seem unnecessary. The worst thing about a petition is that it seems like there won’t be any follow-up, and become overshadowed by newer articles in the media.

However, I think this petition, to end LGBT Bullying within Jewish Spaces is huge, unique, and can leave a lasting impression. Unlike other petitions, I actually forwarded this one to my rabbis from high school, college, and Israel. We initiated important dialogues, and I got them thinking about homophobia as an issue within the Orthodox realm. I forwarded them the Statement of Principles, and they are now thinking about the issues and becoming much more sensitive and knowledgeable on the subject. Moreover, having a petition signed by thousands upon thousands of people is huge, and can (and should) be leveraged. It creates validity on the issue, and an acnkowledgement that the problem exists and MUST be talked about. The solution, I believe, is to end ignorance, hate, and create more open and safe environments. That can only happen with open communication and discussion of the issue.

All in all, this petition can (and will) have lasting results. I can’t wait for a world where LGBT Jews can finally feel a sense of belonging within their own communities.

At the very least, you’ve reminded me to watch the way I talk about others (the driver who cuts me off, the postman who doesn’t seem up to the task of mail delivery), in front of my children and in general. Thanks for that – it’s easy to say “I would have been better than that” but harder to see where my speech is implicitly teaching my son to disrespect others.

Peace&Acceptance says:

While I’m glad that the community is coming together to help LGBTQ bullying, I wish that people would come together about bullying altogether. There haven’t been only 8 suicides either; there have been many, many more. If I can find the research online, I will post how many attempted teen suicides there are. I know it’s an astonishing amount! Both of my children were bullied: My was very popular at elementary school, but we moved before her 6th grade year and the new school was small and not accepting at first; she integrated after about two years but she contemplated suicide. My son was born low functioning autistic and graduated with honors last year. The torment he suffered at the hands of bullies changed him forever. We moved after graduation and he chose his college depending on where the bullies were NOT going. He just now can drive thru the town he loved without shaking and ticking. I’m not sure how long it will be before he can drive there and get out all by himself.

Bullying needs to stop. We learned the ONLY way, as a parent, to stop bullying was to call the police. Schools can only do so much. The bully’s parents will/can only do so much. We learned this the hard way…and way later than we would have liked to. If anyone reading this needs help, or knows someone who might, please pass on this piece of information.

We practice kindness and spread kindness. That’s a practice that can change not just one child, but the whole world.

Finally, I’m sure we can all think of adult bullies that we know and that gain much strength and power, too.

You write that “signing a petition is like wearing a pink ribbon… lose the pink and go get a mammogram. Donate to organizations that work for access to health care.” You’re right, of course, that if all you do is wear a pink ribbon the impact is minimal (although not zero).

But the organizations raising funds and awareness for breast cancer keep pushing the pink ribbon campaign not just because they think the world is a little prettier with all that pink. They do it because they know that the symbol matters. It encourages the wearer to act by donating. It reminds the wearer’s friends that they should consider donating, too. And those funds fuel concrete action.

Likewise with the Keshet pledge campaign. Want to see concrete action on homophobia in Jewish settings? Encourage people to support the good work of Keshet and all the other Jewish LGBT organizations. How might you get them to support Keshet? By reminding them of the urgency of the problem, by making a public statement and by engaging them in the process.

How do you get Jewish schools and synagogues to talk about inclusion? By asking them to sign on, as organizations, so that the staff and board have to discuss, vote and approve. Will some shuls end the process there? Certainly. But many will go further.

And as many others above have noted, symbols DO matter. An online petition or pledge is only one strategy among many, but it IS a strategy and does have value. Especially for LGBT folks, who are constantly scanning their communities for signs of inclusion and symbols of affirmation. Knowing that shul “X” signed on WILL matter to a closeted gay teen and it WILL remind the congregation that the community values LGBT people.

Finally – on “preaching to the choir” – it may be true that many of those signing the Keshet pledge are already on board. But every good choir has to practice. In moments like this, the “choir” becomes re-energized and is reminded of the value and necessity of inclusion.

Theresa says:

Petitions and pink ribbons can be window dressing, but couldn’t you say the same thing about kippot, or wedding rings? They can also be a coming out, a spur, a reminder of commitment. Of course, you then have to act on the commitment.

“You have to reach out, not just tolerate.” Thank you. In a world that includes Fred Phelps and the Ugandan parliament, we’re fortunate that there are people who are really, really nice to those who are “different”, but there is a difference between being nice and showing that you Get It.

I risk irony by giving a seemingly facile example. Google just gave me about 10 non-Orthodox synagogue membership forms. All but one had some failure of GLBT inclusion.

– One temple had spaces for prospective member couples to write “Male Name” and “Female Name,” but most asked for “Adult 1″ and “Adult 2″ — not bad.

– “Mother’s Hebrew name,” “Father’s Hebrew name.” If you add “if applicable,” it’s instantly inclusive of children of same-sex couples.

– Male, Female. Married, Single. These checkboxes should always include an “other” or a write-in option. To collect more pertinent data, consider why you are asking the questions.

Changing forms doesn’t change the world, but it shows that somebody saw the world through another’s eyes for just a second.

As I always write to my congresspeople when they co-sponsor some doomed do-gooder bill, I applaud the petition signers for taking a stand, and I look forward to seeing their next steps on this issue.

Marjorie, something CONCRETE and practical we can do is write to our school administrators to ask what our alma maters are doing about GLBTQ bullying. We launched writeyourprincipal.com on National Coming Out Day to collect these letters and the responses, with a special focus on religious schools of all kinds/ Hope you’ll check it out and email with questions.

Daniel says:

Perfectly offtrack, plain stupid arguments from the author.
Haven’t seen a dull video yet, they’re all overwhelming, speak from the heart.
Yeah, it’s not the solution to the problem but it’s people who’ve been through the same hardships and give a great piece of advice to their peers.
Shkoyach to ‘It gets better’ !!!

I love the “write your principal” idea. Thanks!

A response from Idit Klein, executive director of Keshet:

While I appreciate you calling attention to the alarming epidemic of GLBT teens driven to suicide, I am dismayed that you would so quickly reject Do Not Stand Idly By: A Jewish Community Pledge to Save Lives that welaunched in partnership with over 100 Jewish organizations.

Referring to our campaign and the It Gets Better project you write, “These initiatives are admirable. The only trouble with them is that they won’t do any good.” I could not disagree more. Here’s why:

1. Symbols DO matter. Especially if you are a member of a group of people who are consistently given the message: you are not worthy, you are not equal, you are a source of shame, you should feel shame. For a closeted gay teenage boy, hearing that his rabbi took a public stand against homophobia is beyond affirming; it’s potentially lifesaving.

2. The pledge is only one step in the process. For over nine years, Keshet has been actively working to make the Jewish community inclusive by training Jewish educators, producing GLBT inclusive resources from a Jewish perspective, working with hundreds of rabbis and parents and youth who want to make their synagogues, camps, day schools, and youth groups safer and need support to do so. We will make sure the pledge is just one step of many on the path to full inclusion and equality for GLBT Jews.

3. The pledge has already inspired action. TO SEE THE REST OF THE RESPONSE, PLEASE SEE: http://marjorieingall.com/keshet-responds/

lili garfinkel says:

margie
Very thoughtful commentary.. bullying is age old and requires thoughtful responses for everyone; parents need to talk about the impact of bullying and what kids should do not only if they are targets but when they see others targeted; many issues;
Here’s another good site.. interactive for kids and also includes kids with disabilities; http://www.pacer.org/bullying/index.asp

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Get It Better

Bullying is wrong, but so are facile solutions

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