If you were taunted with words like “fag” and “dyke” daily in school, to what extent would this affect you? Perhaps the experience would keep you hiding in the closet for years, send you into a depression, or lower your academic achievement. Maybe the homophobic culture of your school would convince you that gay people are inferior, and you might start using the ubiquitous phrase “that’s so gay” to describe every unfavorable person, place, or thing.
Or, if the bullying were unrelenting, perhaps you might do the unimaginable: commit suicide.
That was the tragic consequence in April for a 6th grade Massachusetts student named Carl Walker-Hoover, a victim of anti-gay bullying. People who knew Carl described him as flamboyant and effeminate. He defied gender expectations. Although he did not identify as gay, students harassed Carl daily, calling him names and saying disdainfully that he acted like a girl.
Months of being taunted and harassed finally became too much for Carl to bear. On April 6, he hanged himself with an extension cord in his Springfield, Mass., home while his mother was cooking dinner downstairs.
This 11-year-old sent the world a powerful message, one demonstrating just how painful words can be. His death also provided educators with another illustration of the need to address homophobic attitudes in schools. The consequences of anti-gay bullying may be difficult at times to see, but they can forever alter, and sometimes end, the life of a child. It is time for educators to stop overlooking anti-gay language and start responding to it with the same vigor we would to the expression of racist attitudes.
The fact is that this type of hate language, used against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, youths, is common in American schools. Students who are LGBT—or, are perceived to be—are frequently bullied. In fact, sexual orientation is, according to a 2005 nationwide survey, the second most common reason for repeated harassment in schools.
Words such as ‘gay,’ ‘fag,’ and ‘queer’ are often used as the most hurtful insults students can throw at one another.”
Carl’s mother, Sirdeaner Walker, is doing what many educators are afraid to do: taking a stand against anti-LGBT bullying and advocating for schools to make meaningful changes. She is sharing her son’s story as a way of educating the public, and gave permission to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, to discuss it within the context of the national Day of Silence, an event held in thousands of schools to raise awareness of anti-LGBT bullying. (This year’s Day of Silence was held April 17.)
My sister, Kaitlyn Hanlon, was Carl’s summer camp counselor. She organized the Day of Silence at Springfield College to commemorate Carl and to educate the community about the serious consequences of anti-LGBT attitudes in schools. The extended Walker family attended the event, which, ironically, fell on Carl’s birthday.
Tragically, the day prior to the Day of Silence, another 11-year-old boy took his life in Atlanta, after frequent anti-gay bullying. Fifth grader Jaheem Herrera’s circumstances were eerily similar to Carl’s. They both had reached out to school officials for help, but had no faith that enough was being done to change their situation. Both children decided that the only way to stop the harassment was to hang themselves.
Despite Americans’ changing attitudes toward LGBT people and the existence of more-positive portrayals of gay characters in the media, children are still receiving the message that it is abnormal for two people of the same gender to love each other. Words such as “gay,” “fag,” and “queer” are often used as the most hurtful insults students can throw at one another. Two men showing any affection is frowned upon. When I watched the presidential inauguration with 2nd graders, the children exclaimed, “Ewww! That’s gross!” as the male politicians kissed one another on the cheek.
At a young age, children begin to use the word “gay” as a put-down. Recently, a 2nd grade girl called her classmate “gay” because he was walking with his arm around another boy. I have heard children refer to the word “gay” as the “g-word,” implying a belief that this word is not appropriate to say when speaking with a teacher. This is not surprising, considering that most students have never heard a teacher use the word “gay.” Imagine how profound it would be for students to hear their teacher speak about gay people in a neutral context, rather than within the usual, negative context.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are a minority group that deserves to be acknowledged and respected in schools, in the same way that diverse ethnic and religious groups are. An increasing number of American families are headed by same-sex couples, and gay youths are coming out at younger ages. These children should be able to see themselves and their families represented in the curriculum. Educators need to respond to these changes in society and prepare children to interact with diverse people in respectful ways.
Instead, many teachers ignore homophobic language or avoid a candid dialogue on this issue. As a result, students learn that homophobic attitudes are acceptable. We should address this problem by initiating conversations with our students about anti-gay bias, and by discussing LGBT people in the curriculum. It is very simple to tie these themes into lessons about family diversity, respect, the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, the Holocaust, discrimination, and other contexts. Unfortunately, many aspects of U.S. history that involve LGBT people have been needlessly censored.
Why are these types of discussions being left out of our classrooms? Many teachers have told me that they are afraid of parent backlash and are unsure if their administrators would support them. Others are not prepared for how to discuss these issues in age-appropriate contexts.
Professional development would help mitigate some of these obstacles. If such programs were initiated by the school administration, members of the entire school community would understand that they are encouraged and expected to address anti-gay attitudes. This awareness would help decrease levels of fear and better prepare teachers to prevent and respond to such harmful language.
Carl Walker-Hoover was only one of countless students who have been hurt by anti-gay harassment. Many of them suffer consequences that can include risky behavior, depression, poor academics, and homelessness. But sometimes, as Carl’s story shows, the consequences also can be fatal. Like Carl and Jaheem, a 17-year-old Ohio student named Eric Mohat committed suicide, in 2007, after being bullied for his perceived sexual orientation. The following year, an 8th grade California student, Lawrence King, was shot and killed in his school. The classmate who killed him had repeatedly harassed Lawrence for being gay.
According to research by GLSEN in 2007, 86.2 percent of LGBT youths reported being verbally harassed at school because of their sexual orientation, and almost half were physically harassed.
We can hope that educators will draw courage from the example of Carl Walker-Hoover’s mother and do their part to help put an end to this bullying. The lesson from these tragedies should be clear: It is long past time that we create positive changes in our schools that can lessen hateful speech and avoid real heartbreak.
A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2009 edition of Education Week as A Tragic Lesson in Anti-Gay Bullying