Sunday, May 25, 2008

Another LGBT Issue More Important Than Gay Marriage

On May 20th, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) put out a report on anti-LGBT hate violence that indicated a 24% increase in incidents from 2006 to 2007. I wish I could say I am surprised to hear this.

Jovida Ross, the Executive Director of Community United Against Violence in San Francisco, stated that the increase indicates that “more people within the queer community are reporting sexual assaults” and considered it a “hopeful sign that [queer people] are coming out of isolation to heal from trauma” and a demonstration of “the positive impact of education and outreach.”

While Ross’ optimistic, “the glass is half full” approach to the rise in reported anti-LGBT violence is refreshing, I remain skeptical. So does Avy Skolnik, National Programs Coordinator of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, who suggests that the actual number of violent anti-LGBT incidents is probably even higher than reported: “We know that the 2, 430 people who called on our organizations in 2007 are only a small fraction of the actual number of LGBT people who experienced bias-motivated violence.”

Over the past year, LGBT-related bullying and violence has particularly stood out as a daunting challenge to the self-determination and self-expression of students in public schools. Perhaps the biggest tragedy was the February 2008 murder of eighth grader Lawrence King by fourteen-year-old classmate Brandon McInerney in California.

King’s death touched close to home for many educators, including myself. I witness verbal and physical harassment regularly in the hallway of my school, often involving words like “faggot” and “sissy,” and it frequently goes unreported by students and teachers alike. This year a large number of violent attacks have been made by and on our students, both inside and outside of the building of my school. While none of these attacks have been explicitly connected to LGBT issues, gender plays so significant a role in the nature of the aggression that it seems inextricably linked to gender identity and expression. Unfortunately, though, bullying is considered a fact of life for middle schoolers - “well, they’re in middle school, what do you expect?” and “it builds character” are used far too often by teachers and administrators as excuses to look the other way.

Fed up with our school’s general complacency about bullying, which is a more pressing concern than bubble sheets in the lives of our students, several teachers – most of us queer women - created a group called Respect For All to meet once a week. Despite its cheesy name, we anticipated that Respect For All would jump-start our school’s progress towards effectively addressing bullying. Unfortunately, founding and maintaining this kind of group has proven extremely challenging. Initially, several unnamed colleagues in the school expressed discomfort about the group, telling administrators that it would take up valuable time even though the meetings took place after school hours. Administrators failed to attend meetings, provide resources, or lend an open ear. Also, few educators have the energy to create and advocate for institutional change while mired in individual lesson planning and the everyday exhaustions of teaching. Between administrative discouragement and a lack of teacher investment, for which I am partly responsible, Respect For All has disbanded.

Combating bullying requires more than the existence of groups like Respect For All – it requires a collaborative effort and careful allocation of schools’ resources. As in many public schools under No Child Left Behind, my administration will abruptly halt regular school programming to give “pop” standardized tests. But it seems unfathomable that a school-wide day of education about the devastating effects of widespread bullying could feasibly take the place of scheduled classes. The efforts of Respect For All to create a “Respect Week” to kick off the 2008-2009 school year are wasted if administrators at our school aren’t willing to make room at the beginning of next school year for anti-bullying, pro-awareness workshops and activities for students.

So what can we do, in schools and outside of schools, to combat anti-LGBT violence?

First, we must advocate for collaborative efforts among teachers, staff, and administrators to confront bullying and violence in schools. Everyone in schools must recognize that classroom time and the learning students do in the education system are about more than test preparation – regardless of what the state and federal governements would lead us to believe. Tearing down No Child Left Behind is crucial in this endeavor.

Second, there needs to be a shift of some of the focus of LGBT organizations and resources away from gay marriage and onto issues like anti-LGBT violence and homophobia and transphobia in the education system and the justice system. Though I’m not inherently opposed to gay marriage, marriage laws will not fundamentally change the fact that violent homophobia and transphobia seem to be socially sanctioned just about everywhere in the nation. We need some of HRC’s - for one example - money and time to be channeled into ensuring universal LGBT and HIV-positive health care access, eradicating LGBT harassment in schools, fighting police brutality, ending the discrimination against undocumented immigrants that affects many LGBT communities, and addressing the abuses of transgender people in United States prisons.

Third, we must challenge the misconception that throwing more people into jail will effectively address anti-LGBT violence. Though Brandon McInerney committed a horrifying act of hatred, trying McInerney as an adult and pushing for a life sentence without parole will not ultimately help to prevent anti-LGBT violence. Though some might convince themselves that it will in order to cope with the anger such a tragedy incites, the prison industrial complex is more about quarantining society’s “unwanteds” than it is about rehabilitation or protection. Even hate crime legislation may not ultimately serve LGBT aims. Due to their selective enforcement, bias laws may ultimately harm "the most disadvantaged members of society and ironically those whom [they] are intended to help,” as Frederick M. Lawrence states in the abstract for his recent book. The criminal justice system is notorious for its blatant targeting of minorities, transgender people, and queer youth, and reinforcing its power by looking to it to solve our problems with anti-LGBT violence without addressing its many problems will only hurt LGBT people more in the end.

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