Bullying-Induced Suicide in My Backyard

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When people ask where I’m from, I say I’m from Harrisburg, PA. The truth is that I actually live 25 miles northwest of Harrisburg in a tiny town called Newport. Enough people don’t know where Pennsylvania’s state capital is, let alone my blip on the map.

Well, my blip on the map is now circulating on LGBT blogs, because it was the State Police from my little town that responded to the suicide of a 14-year-old named Brandon Bitner two little towns over. He ran in front of a tractor-trailer at 3 AM Friday morning. He’d been bullied for his perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.

“It was because of bullying,” friend Takara Jo Folk wrote in a letter to The Daily Item.

“It was not about race, or gender, but they bullied him for his sexual preferences and the way he dressed. Which,” she said, “they wrongly accused him of.”

Brandon went to Middleburg High School. I know Middleburg High School. I’ve been there plenty of times for football games, basketball games, and even cheerleading competitions. It’s just like any other little school here in rural central Pennsylvania. And Brandon was surely bullied just like kids at all the other little schools are bullied. Just like little schools in little towns in every other state of this country.

“Anyone in our school who looks different is tortured,” said sophomore Emily Beall-Ellersieck, of Middleburg, who said Bitner had “changed” around the eighth grade.

Bullying is a problem at the school, she said, and “It needs to be dealt with.”

A website has been set up at BrandonBitner.com to remember him. Take some time to look around it. Get to know this young man who left us and the friends who miss him.

The suicides that have been reported over the past few months are not new, they’re just newly visible. The toxic culture in these schools is not new, it’s just newly alerting.

When is tragic news going to hit your hometown? When are you going to be faced with a loss that could have been prevented?

Every day—every hour—that is wasted not teaching young people about sexual orientation and gender identity, about their bodies and their identities, and about how to respect each other is another missed opportunity to prevent this kind of loss.

And why do we delay? It’s because of the lies spread by the ex-gay movement, those same groups I was resisting this weekend. It’s because of the scare tactics of the religious right. It’s because we’re too fucking cowardly to stand up and say, “This is not okay and our kids deserve better,” because we don’t want to “offend” some parents.

Guess what, parents? Some of your kids are going to be gay or bi. Some of them are going to be trans. And guess what? It’s not amoral, it’s not abnormal, and it’s not unhealthy. If you disagree, that’s not okay. You’re wrong. The only thing unhealthy is the messages you send with your poorly informed point of view.

So wake up America. Your blind ignorance is killing your youth. Your repugnant sense of moral superiority is forcing young people to live in absolute misery. And your obnoxiously loud preaching against the LGBT community is the very model these young bullies learn from.

It’s time for people to start apologizing. It’s time that people create change.

Enough of this “It Gets Better” bullshit. The false optimism is giving way too many people the impression that they’re making a difference when they’re only treating the symptoms and not the cause. Until we get in there and actually teach—actually raise awareness—it won’t get better. And not only do we have to teach our young people, we have to teach their parents, their teachers, and their administrators.

The other kids get it. Read all their comments on the article. They totally get it. They just don’t have any support to do anything about it.

It’s all you adults out there who are the real problem. No, I do not respect your beliefs. Your beliefs can shove it. Your beliefs are the problem. Your beliefs are not just a different perspective; they’re a wrong perspective.

To every single individual out there who has ever equivocated about teaching kids about sexual orientation and gender identity as a means to prevent this kind of bullying, the blood is on your hands.

[Note: I penned an additional reflection about my experience at Brandon's funeral. Please click here to read it.]

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There are 21 Comments to "Bullying-Induced Suicide in My Backyard"

  • Amanda Walter says:

    I love it Zack……Bravo!

  • Beth Bowles says:

    I love this, and completely agree with it. Unfortunately, the closed-minded bigots who spew the hate and anger that fuels these bullies won’t understand what you’re saying, even if they read this.

  • Jane says:

    The question I’ve been asking myself since the tweets and podcast from this weekend: how do I begin to go after the cause — the privilege and hegemony that fundamentalist Christians use and hide behind? How do I awaken the sleeping giant that is the liberal mainline Protesant denominations that they cannot “live and let live” with the conservatives? I think “It Gets Better” has a place, but it is all too easy to make a video and feel like we’ve done the work. We have to stop “liking” causes on FB and get our asses in gear.

  • Janine says:

    I believe this happened on Friday Morning(11-05-2010) around 3am, not Saturday(11-06-2010).

  • Buffy says:

    Homophobia harms everyone. Some of these assholes fail to realize while they’re engendering hatred against “homos” that it’s not just gay people who get harmed. All that need happen is for someone to be perceived as gay (or bi, or transgender) for them to be victimized.

    When will people wake up?

  • Well said Zack. So much can be done to create safe schools that affirm all students. Parents can also affirm their children. And learn acceptance. Parents, teachers, youth pastors be explicit. Say the words, “it is okay to be gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual. It is fine and normal and will not change anything between us.” we have to take steps to make it better and to transform our homes and schools and neighborhoods. The students at the school speak so much wisdom and should be heard by the adults.

  • T T Thomas says:

    Great blogpost, Zack…it’s always disurbing when it happens so close to home, or hometown. I had a similar reaction when Seth Walsh of Tehachapi, CA died—it’s less than an hour outside Los Angeles. As I watch the It Gets Better vids, I can’t help but wonder if we need to address the situation before it gets better. Seems to me that it mainly gets better when people leave home (and hometown), and that rarely happens before 17 or 18. I’m seeing so many kids coming out at 12, 13, 14, even younger, and it amazes me because I know that, with very few exceptions, these kids are going to be living a living hell until they are old enough for…it to get better.

    Truth is, it usually gets worse before it gets better, and that’s the time frame when GLBT teens are absolutely the MOST vulnerable. It’s not enough just for them to come out; they have to have the tools to deal with what coming out implies. Don’t mean to sound negative at all, but sometimes I feel as though we need to provide these kids with tools for the time BEFORE it gets better.

    Just thinking about these things a lot lately. As I wrote up posts on the first rash of 10 kids who took their own lives over the last couple months, and then wrote about Brandon Bitner yesterday, it feels as though we’re missing something much earlier in the GLBT-identifying process. I know everyone comes out at different ages, but the older one is, the more tools one has a chance of having to deal with the deadly slings and arrows. Usually.

    Like your blog—thanks! tarra

  • Michael Tibbetts says:

    Zack, you’ve done it again. It does my heart good to hear the unequivocal outrage in the tone of your message; it’s more than justified and long overdue in this discussion.

    Where harm to minors is concerned, their beliefs CAN shove it.

  • David says:

    I’m afraid it doesn’t always get better – and even if it has for most of us, we know that only because we managed to live through the bullying, the doubt, the harassment. For these kids who are contemplating suicide, it needs to get better RIGHT AWAY! They can’t wait for us to find a nice, comfortable way to talk to parents and schools about the necessity of paying attention to reality. They can’t wait for school boards and administrations to realize universally that the problem lies with them and not with the queer students who don’t know how to conform. They can’t wait….

  • Sarah Bibi says:

    Zack,
    You are such a wonderful person. I’m so honored to have known you since our Nibbler days at Bloomsburg. I’m sad to find you under these circumstances but so happy that you’ve written such an amazing and inspirational post. Bravo.
    xx,
    S

  • Adam F. says:

    This bully needs to stop but the generalization the the ‘religious right’ is to blame. Try being a Christian is these modern schools we get bullied for our beliefs. My dad is gay along with my uncle and both my brother-in-laws and never once have I or any that I associate with are biggots. You can’t go around angry saying that ‘all’ adults are the problem its not it I believe that the kids who directly CAUSE these deaths are murderers and should be subject to the full extent of the law. I am a 25 year old white straight male that is in Law Enforcement. I get bullied on occasion for my beliefs so does that make me a bad persaon because I’m an adult Christian male in modern society? You complain about single minded people and biggots but you yourself spew single minded biggotry in this post. I have gay family members and I would do anything even lay down my life for them. Hell they wouldn’t have to be family and I still would.

    • ZackFord says:

      The biggest problem is the adults who have the power to interrupt the bullying (by interrupting it when it happens) and prevent it (by teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity in the schools) but do not.

      Christians in the United States have more power than any other group. Are you more likely to fear for your safety, to be homeless, or to commit suicide just because of the way you are treated? I’m sorry, but that is not the case. I encourage you to listen to the podcast we recently did about heterosexual privilege to think about how different your experience is as a straight man, and whether the “bullying” you perceive because of your beliefs in any way compares.

      Seriously, please don’t comment here again until you’ve listened to that full show, read through the heterosexual questionnaire, and really considered how your place in the world compares to the LGBT youth who are afraid just to go to school each day.

  • Nate says:

    Bullying must be addressed – but why is bullying against gays to be less tolerated than other forms of bullying? Why should one be more concerned about bullying against gays than fat kids – or slow kids? You know the answer – it shouldn’t, so lets make this a fight against bullying instead of a fight about LGBT.

    You say ‘If you disagree, that’s not okay. You’re wrong’ and ‘I do not respect your beliefs. Your beliefs can shove it. Your beliefs are the problem. Your beliefs are not just a different perspective; they’re a wrong perspective.’

    Well, I disagree with those statements. The beliefs are not the issue, it is the application of the beliefs by some very misguided people. I am a Christian and nowhere does my Bible tell me it is OK to mistreat someone based on their orientation. I can disagree with the lifestyle and still treat people with the love that is expected – that is what true Christianlity is supposed to do.

    Finally, you need to respect my beliefs. If you don’t respect mine, why should I respect yours? You don’t have to agree, but without respect there can be no real dialogue where people can learn to bond more on common ground instead of dividing on minor differences. I hear a lot about the ‘haters’, but I think if you look at comments at large -much like yours, it draws the question about who the real haters are?

    • The big difference here is suicide.

      Yes, there are different types of bullying, and each is important and need to be addressed. But not all the consequences are the same. Currently, we see an epidemic of predominantly young boys taking their lives after being bullied for being gay or unmanly. A general prohibition against bullying will not correct this, because these boys have to be affirmed for who they are.

      This does create a problem for folks like you who believe it’s morally wrong to be gay. The dilemma is, how can you oppose bullying without also affirming gay people? And that is a question that you may need to pray about. I say this as a Christian myself who for many years struggled with homosexuality in light of my Christian faith.

      I recently read an excellent article by John Corvino who was asked by evangelicals how they should respond to bullying. It might help to contribute to your current thinking about this topic.

      http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-what-do-we-do-with-evangelicals-who-want-to-help/

    • ZackFord says:

      Nate, I think I’ll hold off on a longer comment until I see your response to Jane and Peterson’s insightful comments. For now, though, I encourage you to read the post I wrote when this spate of suicides first came to light. It has many facts that will hopefully inform your understanding on this issue.

      Pick: Kids Learn About Gays or Kids Kill Themselves

  • Jane says:

    ate, There are a couple of things that concern me about your post. The one that stands out most for me is saying you can “disagree with the lifestyle.” Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer isn’t about a lifestyle choice. It’s about living authentically who you are at the core. To reduce our sexuality and gender expression to a lifestyle is to deny us one of the foundational things that make us who we are. My lifestyle is that of a single woman, in her mid 40s who works, goes to church, drinks too much coffee, enjoys time with friends and family and knits. My lifestyle is wholly separate from my sexual orientation. So, my question is always, what about my lifestyle do you not agree? Yes, bullying as a whole needs to be addressed, however, there are forms of bullying that are more prevalent and do more damage. I was, and still am, the fat girl. Just yesterday I experienced the grown-up, “nice” version of bullying because of my body size. You know what, even as a child, I easily got over the ridicule about my body size, but the harm I faced because of my sexuality still gives me pause today. The bullying that we are seeing now can directly be linked to the bad application of Christian theology. The “hate the sin and love the sinner” doesn’t work here. Our sexuality and/orgender expression is not sin. The bullying happening now is predicated on the belief that who these young people are, or suspected of being, is wrong at its foundation. The young people know that they cannot change who they are, but they are CONSTANTLY told that who they are is wrong/horrible/unacceptable/an abomination. That’s why this is different. We are talking about fundamental differences in the types of bullying that occurs. Yes, all bullying is bad – no doubt. There are types of bullying, that being perpetrated against the LGBTQ community being one type, that cause more damage. We must make a stand against this. And those of us who are LGBTQ make strong stands because we don’t have others who, as strongly, fight with or for us.

  • Nate says:

    Jane,

    Thank you for your well-reasoned, mannerly response – this is the type of helpful dialogue I was referring to. I cannot say from experience, but am inclined to disagree with the assertion that LGBT bullying is worse than that against obesity or others – I would need more information and research – I think it depends on each individual.

    All have sinned and fallen short of the glory – we do not have the luxury of ‘remaining authentic’. You may not like me much (due to my views), but I am certain I would be an outright awful person if it weren’t for my beliefs.

    Life is all about choices and I believe we are all predisposed to certain things whether it be obesity, alcoholism, homosexuality, or even anger, bitterness, or happiness – the nature side of things. Add in nurture, our experiences, success/failure, etc – and we have an individual who has tastes, desires, inclinations, etc.

    As a human, I have my own set of issues that differ from others, but as a Christian, I am called to the difficult task of changing my behavior to that which God has instructed – which can happen very easily with some things, but with great difficulty for others – a renewing of the mind (changing the way I think) is required.

    In many cases, this is not entirely possible – I will probably always want to sit down and devour a box of Oreos with milk in one sitting (gluttony), but it is not healthy, so I don’t. I did not determine that homosexuality is a sin, God says that and if I want the reward of heaven, I cannot embrace that choice. If I have a true friend, one that I care about and enough of a personal relationship with, I would be remiss if I neglected to tell them that my interpretation of the scripture says they need to stop a particular action in their life in order to see heaven.

    However, I need to be even more the friend if they decide to ignore my view and continue living their life as they choose. Unfortunately, as you and I agree, many apply their theology to those whom they have no business (no relationship) and cannot accept that one has made a choice that they do not agree with.

    I am not here to judge anyone’s orientation, only to point out as in my earlier post, that raging against Christianity is not the answer – the truth is that most of the kids who are doing the bullying probably don’t consider themselves Christian – and certainly don’t measure up to the standard applied to christians by Christ himself. Also, by working together against the common issue, bullying, we can accomplish more by focusing on our common issue than by removing many allies by denouncing this as a religious issue.

    I believe one of the first posters mentioned this – how to get people moving: Alienating those who share your view on bullying is not the way. Take homosexuality out of the issue and assume that taxes were our devisive issue – it loses out (I realize the analogy breaks down rather quickly).

  • Jane says:

    Nate,
    Thank you for your kind words.

    I do not share your view on the scriptures, nor on God’s view of LGBTQ persons. I do not believe we will agree. My sexual orientation is more than a decision, it is more than behavior. In fact, believing that it is a matter of behavior is exactly the mindset that fosters the type of bullying to which we are referring.

    IF same gender attraction is merely behavior then I should be able to change that. I tried for 10 years – unsuccessfully. What did occur, instead, was a constant barrage from those inside the church about how I should wear my hair or the kind of clothes I should wear. The belief is that if I simply act “like a woman” I can change my sexual orientation. With this mindset it is easy to target those individuals that do not match up to a commonly held standard of gender representation. This comes from the church; we who are Christian hold a position of privilege in this society of which we must be aware and keep in check. Our beliefs and morals often become that which is espoused by the general public, in order to be part of the “in” crowd. So, whether the bullies label themselves Christian, or not, they are acting under principles sanctioned by the church. While the “all have sinned and fallen short” is often quoted, we know that more time is spent preaching against LGBTQ lives than gluttony, so already we are starting on unequal ground.

    I find it interesting when you say, “However, I need to be even more the friend if they decide to ignore my view. . .” As a Christian, I don’t want my friends to follow my views or my thoughts. This life is not about what I believe, because I am in the process of learning and growing and make mistakes. Also, my concern is not my loved ones’ afterlife, but the quality of their life here and now. As the Lord’s prayer asks, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” My concern is how to make this world a safe place for all.

    You mention a changing of the way you think. I would like to challenge you on that. See, I tried for 10 years; I know the futility of “thinking away the gay.” I challenge you to spend one day thinking that LGBTQ persons are of infinite value, just as they are, in the sight of God. (Apologies to Zack: this has got to be hard as an atheist to allow us to hold this discussion here. I want to be aware of that and let you know that I appreciate you.) Spend one day imaging that love, in all its forms is beautiful.

    As for researching whether the bullying that happens to one because she is queer is more or less damaging than bullying because of obesity, there is none. You have me and my experience. I even hesitate to say that I was bullied because of being the fat girl. No one wanted to force me to change my eating habits, they didn’t care if I changed my behavior. As the fat girl I was taunted. I was an object of scorn. As an out queer woman, I’ve faced much worse.

    People want me to act differently, to be different. I am expected to act as a “woman,” to “think” as a woman – specifically I’m to be feminine. Society pushes against me in order to try and cause me to act according to their preconceived notions. It is frowned upon that my presence can upset the apple cart. See, as the fat girl I can be put in the back and no one cares, out of sight out of mind. As an out queer woman, people want me gone. There is a vast difference between those two realities.

    This is a religious issue. This is a Christian issue because we are the majority of the population – because we hold the privilege. The story that is coming from the churches is one of “conditional love”, and as has been said love is either unconditional or it is not. This issue is religious because there are no secular mandates against being LGBTQ. This is a religious issue because we have allowed Christian leaders to make strong, bigoted statements and then stood behind them, or stood to the side and done nothing.

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