Tonight (Monday) the good version of the anti-bullying bill made it through the first of two votes in the NC House. This is the version that includes explicit mention of sexual orientation and gender identity as aspects of a student’s life that may make them more likely to be bulled.
The vote was a very close one – just 59 to 57 – but I am reminded of the time I had to back a truck over a flexible irrigation pipe at the research farm. The irrigation system was made up of flexible hoses joined to one another by metal couplings. Having been warned to avoid backing over a coupling I managed to miss the nearest one but only by about this much. When a co-worker teased me about it my boss said to me, “You know what? An inch is as good as a mile.”
Part of why I’ve followed this bill as closely as I have – I wrote to and called my state representative, who in fact voted in favor of the bill, and I’ve already sent a thank you message – is that I am so utterly galled by the two main conservative responses to this bill: to claim that recognizing that queer students are often picked on will somehow lead to gay marriage being legalized and to claim that the bill is insulting to teachers and administrators because it suggests they don’t know which kids need to be protected.
I hate to break it to the conservatives – Republican and Democrat alike – in the state house, but some teachers and principals plain don’t know which kids need to be protected. Worse, though, and much more likely in my experience, they know exactly which kids are the targets of bullying and for one or more of a variety of reasons they simply turn a blind eye. Worst of all, there are some teachers and administrators who actually join in.
This happened to me twice in high school. For various complicated reasons two of my high school teachers had explicit knowledge, or close enough so as not to make a difference, that I was a gay student in their school.
One had become one of my favorite teachers ever over the course of my senior year. She was warm and supportive in her commentary on my work and I did well in her class. When she found out I was gay, however, she immediately went cold. She just froze up like a block of ice. For the rest of the semester she didn’t address me directly that I can recall in any manner other than the bare minimum required by my presence in her classroom – say, during role call – or to criticize me in front of others. On the last day of school I stopped by her room to thank her for what I had learned that year – she remained a gifted teacher – and she simply looked at me before turning around and going back to what she was doing.
The other made fun of me to my face in front of most of our very large classroom. He was known, however, as a master manipulator and so of course he did it in an oblique way that would have required me to out myself to my classmates in order to call him on it. I have probably felt more humiliated in my life but I couldn’t say when. This left such an impression on me that a couple of years ago, when I heard he’d had some major health problems and that some old classmates were sending him cards together, I commented to The Boyf that I wanted to send the guy a card but that I wanted to write in it, “I guess I’m not disappointed that you lived.”
Hell, one of my acquaintances, when he asked an assistant principal to help him ward off some bullying, was told that “things might improve if [he] got a fucking haircut.” Yet another acquaintance was the object of such scorn that when he was assaulted one day in the lunchroom a group of teachers held up makeshift Olympics-style scorecards. Eventually he dropped out of school and, last I heard, had run off to a major city in another state and become a prostitute to support himself. He was in ninth grade.
I don’t think that the existence of these rules would have necessarily prevented the experiences I and others had. I know they wouldn’t have fixed the environment that made such treatment possible. However, having them on the books is important. Bureaucrats live and die by the letter of the law and a smart kid could potentially use these rules to chip away at the ground under the feet of an uncooperative or complicit administrator. A good teacher or a good administrator could use it as a shield against those in their communities who think fags are for beating up. It wouldn’t have stopped that teacher from making fun of me but it would have given me something to call him out on. When I was that age and convinced I was the only person in the world who felt what I felt, I would have taken all the help I could get.
In an ideal world, the conservatives who think this bill goes too far by naming categories of student, who think that teachers and administrators will protect all students equally, would be right. Unfortunately, we live in nothing even a little bit like an ideal world.