As I sat down to write today’s post, I had intended to write on The Social Network and two excellent blog posts from Marc Tracy and Danielle Berrin on the new movie about Facebook creator, super-Jew and world’s youngest billionaire Mark Zuckerberg.
But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. There was something far heavier weighing on my mind.
Last time I counted, six American teens had committed suicide in the past few weeks after relentless anti-gay bullying. Six. They were subjected to the worst kinds of verbal and (in some cases) physical abuse by their peers in our schools. They were made to feel shame. They were made to feel their lives had no worth. They were literally bullied to death in places where they should have felt safe.
Asher Brown was 13. He put his father’s gun to his head last week. Seth Walsh, who was also 13, died this week after more than a week on life support. He had hanged himself in the backyard. Billy Lucas and Justin Aaberg were both 15. Cody Barker was 17. Tyler Clementi was 18.
Then you have the trans student who was denied his homecoming crown, the 11-year-old male cheerleader who got his ass kicked by schoolyard bullies, or the 21-year-old student body president at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor who has been stalked and bullied on the internet by a Michigan assistant attorney general, who hasn’t been fired.
There is something fundamentally wrong here. The kind of wrong that makes me want to pull my hair out. Queer students face a specific (particularly dehumanizing) form of bullying. As the last few weeks have shown us, lives are at stake.
As important as issues of marriage equality, ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and adoption rights are, they will only matter if we match those political gains with social transformation. We’ve come so far in these struggles, but we’ve still so far to go.
This is why institutions like Keshet and Jewish Mosaic, JQYouth, GLSEN, the Trevor Project, Nehirim, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, PFLAG, etc. are so fundamentally important. This is why passing the Safe Schools Improvement Act should be a no-brainer for our representatives in Congress. This is why our teachers, counselors, administrators and, of course, parents need to take the lead in making our schools and communities safer places for all people. In creating spaces where difference is celebrated, not demonized.
Indifference is the most awful thing in the world, to quote one of my favorite movies. Silence is the expression of that indifference. Silence, more than bullying, is what kills. This is no longer a time for a response of “not my problem.” It is everyone’s problem.
It is time to stand up, or continue standing, up in the face of the violation of children. It is time to be vocal.
In the spirit of tikkun olam I call upon Jewish communities in particular to be vocal and continue leading the charge in transforming our communities. As Jews, we know what it means to be outsiders. We know what it means to feel shame; at least, I know I do. We know what it means to hide our identities, to attempt to blend in and the damage that causes.
In the recently released Torah Queeries, Rabbi Linda Holtzman provides a valuable queer interpretation to Sukkot:
“The sukkah is a fragile reminder of the breadth and diverse nature of our harvest. We decorate with gourds, grapes, pumpkins, and corn, with cranberries, apples, squash and flowers. Into this mix of natural diversity, we invite human diversity. … If Sukkot is a time of celebrating diversity in the natural world, it must also be a time of celebrating all of us as diverse humans.”
As Sukkot comes to a close, we should attempt to carry these lessons, like the lessons of Yom Kippur, with us throughout the rest of the year. Our sukkahs may only stand for seven days, but they are simply a yearly physical reminder of our duty as Jews and as humans to celebrate diversity.
In the July/August issue of Tikkun, Jay Michaelson wrote,
“The suicide rate among gay teenagers is estimated to be six times that of straight ones. Need we say more? Does this statistic not teach us both that sexuality is a trait, not a choice (it’s odd to kill yourself because of a choice, no?), and that embracing sexual diversity is a religious imperative?”
A religious imperative. So, when I say that Jews have a duty to celebrate human diversity and to be vocal in the face of silence, it’s not some secular or wacky Reconstructionist thing. We all have a responsibility, from orthodox to secular.
In the face of these suicides, Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller, instituted the “It Gets Better” project and YouTube channel. Just one of the many ways people can get vocal and make a difference.
So to all the queer and trans teens out there who feel alone and worthless: You matter. You are valuable. You are not alone. Hang in there, it gets better.
The Trevor Project’s 24-hour suicide-prevention hotline for gay teenagers: 866-488-7386