“It Was All Because I Was Different”
Homophobia and transphobia among boys
One of the first pieces I ever wrote on Medium was about a twelve-year-old boy named Ronin Shimizu. Ronin had suicided four days earlier after being bullied incessantly by his peers, in part because he was a member of the Vista Jr. Eagles cheerleading team. That hit me hard, because I had been a cheerleader at his age, and I had been bullied for it just like him. “I am not feeling angry or political or thoughtful,” I wrote after hearing about his death. “I am utterly heartbroken.”
I never forgot Ronin, and his story, coupled with other losses I’ve experienced within the LGBTQ community, is part of what motivated me to centre the first podcast episode on a transgender boy.
Mostly what motivated me, however, was the boy himself: Eli.
When I think of resilience, I think of Eli. On the outside, he’s as cut and as worn as you can imagine, but at his core is a dogged spirit that has withstood countless attacks on his gender, body and identity. He faces transphobia with bitter resolve. He’s like a war survivor who’s repeatedly been sent back to the front lines.
One of Eli’s front lines has always been school, in particular physical education classes and spaces defined by youth culture, where he either has to fight to have his gender identity recognized or he has to be on guard against homophobia- or transphobia-based violence. He tries hard to protect himself, but sometimes he doesn’t make it.
“One of the guys came to the back of the bus,” Eli said on the podcast, “and he asked if I was really a girl. I told him no, but he didn’t believe me, so another guy came and they held me down and started trying to take off my pants. I was kicking and yelling but he was really big, he was like a foot taller than me and really strong. I couldn’t get away from them.” He went on to describe having his pants torn off and everyone laugh at him, and then being let down by teachers’ ineffective response after he reported what had happened.
His story is all too familiar. Nearly all LGBTQ youth have faced discrimination based on their gender or sexual orientation. Sometimes it’s outright physical violence. Sometimes it’s more implicit.
CJ is an undaunted gender-nonconforming boy with a penchant for makeup and RuPaul’s Drag Race. His mom, Lori, is a tireless supporter of his gender expression and long-time advocate for LGBTQ youth. In February, CJ turned eleven. A few days later, he had his heart broken when his best friend Allie ended their relationship. “She just said it,” CJ told Lori. “She said her family doesn’t hang out with gay people, so she can’t hang out with me. She said I’m the only gay person she knows, and she doesn’t want to know me.”
If you’ve ever seen a child experiencing heartbreak, you know how gut-wrenching it is. CJ was inconsolable. His pain was exacerbated by bullying that he had been enduring for months, by the uncertainty of what would happen with his other friends, and by the undeniable fact that Allie’s hatred was directed at one of his innermost and unchangeable parts of his identity. He hadn’t done anything wrong. All he’d done was be himself.
“That’s what’s heartbreaking. You know, the first few nights when he was coming home and just crying and distraught, like I was holding him on the couch and he was crying, and I was thinking, this is why some LGBTQ kids kill themselves. You know, the statistics of self-harm, substance abuse, unsafe sexual behaviours, all these statistics just came flooding into my head, and I’m like, this is what does it. This why that happens.” — Lori Duron on the podcast
Based on the experiences of kids like Eli and CJ, it’s clear that we’re not doing enough to protect LGBTQ kids in our schools—and if their stories aren’t enough, the statistics back them up. In a report by the Human Rights Campaign, only 4 percent of gender-expansive youth reported being ‘very happy.’ According to a report by Egale, 64 percent of LGBTQ students reported feeling unsafe at school.
If you identify as LGBTQ, you’re statistically four times more likely to attempt suicide. If your family rejects you for being lesbian, gay or bisexual, you’re over eight times more likely to attempt suicide. Trans youth aren’t even part of that statistic, and half of all trans youth surveyed in Ontario in 2010 had thought about ending their lives in the preceding year.
So I’m going to go out on a limb and say that supporting policies, developing curriculum and intentionally creating learning environments that explicitly support and protect LGBTQ kids are some of the most important things that teachers can be doing right now.
Through my research for the podcast, I connected to Alissa and Victoria, two teachers in the Southeast Kootenay School District trained in inclusive education. “It’s time,” Alissa said after describing the statistics for LGBTQ youth. “It’s past time. We are so late on this.”
Their training was based on SOGI 1 2 3, an education framework that is currently being implemented in British Columbia and Alberta. Other resources for teachers can be found from organizations such as Gender Spectrum, Human Rights Campaign, Welcoming Schools, GLSEN, Trans Student Education Resources and The Trevor Project.
“If students who are identifying as part of the LGBTQ+ community aren’t feeling safe, then nobody is feeling safe in the school. By creating a safe school for the SOGI community, we’re going to be creating a safer school for everybody.” — Victoria Larsen on the podcast
This brings us to a transition point from LGBTQ youth towards all boys. If we’re talking about homophobic bullying based on gender expression and gendered behaviour, we need to be talking about straight, cisgender boys too. A few years ago, a group of Canadian researches studied the impact of gay/straight alliances and anti-homophobia policies in schools and they found that in schools with GSAs for three or more years, suicide attempts were reduced by more than half for LGB youth—and for heterosexual boys.
Why would a school culture that confronts homophobia make a difference for boys who aren’t gay? The answer lies in the fact that homophobia among boys isn’t really about sexuality, it’s about enforcing a hierarchy of masculinity. So it’s not just LGTBQ youth who are affected by homophobia, it’s every single boy.
“When we look at the statistics about who is being bullied, it’s often straight het-identified boys bullying other straight het-identified boys for being gay. What boys are trying to do as they bully one another is shore up contemporary definitions of masculinity. Boys will target other boys when they exhibit behaviours that are considered feminine, behaviours that are considered incompetent, when they are too touchy, when they are too emotional, and yes, when they exhibit any kind of same-sex desire.” — C.J. Pascoe on the podcast
What this means is that if our confrontation of homophobia is based on the premise that it has do with sexuality, then that confrontation is going to be inherently limited. Responding by talking about gay rights won’t really work, for example, because that’s not really what it’s about. What it comes down to is creating a culture or a community in which boys feel safe enough and valid enough that they don’t need to prove themselves or their masculine status. Confronting homophobic bullying, then, should go hand-in-hand with being aware of and protecting the emotional well-being of all boys. This, along with LGBTQ-focused school policies and learning environments, is what will prevent more stories like those of Eli and CJ.
In the podcast, I connect homophobia and transphobia to school shootings—between 1982 and 2001, nearly every single male shooter reported having been harassed for inadequate gender performance—and to the emotional lives of boys with close friendships. You can listen online on Simplecast, or subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or Spotify.
This is for Ronin. For Eli and CJ. For every transgender and gender-expansive kid I talked to while preparing this episode.
At first glance, this is just the story of a kid on a school bus. But it’s also a story of loss and hurt, it’s about teachers trying to create supportive schools that they never had, it’s about parents trying to protect kids from hatred they never knew. And it’s about the heart of every single boy.
Featured in the Breaking the Boy Code — Season 1 Medium Series.
Breaking the Boy Code is a feminism-aligned publication on masculinity on Medium, and a podcast on the inner lives of boys on Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Spotify. Follow @boypodcast on Twitter and Facebook for podcast-related updates and masculinity-related news.