Hey, gay boy! Yo, bruh, talkin’ to you, bruh! Is it true? Sander’s REALLY your boyfriend? Your BOYFRIEND? You really kiss him, little gay boy? You really hold his hand on the bus?
A year ago, a 13-year-old boy emailed me in my capacity as Aunty Jimothy, a comic-serious advice columnist for LGBTQ youth. He needed help coming out as bisexual to his parents. “I’m kinda scared to tell them, because I’m afraid they won’t understand. My mom might, but Dad won’t, because dads are like that.”
Long story short, “Jayden” DID come out, to his parents and to some of his school friends. He wrote me back and thanked me, and then I didn’t hear from him for a year. I filed the column away in my memory and forgot about it.
Then Jayden found a boyfriend
He wrote to me again about a month ago. He was on Cloud Nine! A boy in his class had asked him the question he’d been dreaming about for months. “I really really like you. Will you go out with me?”
“I can’t believe it,” Jayden wrote. “I never thought this could happen for real. We kissed and everything, and we even hold hands on the bus if not too many kids are on it.”
Jayden was living the dream
I shared the news with my writers group, who often help me with the Aunty Jimothy column. We were all kind of on Cloud Nine with Jayden. 14 years old and living a life most of us oldsters could never have imagined for ourselves at that age. He parents were loving and supportive. His friends had his back. He was almost normal!
Then reality intruded
Jayden wrote me again a couple weeks later. “I really need your advice,” he told me. “Most of my friends (I was always pretty popular at school, to tell the truth) were OK that Kevin and me was going out. But some of my friends …”
Jayden described how some of his buddies started ignoring him. Two of them cancelled plans to go to a Halloween party with him. They talked some other kids into ditching too. Then the whispered taunts started. “Hey, it’s the little gay boy! Bruh! Is it true you’re a fag?” Within two weeks, Jayden went from being one of the most popular kids in his class to a kid whose stomach hurt when the bell rang for period change. He was afraid to walk the halls.
One day in art class, the whispers grew to shouts, which turned into shoves, and then eventually into fists and punches. Jayden doesn’t remember who threw the first punch, but he admits it might have been him.
Jayden is afraid to go to a teacher or staff member for help
My first words of advice for the boy? “Dude, that’s seriously uncool. Those kids are bullying you, and while it’s awesome you can take care of yourself, what they’re doing is wrong, and you don’t have to put up with it. You need to tell a teacher what’s happening. You can always ask your mom and dad to help if you feel shy.”
He responded like I was an complete idiot who knows nothing about schools. “Bruh! It doesn’t matter if they bullied me. It was a fight, so we both get punished the same. I can’t tell nobody.”
Jayden’s story reminds me of Jordan Steffy, a bullied gay kid
Jordan’s story EXPLODED on Twitter last week when he posted a video of himself fighting back after a bully repeatedly taunted him for being a “faggot.” He says the same bully (and others) have been making his school experience miserable since 7th grade.
Back the fuck up out of my face, now,” Jordan says on the video. “Cause I’m not playing with you.”
“Why you in my face, faggot?” the bully says, closing in.
“Don’t fucking play with me,” Jordan shouts. “Don’t fucking do it.”
“Don’t fucking put your hands on me, faggot,” responds the bully, stepping in nose to nose.
That’s when Jordan throws a punch. More blows are thrown before an adult’s voice can finally be heard saying, “Hey! Hey, Jordan! That’s enough!” and the video stops.
Jordan was punished, suspended from school
When the fight got reported to administrators, both boys were punished. Because Jordan started the fight (in the school’s simplistic view), school staff suspended him for longer than they suspended his bully. Jordan posted the video apologetically, afraid he’d done something wrong in sticking up for himself.
He was stunned when Twitter had his back. Millions of people watched the video. Tens of thousands are cheering him on; from concerned moms, to teachers, to politicians. But despite all the cheering, his punishment was not reduced, and his school claims they treated both boys fairly and equally.
Jordan’s school is wrong
Their simplistic calculus does not recognize that equality policies must recognize systemic inequality. Jordan was harassed and bullied for years. His act of self defense was brave and bold. He stood up for himself when NONE of his peers had his back. Nobody objected to the taunts he had to put up with, nobody stood up to his bully with him. He was the target of and the victim of endemic, systemic stigmatization.
Any discipline policy that doesn’t recognize the inherent inequality that marginalized people live with is dealing in fantasy instead of on-the-ground reality. What choice did Jordan have other than taking the conflict to the next level? He knew other students wouldn’t stand up for him. He knew first-hand that school staff wouldn’t protect him.
The school’s “equal” treatment is inherently unequal and unfair.
Jayden’s dilemma illustrates the problem very well
The boy who wrote to me represents a serious cautionary tale. He’s afraid to go to his parents or to the school about the bullying he has to put up with, even now that it’s turned physical. He knows all about “even-handed equality” policies. He “got in a fight,” that’s all the school is going to consider, and he knows it.
He doesn’t dare ask them to protect him, because he’s too afraid of being punished. Is he being entirely rational? No, I suppose he could suck it up, take his punishment, and THEN ask for help. But he’s 14. He’s a kid. Asking him to understand that kind of complex moral reasoning isn’t realistic.
All he knows is that he’s a member of a minority whose status makes him fair game for bullies. All he knows is that if he goes to a teacher for help, he’s going to have to serve a long detention or be suspended from school. People will yell at him, his parents will disappointed in him, and other kids will laugh at him.
Does anyone really suppose he’s going to reach out for help under those circumstances? Equality policies must recognize systemic inequality
Schools must not treat bullied minorities equally, because bullied minorities aren’t equal. They’re vulnerable to harassment, stigmatization, isolation, and assault. Schools need to offer protection, not punishment.
James Finn is a long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Act Up NYC, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.