I was wearing purple yesterday, in honor of the teenagers and young adults who committed suicide recently because they were gay — or thought to be gay. Their lives had become unbearable; relentless bullying, merciless humiliation at high school and college drove them into such overwhelming despair that they saw no way out. Two were only 13 years old. Another young man took his life after he attended a City Hall meeting were members of the town where he lived argued about whether or not to declare October as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender History Month. The bigoted hostility he encountered there, in particular from bible-thumping conservative “Christians” who know for a fact that being gay is a sin, led him to the conclusion that he’d never be an accepted member of the community. And so he left, in the most tragic manner.
Clearly, both educators and religious leaders need to take some serious steps towards addressing stereotypical prejudices. It seems so mind-bogglingly asinine: individuals can’t freely follow their sexual persuasion, they can’t marry, they have trouble adopting children, they’re banned from joining the army (which they shouldn’t do anyway, but that’s another story). There are no rational arguments to defend any of this, and that’s why it is almost impossible to talk sense to homophobic people. Kids need to be exposed to and educated about tolerance from early on, before they can form hardened attitudes. Dr. Michael LaSala, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University (a freshman of the same institution killed himself earlier this month after his dorm roommate secretly taped him having sex with another man, and then published it on YouTube), wrote that schools with a gay and lesbian friendly curriculum experienced significantly less bullying. And while I’m convinced that society would be better off without organized religions, it’s good to know that there are progressive Christians such as Eric Reitan, philosophy teacher at Oklahoma State University, who demands that Christians practice an ethic of love and compassion and that the real sin is not homosexuality but its hateful condemnation.
But I think there’s more. AlterNet reported yesterday that violence against homeless people has gone up at an alarming rate over the last year. I see a relationship here. Both the school bullies and the perpetrators of crimes against the homeless are convinced that they belong to the “in” crowd and that it is OK to punish, ridicule, and persecute those who are different, weak, a minority, not “normal” (how I hate this word). It’s the same old group- or pack-mentality that was responsible for countless racist crimes and ultimately for the Holocaust. I accept and internalize a set of moral standards handed down to me by my elders, my culture, my church. I don’t question the set because that’s “bad” — surely, they know better than me. I learn to follow and be obedient. When times get rough economically and financially, so much so that even kids know that bad stuff can happen, this existential fear combines with all the other mixed-up and unexamined internal emotions, and people have to act it out. The inner fear turns into hate directed at anything different and weak. “Foreigners”, people who talk weird, those with mental problems, different skin color, sexual orientation, social status become easy targets for the us-versus-them mentality.
I know this is awfully simplified. But I was born and grew up in Germany after the war and the Nazi time. I grew up with many questions and few answers, and I learned to think for myself. Before the Nazis came to power, the German economy was in shambles and people were afraid for their safety and well-being. And for many, that fear turned into hate. So, when I read about crimes against the weak, the poor, the different being on the rise, all my internal warning-flags go up…