LGBTQ Parenting, Parenting

Creating Safer Schools by Starting at Home: A Conversation about Bullying and Teen Suicide

Written by Shannon Salisbury

I noticed as we were leaving the house this morning that my daughter was wearing a purple shirt today. I told her, “Hey, that’s great! I was going to ask if you’d be interested in wearing purple today, and it’s like you heard me anyway!” She asked why today was a good day for purple (as opposed to any other day, because really – is there a day where purple would be a bad thing?).  I told her that October 20 is known as Spirit Day, when we choose to wear purple to speak out against a very specific type of bullying: that targeted at LGBTQ youth.

I have obviously had similar talks with my kids before, because her response was, “I thought we did that on Wear Pink Day.” And yes, the two events are similar. But where Spirit Day veers away from Pink Shirt Day is in what it commemorates: young lives lost through suicide of LGBTQ youth who’ve had a history of being bullied.

As we walked to school, I told her and my son about 15-year-old Jamie Hubley, who committed suicide last week. I told them that he’d been sad for a very long time, and that on top of that sadness, people in his school tormented him for being different.  I talked about how this child wanted to start a Rainbow club in his high school, only to be called homophobic names and have his posters torn down by other students.  I explained that the combination of his depression and the bullying left him believing that he would never be happy, and that there was not enough to keep him here.

My kids know that a significant number of the adults in their lives fall under the LGBTQ umbrella. Being gay is really no big deal to them, as it’s just one aspect of the identities of folks they like and love. At 9 and 11, they’re old enough to have a pretty good idea of their own attractions and identities at this point. I’ve never assumed to know their sexual orientation, one way or the other, and even during this morning’s conversation, I talked about their eventual interests in boys and/or girls. I also introduced the concept of allies.

I told them that if they are straight/heterosexual, it is so important for them to love and support and stand up for their gay friends. I reminded them that they already have gay friends that they know about, and probably have some that they don’t yet know. Being an ally to someone who is the target of bullying or dehumanizing behaviour can help reduce or defuse that behaviour. The more people who are not targets of this bullying choose to stand up and not be afraid, the safer schools will be for those kids who are different, who are living with mental health issues on top of their difference, who are targeted because people think they’re gay.

In Jamie Hubley’s situation, the school could have done more to address the in-school bullying. Realistically, structural change of this nature takes time to affect the culture of a school, and it cannot be done in isolation. As a parent, it’s my responsibility to try to ensure that my children are part of that change, that they know they have power in this, and that they can help create safer spaces for those who need them most.