Education
3 min

Who’s your tribe?

Here at the Roundup, I usually try to leaven the daily "wow-can-you-believe-this-homophobic-crap?" stories with silly videos and snarky wisecracks.  In life, as always, you gotta laugh.

But there's been two unpleasant stories this week that have distracted me during other columns and blocked me altogether on Wednesday — begging your indulgence, here comes a rant:

First, there's this month's wave of gay murders in Iraq, notable for their swiftness and sickening cruelty. An unnamed Sadr City official explained to Reuters:

"They were sexual deviants. Their tribes killed them to restore their family honor."

Six years of US war with Iraq and that democracy thing is really coming along, no?  These guys put the "evil" in medieval and the…oh forget it.  See?  I can't bring the funny on this.

Especially as the story feeds into the second nightmare this month: while it's all-too-easy to decry this stone-age religious fundamentalist tribal barbarism in Iraq, in 21st century North America this month, we've seen the suicides of not one but two 11-year-old boys:

On April 16, ten days after Carl Walker-Hoover killed himself in Springfield, Massachusetts, another 11-year-old boy — Jaheem Herrera of DeKalb County, Georgia — also hung himself after months of enduring anti-gay bullying.  His mother told CNN how the boy would say:

"Mom, they keep telling me this…this gay word, this gay, gay, gay.
I'm tired of hearing it, they're telling me the same thing over and over."

Similar bullying in 2007 drove 13-year-old Shaquille Wisdom of Ajax, Ontario to hang himself and 17-year-old Eric Mohat of Mentor, Ohio to shoot himself.  In Mohat's class alone, there were three other students who killed themselves.

 

(from left: Herrera, Walker-Hoover, Mohat and Wisdom)

But here's the extra part that's bugging me:  while the news reports take time to ponder whether or not any of these kids actually were gay (does it matter?) or speak of bullying as some inescapeable force of nature or rite of passage, they ignore the wider issue.

In the wake of Shaquille Wisdom's suicide, Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada, told the press about a high school in Ottawa:

"A mother called me. Her son came out. He was 16. The gym teacher
made fun of how he ran…The mother went to the principal but he washed his hands of it. The boy dropped out, four credits short of graduation."

This is the real problem. In each of these stories, the parents kept insisting the school
intervene but nothing ever changed.  It's not hard to see what that
neglect would do to the kids under attack. They didn't kill themselves because of a few thugs; they killed themselves because, to them, everyone else was siding with the bullies.  These kids were alone.  Like Herrera's mother says:

"…she thinks her son felt like nobody wanted to help him, that nobody stood up and stopped the bullies."

Mohat's parents have now decided to sue the school — not for money, but to force change: 

"The lawsuit — filed March 27, alleges that the quiet but likable boy, who was involved in theater and music, was called "gay," "fag," "queer" and "homo"
and often in front of his teachers. Most of the harassment took place
in math class and the teacher — an athletic coach — was accused of
failing to protect the boy." 

See, we look upon the tribal killings of gay men in Iraq with horror and condescension but how is a group urging someone to kill himself much different? High schools are nothing but tribes — jock, nerd, art fag, rich girl, you know them all — and these cliques protect their own and banish the Other. 

Dan Hughes pulled his bullied son out of Mohat's high school, saying:

"What it boils down to is the football players, cheerleaders and kids
with money have a different set of rules than everybody else."

Of course the gym teacher isn't going to defend a sissy boy against jock bullies. Those jocks are his people. They don't run funny.  I doubt his thinking is so cruelly overt, of course, but more of an unconscious tribal affiliation that carries on all through adulthood unless challenged.  It's up to all of us to challenge our own biases and examine both the tribes and cliques we belong to and the people we shun.

And hey, I can find a silly angle on this!  Here's the great big trailer for a new TV show from Ryan Murphy, the gay creator of "Nip/Tuck."  It looks like high school tribes were on his mind as well and, in his silly, snappy TV way, he hopes to shake them up a bit.  Good luck!