LGBTQ+ Bullying Absent from "Be Best" Initiative
Last month, First Lady Melania Trump created a wave of memes with her White House decorations, which much of the public found reminiscent of the red robes in the Handmaid’s Tale. However, conversations surrounding her “Be Best” initiative have been somewhat quiet. Her initiative appears straightforward: it focuses on well-being, respectful social media interactions, and the prevention of opioid abuse. Her focus on social media, however, is poignantly absent of a burgeoning problem concerning online and in-person interactions for kids and teenagers. Her platform fails to address how homophobia parlays into bullying and the subsequent ramifications of such behavior.
Since the 1990s, bullying has been a standard topic in conversations pertaining to school environment and safety. According to Dr. Dorothy Espelage, a psychologist and professor at the University of Florida, almost one in five students assumes the position of “ringleader” bully during their time in K-12 education. Additionally, 60% of students are bystanders during the same time period whereas only 13% choose to intervene. Espelage has recently conducted research in order to evaluate the nature of such bullying. She found that 34% of male students partake in homophobic name-calling, while 20% of women do the same.
The experiences of students of color concerning homophobic bullying serve to bolster this finding. More than 50% of LGBT+ students of color reported being verbally harassed at school. Of these students, 15% had also been physically harassed or assaulted. Our efforts at curbing bullying, such as those made by the First Lady, completely overlook the inextricable connection between bullying and homophobia in the greater school environment. In order to provide a safer educational climate for students, our classrooms and our schools must grow to accommodate students and to halt the homophobia responsible for high rates of bullying and assault.
Considering recent policies concerning LGBTQ+ rights and inclusion, it is unsurprising that the Trump White House has not prioritized queer inclusivity in anti-bullying policies. Most recently, President Trump moved to deny visas to same-sex partners of foreign diplomats and United Nations employees unless they are married (even though many UN countries do not recognize same-sex marriage). This move, coupled with other rollbacks like the transgender military ban and decreasing funding towards HIV/AIDS research and healthcare sends a clear message to the LGBTQ+ community. Such hostility towards queer students has likely trickled down into schools, perhaps increasing violence towards young people during their most formative years.
In response to the barrage of homophobic policies and language leveled against queer folks by the Trump administration, many educators have revolted by taking matters into their own hands on a smaller scale by “queering” their classrooms, a strategy popularized by a recent book. “Queering Classrooms: Personal Narratives and Educational Practice to Support LGBTQ Youth in Schools” serves as a guide to educators looking to create more inclusive spaces for their students without having to lobby for any policy changes. For example, joining and advocating for participation in queer-centric school clubs such as Gay-Straight Alliances, posting signage for safe spaces, and even displaying rainbow flags are all small indicators to students that queer students belong in classrooms.
Most importantly, however, educators can manipulate curriculum in ways that include queer narratives, historical figures, and historical information. It is not difficult to include Harvey Milk as an option for a fifth-grade report on significant historical figures, discuss the Stonewall protests in a middle-school contemporary history lecture, or research the unique biological and sociological indicators for the lethality of HIV in a high-school science class. These small educational tweaks are important for diversifying students’ education, but they are more important for preserving and passing along narratives of the hardships and triumphs of the LGBTQ+ community in this country. As policy-makers, parents, and allies we must ensure that initiatives like “Be Best” take a targeted approach to addressing bullying against queer students. Neglecting to consider queer lives in our public policies and expunging queer narratives from our classrooms is an exercise of a harsh form of traditional American violence — erasure.