Matthew Shepard, a 21 year-old college student died in Wyoming after he was tied to a fence and beaten by two men who singled him out because he was gay. That story is sad enough. What’s really sad, however, is that Matthew died in 1998. After this horrific incident, there was revulsion for the crime, a condemnation of the two perpetrators, and an outcry for tolerance and change.
Some things did change, although more slowly than most people hoped. The Hate Crimes Prevention Act, also known as the Matthew Shepard Act, passed Congress and was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009. The law expands the 1969 United States federal hate-crime law to include crimes that are motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. While there are now consequences for violence against gays, the attacks have not stopped. In fact, one might even say that gays now face a climate that is more hostile and dangerous than anything that existed back in 1998 when Shepard was killed. Passing anti-hate laws on the state and federal level is a step in the right direction. But until we make changes on the local level, fostering a climate that is both kind and inclusive, laws alone won’t prevent the violence.
In 1999, I co-authored with Margaret Sagarese Parenting 911, a book to help parents of young adolescents handle more serious issues like substance abuse, depression, eating disorders, and danger on the Internet. We appeared on radio and TV and traveled around the country talking to parents. Our common theme was that our middle schools were fostering a climate of cruelty, one where bullies could thrive and victims worried about their safety. We pointed out that young people were coming out at earlier ages and that these gay students made convenient targets for bullies, often with few people—teachers or other students—coming to their aid.
Nearly a dozen years have gone by and despite the best efforts by many parents, educators, and public officials, that school climate not only has become even more cruel, but also is seeping out into our neighborhoods. The Internet, of course, has played a major role, increasing the bully’s power. In the last few weeks we have seen a college student, a promising musician, jump off the George Washington Bridge after his sexual encounter with another man was broadcast to the world by his own roommate. We have seen ten young men arrested for assaulting and sodomizing three men believed to be gay. And one of the men running for governor of New York took the occasion of the Columbus Day Parade to further stoke the flames, announcing to the world that being gay “is not the example that we should be showing our children.”
Prominent members of the gay community, including Ellen DeGeneres and Christine Quinn, have pleaded for understanding and tolerance. Students have held vigils for the college student who died. The newspapers, airwaves, and the Internet have been filled with stories and comments about the events. Experts have weighed in with advice.
I’m weighing in, too, but I don’t expect that my suggestions will result in a miraculous turnaround. Margaret and I faced many tough audiences on the road, parents who claimed to be teaching family values, but didn’t see any harm in their child taunting another child with “you’re so gay!” (I can’t help but think that some of those middle schoolers, ten years older, are now out in the world, working, going to college, maybe raising families. Are they carrying on that family legacy of intolerance, or have they met someone along the way who helped them leave behind old prejudices?)
While the news now focuses on violence towards gays, we always advised parents to take a broad approach, teaching tolerance towards anyone who is different. I like to think that we changed some minds. Perhaps with this, I can change a few more.
Treat your child with tolerance. Acceptance and understanding should begin at home. Love your child for who he is, not the child you want him to be. He can’t be accepting of others if he never feels that acceptance from you. This particularly holds true for those parenting a gay child.
Deal with individuals, not groups. Most prejudice is directed at large groups rather than individuals. It’s a lot harder to hate one-on-one. Contact often leads to acceptance. How many who say they hate gays love Ellen? Find some Ellens closer to home.
Find the common bond. No matter where we live, how we look, or who we are, human needs are the same. When your child talks about someone in his class being different, help him discover ways they are alike.
Role-play with your child. When your child expresses intolerance towards someone who is different, ask how she would feel if she were in a similar position. How would she react if someone rejected her?
Expose your child to people whose lives are different. Visit a juvenile home, a homeless shelter, soup kitchen or retirement home. Exchange letters or emails with children who live in different cultures.
Watch what your child reads, listens to, and watches. Some of the media your child may come into contact with may foster feelings of intolerance. Television, in particular, often resorts to stereotypes.
Use the media to educate. Watching TV, even cruising the Internet with your child, may help you open a dialogue. Practice media literacy, challenging the accuracy of what you and your child see on TV or encounter on the Internet.
Practice what you preach. Kids watch a parent’s every move. If you preach tolerance yet act intolerant towards others, your child will follow suit.
Join with other parents and people in your community to bring about change. Does your child’s school have a no-tolerance policy towards bullying? Is there a safe haven where a child feeling threatened can go for help? Can your church or reading group sponsor an event to encourage tolerance—watching a film, hearing a speaker, or volunteering to help a group that does outreach to needy individuals?
Speak out. Even those closest to us—family members, classmates, co-workers, good friends—may say or do something that runs counter to our values. Staying silent signals acceptance. Speak up even if the moment is uncomfortable. True change often begins close to home. Vow to be part of that movement.
Charlene Giannetti is the co-author, with Margaret Sagarese, of eight books for parents of young adolescents, including Parenting 911: How to Safeguard and Rescue Your 10 to 15-Year-Old from Substance Abuse, Depression, Sexual Encounters, Violence, Failure in School, Danger on the Internet, and Other Risky Situations.