Changing the Climate of Cruelty

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.

About Charlene Giannetti (926 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines including the New York Times. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her new book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "19 Daniel Highway," focusing on the opioid crisis that will be filmed in 2019. Charlene divides her time between homes in Manhattan and Alexandria, Virginia.

11 Comments on Changing the Climate of Cruelty

  1. This article has an important message that is not stressed enough in the media coverage of bullying, both in-person and online. People lay blame on school administrators who should have taken action, and support political measures like enacting anti-bullying laws. But it is really PARENTS who have to teach tolerance, empathy and consideration to their children.
    In the olden days when children were chastised for behaving badly and treating others with cruelty, those children developed a conscience, so they felt bad if they hurt others. The culture today allows children too much latitude in behavior, too much information through media, and too much power at a young age. Unless parents step in and educate their children, the bullying will continue.

  2. Thank you very much, Charlene, for this article. It’s true that we won’t be able to legislate away hate – we need to make sure that our schools, homes, and communities are safe places for all children, and that young people are not bullied, ostracized, harmed because of their sexual orientation.

    Carl Paladino’s remarks this week show just how much homophobia is still accepted by a large part of the population – I hope that New York State does not elect a leader with such reckless ignorance and intolerance.

  3. There should be a 0 tolerance of bullying in all schools. I myself am a teacher, and know that schools in Upstate NY have bullying programs within our schools, as well as emphasis on our Character Education programs. After the countless school shootings in the late 90’s, bullying issues were finally being discussed. In my school, the teachers read “19 Minutes” in a book group, a book about the aftermaths of bullying. Now that I am living in Germany for a year as an Expat, I find that bullying is part of the culture here with young kids. It disappoints me, and I am struggling with what to do about it…Thank God, my kids are not being bullied, but many of my friends’ kids are, and I shouldn’t be feeling lucky that my kids are not being bullied. It is their right to go to school everyday, and be granted a safe and nurturing place to learn. Thanks for writing about a serious issue that needs our attention.

  4. Charlene: This is a great article about a topic that many people find difficult to broach. A firm believer that we are uncomfortable with what we do not understand, your piece is an excellent attempt to bridge that gap. Your suggestions that we as parents can follow are appropriate at any time, and they give all of us an opportunity to examine whether or not we practice what we preach. Excellent.

  5. Great article, Charlene. I’m glad to see Woman Around Town addressing these issues. I’m hopeful that the outrage people have over the latest events will end up being productive.

  6. Charlene, wonderful article. I think it’s so important to keep talking about and raising this issue – no matter how small the voice(s). The tragedy in Wyoming should have been a major wake-up call, and now today we have teenagers openly laughing at a young girl’s suicide. Something has got to change, and conversations such as these are where it starts.

  7. Change starts with dialogue, so it’s great that we can all talk and share with each other. Let’s keep it going!

  8. I think it is so important that bullying is becoming a more prevalent topic in the news. It’s been a faux pas subject for years and it really seemed to just be “tolerated.” It may just be a joke, but even bumper stickers like “my kid beat up your honor student” were just laughed at, not taken seriously. But this is a real problem and recent media attention will hopefully prevent it in the future and teach parents how to protect their children against it and not tolerate it. School should be a safe haven where children can learn.

  9. What a timely and wise article, Charlene. Teaching tolerance and civility to our children starts at home. I hope we are not becoming a nation of bullies.

  10. You led a thought provoking discussion about this on Radio Chick tonight. Relating gay slurs to racial or religious slurs opened more than a few eyes. Hurtful labels should never be acceptable. Little by little these dialogues will change things for the better.

  11. It is very true that cruel behaviors such as bullying take shape in middle school and if overlooked by educators and parents can lead to a general environment where such attitudes go unquestioned and become even more violent and deadly. Thanks for outlining the problem and suggesting practical guidelines.

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