Living across the alley from an elementary school, I can hear children playing at recess on my days off. I get nervous when I hear them, even though I’m a woman of 25, a—sort of—grown adult. I get nervous because I can never tell if their joyful kid screams are actually the sounds of a group teasing or beating up on some poor little guy. That’s what appears in my head every single time. Picked-on little “freaks” getting something beaten out of them.
It might sound silly, but I can’t help it. I know when I was a kid, what looked like harmless fun could turn into a beating as soon as the teachers weren’t looking; that the random shrieks and yells which probably sounded to adults like play was actually merciless harassment. I remember being teased, hit, slapped, shoved, and kicked. A couple of times, choked. I remember being run off the playground. I remember crying, a lot. And I remember hitting and shoving and teasing and kicking other kids even lower down the pecking order than the geeky, fat, sissy gay boy that my bullies perceived me to be. Among other things, they’d often say I was “just like a girl.” I’m transgender, so in a weird way, that was one thing they were right about. Funny how that works.
I remember turning on other kids because bullying, in turn, made me feel better. And I remember yelling and hitting back at my own bullies, and sometimes being punished for doing so, the bullies pegging me to the teachers as the aggressive one. And I remember pleading with other teachers to get them to talk to the kids picking on me, and they said, “Just ignore them! They do it because they get a rise out of you!” The bullies never stopped, of course, and I couldn’t ignore it – and then I started thinking, “I deserve it, this is my fault; I’m such a loser, I’m just giving them what they want; I’m so weak and stupid.”
During these last few months we’ve had a lot of discussion around bullying and Bill 18, but I can’t help feeling that these conversations don’t get anywhere near addressing the complexity of the problem. Don’t get me wrong: I want Bill 18 to be implemented, and as a big ol’ queer I’m rankled, as many others are, that we even have to have a conversation about the gay-straight alliance provision.
For example, let’s consider some legislative text. One section mandates that schools have a “respect for human diversity policy” that among other things must “address training for teachers and other staff” about “bullying prevention.” That all sounds terribly nice, of course. And I’m sure it would work, if bullying was a problem you could identify, report, and eliminate, like a bug infestation or a case of black mould.
But bullying is complex. It’s not always as simple as “here are the bullies, here are the victims.” It’s not as simple as, “punish the bad kids, and watch out for the good ones.” These aren’t always distinct groups. Not to mention that—as a teacher in my family recently reminded me—bullying is a human activity not confined to schools or children. As if adults never bully each other (see last Tuesday’s report about harassed gay restaurateurs in Morris closing up shop for a timely and depressing example). The idea of passing anti-bullying legislation is worthy—and like I said, I want this bill implemented and am stoked it’s on its way—but to an extent, it’s sort of like trying to pass anti-asshole legislation.
When we talk about bullying, I would love to talk about the fact that we have a society that awards getting ahead by any means you can get away with. We have a culture saturated with images and messages saying that you should win, that you should beat the other guy, get more money, more success – across sports, media, and games. Don’t back down; if you do, you’re weak. These are all messages laser-targeted at boys in particular, of course, something else that we never talk about. We socialize kids to prize being the best, being number one, and, right out of the womb, we teach them that domination is the way to get there.
When I was a kid in daycare, I heard a boy talk about a game he thought of that used all these different weapons for killing and dismembering people. The more he killed and fought, the more he won. I was four years old; it’s one of my earliest memories. I also remember that kid was a bully. How can we talk about this issue without discussing what children internalize before they even set foot in kindergarten?
I know not everyone will agree that all the above factors have a hand in bullying. I hope you disagree. I hope you have other ideas about it and make them known. What I think cannot be argued is that bullying’s roots lie in extremely deep-seated compulsions – issues that, of course, can’t be dealt with by passing a law. It takes more effort, time, thought, and conversation. It takes the understanding that bullying is a hydra with many heads, a murky issue buried deep in the unsavoury human tendency toward cruelty.
My experiences with bullying weren’t that uncommon or extreme. I didn’t have it that bad, especially for a queer kid. And most of it was when I was a younger child; for whatever reason—changing schools, a growth spurt, more confidence, take your pick—by high school, I wasn’t having a ton of problems. But I still worry when I hear kids on playgrounds. I can’t help but feel doubtful that those playgrounds are any nicer, and the news articles, well, they always seem to confirm this. We need Bill 18, yes. We need a lot more following it, too.