My crash course in bigotry
by John J. Dunphy

I'm sure that many of you are familiar with the "It Gets Better" project on You-Tube. Members of the gay and lesbian community, as well as prominent straights such as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, have posted over ten thousand videos to assure gay and lesbian youths that life indeed "gets better" for those of their sexual orientation. Why is such a project necessary? As parents, educators and all Americans of conscience will readily attest, gay and lesbian kids frequently suffer a horrendous level of persecution, particularly in school.

While many straight kids accept -- or, at least, tolerate -- their gay and lesbian classmates, no small number of dim-witted bullies with an addiction to sadism subject these youths to taunts, threats and outright violence on an almost daily basis. The harassment and persecution these kids suffer would challenge the resilience of many adults. Some gay and lesbian students see suicide as the only escape from the hell of their everyday existence. An Arkansas school board member posted a venomous tirade on Facebook in which he stated that gay and lesbian youth indeed should commit suicide. Public reaction was so negative that he resigned.

I'm aware that many area residents belong to churches that teach homosexuality is wrong -- even a sin. The issue here, however, isn't about gay and lesbian rights. It's about gay and lesbian kids not getting taunted and beaten up. One needn't support gay rights to condemn this kind of violence. The "It Gets Better" project is important because the testimony on these videos assures these young people that gay and lesbian adults, who also went through hell in middle and high school, now have rewarding lives.

Why do I feel so strongly about the support the "It Gets Better" project? Decades ago, during my freshman year in high school, I witnessed the persecution of a fellow student considered to be gay. Precisely why he was thought to be gay or the fact that it wasn't true doesn't matter. What is relevant and remains seared in my memory after forty years is that this fourteen-year-old boy's life was made into a nightmare.

Many students in our coed class simply chose to ostracize him. Tragically, they became the humane ones by default. A number of his fellow freshmen boys became obsessed with tormenting him. If their activities had been a school sport, all would have been awarded letters. His locker was repeatedly vandalized. He was shoved and struck in the hallways, and his books were knocked from his arms. Obscenities were written on his homeroom desk as well as on desks in other classrooms. For this boy, going to school each day became going to hell.

One incident in particular haunts me. The entire student body, for some reason I can't remember, was required to attend a service at a church just down the street from our high school. The accused boy walked to the church alone, since no one cared to be seen near him. A group of his tormentors walked some distance behind him, yelling epithets all the way. The boy never turned around the entire time, no matter how vile the insults. Once in the church, several of these boys managed to sit in the pew behind him. Their shouts were now whispers, since an important religious rite was in progress. The obscenity in their taunts, however, reached new depths of vulgarity.

If the faculty and staff of this high school ever intervened to try to put an end to this boy's persecution, I never heard about it. He managed to survive the rest of freshman year and then transferred to the public high school. I can't even begin to imagine the psychological scars he took with him.

Witnessing that boy's ordeal gave me a crash course in a subject that wasn't on the school's formal curriculum: the perniciousness of bigotry. No one -- youth or adult, gay or straight -- should be subjected to the ordeal that boy endured. We Americans still have much work to do as we strive to rid our nation of bigotry and discrimination. Nonetheless, the fact that thousands of Americans, including the president and secretary of state, have chosen to participate in the "It Gets Better" project indicates that our nation is moving in the right direction.
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