Under cloudless blue skies on Oct. 13, the Tufts community celebrated National Coming Out Day. Students, faculty members and friends crowded the Mayer Campus Center patio with rainbow−colored pins on their backpacks and pride flags poking out of their pockets. They listened, watched and cheered as speakers from across the Tufts community spoke about the importance of the day on campus.
Amid the excitement and cries for tolerance and acceptance, however, a somberness pervaded the air, for this year’s event was not just about support and community for those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) on campus but also about memorializing those who had taken their own lives because they felt they were lacking that support system.
Led by LGBT Center Director Tom Bourdon, rally−goers participated in a moment of silence for three recent suicide victims: Seth Walsh, a 13−year old boy who was relentlessly bullied about his sexuality and died in late September; Asher Brown, a young boy from Texas who fatally shot himself after taunting from his classmates; and Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers freshmen who committed suicide after his roommate publicly humiliated him by posting an intimate video on the Internet.
In the face of reports of anti−gay bullying and a series of highly publicized suicides, Americans have been forced to confront the question of just how much is being done to achieve tolerance toward the LGBT community and to prevent bullying. People are beginning to recognize anti−gay taunts not as childhood acts of immaturity but as means of inflicting serious psychological harm.
Junior Kate Salwen, a member of Queer Peers, believes that at Tufts, the problem is less a matter of blatant hatred and outright LGBT bullying and more an issue of slips of the tongue and insensitive remarks. Queer Peers, a student organization based out of the LGBT Center, consists of a network of student to serve as resources on issues relateds to sexuality for the Tufts community.
“People don’t understand that when they drunkenly write ‘faggot’ on the door in a residence hall and a student has to walk by it every day, no matter how much they feel loved and no matter how comfortable they are with their own sexuality … it still stings,” Salwen said. “Unfortunately, that might be all it takes to send someone over the edge.”
It is in these possibly unintentional acts of intolerance that real wounds begin to form, Salwen said.
“I think everyone knows that when you taunt a person for any aspect of their personality, it is incredibly harmful, but I don’t think everyone knows that when you repeatedly make side remarks referencing some aspect of a person as being different and outside of the norm it can have an even stronger effect, especially if it is someone close to you,” she said.
Senior Simon Katz, co−president of Tufts’ Queer Straight Alliance, agreed that while direct name−calling and teasing about sexual preference or identity are not widespread problems at Tufts, other forms of insensitivity should still be taken seriously.
“I think that most of the problems at Tufts are more subtle than outright bullying,” he said. “The issue is, how do you define bullying? I think people often say things that are homophobic or transphobic — negative or diminishing toward transsexual or transgendered people — without realizing it, and when someone who is LGBT or questioning their identity overhears those things, it’s almost as detrimental as being directly confrontational.”
Among the most discussed current issues concerning bullying for today’s youth is the rise of social networks, tools that allow for bullying to extend past the playgrounds of elementary school children and onto the computer screens in high schools and colleges. Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter allow for the rapid dissemination of rumors and gossip, while websites such as CollegeACB.com, the College Anonymous Confession Board, allow users to post disparaging remarks about their peers while hiding behind anonymity.
Bourdon regards these acts as particularly harmful due to their anonymous nature.
“We are seeing most of the targeted bullying taking place in cyberspace, and it’s ugly out there,” he said. “Even more scary, as we’ve entered this new frontier, it is currently next to impossible to figure out how to make it stop when you don’t even know who is saying it in the first place.”
Bourdon explained that the Internet has changed the face of bullying for today’s generation.
“Bullying has always been a big problem, but one thing that has changed is that it has become something you now almost can’t escape,” he said. “Even in the safety of your own home, you can still be targeted by texts, e−mails, Facebook messages, web posts, and you might not even know who is doing the bullying. It’s 24/7 harassment, and because of the shame that can go along with it, no one else might even know what is going on.”
Katz agreed that the Internet has made the process of bullying much more tempting for some to partake in.
“Social media has made it easier for people to be bullied,” he said. “I really think that a huge part of it here at Tufts comes from websites like CollegeACB.”
So how does one address the problem of bullying when the bullies themselves are relatively unknown? According to Bourdon, it is a complicated but necessary process.
“Sadly, I think this problem won’t ever go away completely,” Bourdon said. “One of the most important things we can do is simply to encourage people to be civil to one another, to not attack in such cruel and immature ways, to avoid websites which are breeding grounds for cyber−bullying and to speak out against bullying when you see it taking place.”
For Katz, dealing with bullying comes down to relying on an individual support network.
“I have had things shouted at me from time to time, and it really makes me feel self−conscious and hyper−aware of the differences that separate me from other people. However, I’ve never felt like I didn’t have anyone to talk to about those times or been unable to handle it,” he said. “That makes me lucky, really.”