Two Children Bullied to Death--Sacrifices to Our Homophobia

BlogHer Original Post

We hear of cases such as the the 13-year-old who committed suicide after being bullied online, and then scream our outrage at the bloodless brutalities of virtual harassment, but should we expect anything else when we haven't stopped bullying in the brick and mortar world? In the last month we've been notified by bloggers and mainstream media of two deaths being called "bullicides," the suicides of two middle-school boys both taunted at school, labeled "gay."

The slang word "bullicide" is inaccurate because it implies the bully was killed, but we get the message. People feel the suicides are death by bully, and the taunts of "you're gay" and "that's so gay" lead us to believe the boys suffered death by homophobic bully. And yet, we're talking about 11 and 12 year-old children here, tormenting other children into emotional pits with a word some of them may not even grasp--an awareness of sexual orientation the victims may not have yet explored.

The obvious question is, "So, what if these boys were gay?" If we knew for a fact that these boys were gay would that make the teasing acceptable in the eyes of some adults?

That's a question many parents, teachers, and spiritual leaders should be asking themselves. These are the people who have the first opportunity to influence how children feel about other people who may or may not be like them.

However, whether we speak of gay children or straight children or transgendered children, America has a problem with bullies in the school yard. The suicides of Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover and Jaheem Herrera tell us so.

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Eleven-year-old Jaheem Herrera woke up on April 16 acting strangely. He wasn't hungry and he didn't want to go to school.

Jaheem Herrera's mother thinks he hanged himself because he was perpetually bullied at school.

But the outgoing fifth grader packed his bag and went to school at Dunaire Elementary School in DeKalb County, Georgia.

He came home much happier than when he left in the morning, smiling as he handed his mother, Masika Bermudez, a glowing report card full of A's and B's. She gave him a high-five and he went upstairs to his room as she prepared dinner.

A little later, when his younger sister called him to come down to eat, Jaheem didn't answer.

So mother and daughter climbed the stairs to Jaheem's room and opened the door.

Jaheem was hanging by his belt in the closet. (CNN, "My Bullied Son's Last Day on Earth")

I was bullied as a child, but not for being gay or anyone thinking I was gay. I was targeted for being fat or smart or dressing differently or talking "proper." There's no need to go into the details of bully tactics because many adults around the world have experienced the same and worse as children. Still, when I was 9 years old, I took one of my mother's Valium pills, sure it would kill me because she'd warned me not to touch them. She'd told me "just one" would kill me, and I believed her. So, I took one at 9 years old.

Also, I remember my friend Raymond Myles, a brilliant musician, being called a "fat faggot" and a "sissy." I don't know if Raymond ever went home and tried to kill himself. Perhaps his music saved him until the day he was gunned down on the streets of New Orleans, the victim of a carjacking. Recently I learned a movie's been made, The Heartbreak Life of Raymond Myles.

I have Raymond's music, but some days I can't listen because it takes me back to dark places I don't want to go. His music is not the depressant; the memories it triggers are downers.

Targeting the kid who doesn't fit the norm is old school ugly with new school savagery. What were we told then but "Toughen up," and "Stop being so sensitive" or "Sweetie, you've got to learn to stop wearing your heart on your sleeve."

Today's children are told the same. Good advice, but why is it that the bullies rarely get the lectures or sent to therapy? Why is it that bullies rarely are made to endure the corrections they deserve for making words bullets?

Yes, programs have been implemented. Indeed, Jaheem Herrera's school supposedly has a model anti-bullying program, as you will hear in the video below. But I think many of us adult humans secretly think the bully is strong and the person being bullied is weak and it's that victim who needs to "stop whining" and grow up.

Perhaps those thoughts come from the child in me joining her voice with 65 percent of today's children who believe adults won't help them. They probably figured that out the first time an adult told them to "Buck up!" and never challenged the bully's keeper or if the adult did complain to the school or the bully's keeper, the result was the bullying escalated and everyone threw up their hands as though there was nothing to be done. What a screwed-up species we are, deluding ourselves that we are enlightened.

Pam at Pam's House Blend shares some details about Carl's death, and then quotes from an interview with Carl's mother by The Advocate. She follows with her outrage at homophobic groups and the school for failure to act sooner:

Eleven-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover did not have to die. He wrapped an extension cord around his neck and hanged himself, leaving this earth because of months of anti-gay taunts by his classmates at New Leadership Charter School in Springfield, MA. ... [excerpt from not included] ... I want to ask a question (speaking of some Christian groups) -- How can these homophobes sleep at night knowing this little boy -- and so many others like him -- was so tormented by others in his school that the only way out was to kill himself? That school officials didn't do anything to stop the bullying, essentially blaming the victim "student immaturity," that Carl should just "buck up" and take it, and ignoring his fear that naming those who tortured him would label him a snitch. (Pam)

Here is part of the interview with Carl's mother from The Advocate posted April 13:

Walker said her son had been the victim of bullying since the beginning of the school year, and that she had been calling the school since September, complaining that her son was mercilessly teased. He played football, baseball, and was a boy scout, but a group of classmates called him gay and teased him about the way he dressed. They ridiculed him for going to church with his mother and for volunteering locally.

"It's not just a gay issue," Walker said. "It's bigger. He was 11 years old, and he wasn't aware of his sexuality. These homophobic people attach derogatory terms to a child who's 11 years old, who goes to church, school, and the library, and he becomes confused. He thinks, Maybe I'm like this. Maybe I'm not. What do I do?"

His birthday, April 17, falls this year on the 13th National Day of Silence, a day on which individuals observe vows of silence for students bullied at school. (writer William McGuinness at The Advocate)

At This So-Called Post-Post-Racial Life, blogger PR_Scribe dedicated her Old School Friday post to young Carl and told her readers about the National Day of Silence, an action day that students and bloggers observed on April 17 of this year and that will be observed on April 16 next year.

Founded in 1996, the Day of Silence has become the largest single student-led action towards creating safer schools for all, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. From the first-ever Day of Silence at the University of Virginia in 1996, to the organizing efforts in over 8,000 middle schools, high schools, colleges and universities across the country in 2008, its textured history reflects its diversity in both numbers and reach. (DayofSilence.org)

PR_Scribe, a mother, imagined what a living Carl's day would have been like:

Had he not taken his life, today his mother would be waking him up with a welcome to his last year of childhood before his teen years. He probably would have had a nice breakfast, maybe one last look at the mail to see if any other relatives had sent him a birthday card with a five or ten dollar bill in it. His mother would have told him the embarrassing story, for the umpteenth time, about how he used to cross his eyes when he was a baby and giggle so hard he passed gas. Or about how he used to hate wearing a diaper as a toddler and once streaked through the living room, bare-bottomed and free, where Pastor and several other church members were seated. He would have rushed at the last minute to locate his math book or his science homework, and been ushered back into the bathroom to wash a bit of toothpaste from the side of his chin. He would have left his house with a big smile on his face.

But then, likely even on the anniversary of his birth, he would have gone to the New Leadership Charter School and would have once again been taunted for not conforming to other kids’ strict narrow ideas about what a 12-year-old Black boy should look like and be like.

Besides what would have been Carl’s 12 birthday, today is the 13th Annual National Day of Silence ... (PR_Sribe at This So-Called Post-Post-Racial Life)

Could Carl's birthday falling on the Day of Silence be strange synergy between a tragedy and the cosmos seeking justice? We don't know, but we do know his death and Jaheem's gives us the opportunity to reflect on what we need to do better, educate ourselves and help our children to honor compassion and the beauty of difference.

These words from Feministing are true:

It shouldn't have to take this person's death for folks to realize that bullying - specifically, anti-gay and transphobic bullying - is a very real and very serious problem that absolutely must be addressed in schools. (Posted by Vanessa)

I first learned of Carl's death through Field Negro, who was obviously angry at the school and communities that encourage homophobia, creating the climate for children to suffer. He wrote that he had planned a post about the Republican TEA party. When he heard about Carl's suicide, he knew it was more important than people not wanting to pay taxes.

While not participating in the Day of Silence, I wrote the following at my blog:

With the tragic suicide of Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, 11, a child who killed himself because children at school bullied and taunted him and called him "gay," we've had to look at ourselves again, our promotion of homophobia. Carl's story rips me apart. We adult humans must get over ourselves before we poison all of our children. (WSATA)

Later I heard about Jaheem. It's too much, really. Too much. We have to do something, and whatever that is, it must be more than the campaign against "That's So Gay" targeting only suburban teenage girls and starring Hillary Duff.

Finally, two questions linger, accusing us of our failure to guide society toward openness, compassion, and a respect for our differences: "What if Jaheem and Carl weren't gay?" and "What if they were?"

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Nordette Adams is a BlogHer CE and The New Orleans Literature Examiner.

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