If we really want to stop bullying against LGBT youth, we need to start by taking a long, hard look at ourselves and how our own histories of being bullied may have caused us to internalize homophobia that leads us to bully others in the community

Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns made an impassioned plea in the “It Gets Better” video that swept YouTube and landed him on The Today Show and Ellen and others.

His words brought tears to my eyes, not just because of his sincerity and candor, but because of my memories of being bullied as a teenager. I suspect almost all LGBT people of my age ran their own gauntlet of bullies, who for whatever reason decided that they were different enough to deserve taunting, scorn or physical abuse.
It says a lot about those of us who survived and not all of it is good.

For some, the words of the bullies sank in and colored how we feel about ourselves. It is a matter of conditioning. If someone calls you a disparaging name long enough, you begin to identify with that name.

Even though we rationally know it’s not true, somewhere inside we retain that taunt and it becomes part of who we are. That’s why when LGBT people reclaimed the word “queer” it was so empowering.

Unfortunately, that kind of consciousness-raising takes a good deal of maturity. For many teens, that maturity never happens. They become so beaten down with the taunts and jeers and abuse that they opt for a permanent solution — suicide.

Those of us who were lucky enough to survive still carry the wounds, and they manifest themselves in self-destructive ways.

Internalized homophobia, brought on by bullying, spawns a myriad of problems, some subtle and some overt. I am no psychologist, but I would bet a good portion of the rampant alcoholism and drug abuse in the LGBT community stems from self-hatred and internalized homophobia.

The greater issue is that bullying is not just a schoolyard problem. It is pervasive in our society, from grade school right up to the workplace, church and even the highest halls of government.

Every time a politician uses “gay marriage” to drum up fear in a campaign speech, it is just an extension of the schoolyard bullying. Every time a preacher condemns LGBT people from the pulpit, it is just another extension of bullying. Every time a comedian or other public figure uses the term “gay” as a synonym for “lame” or “bad,” it is a subtle form of bullying — and it is unacceptable.

So how do we stop the bullies? It’s not going to be easy. It will take the same kind of concerted and ongoing effort that made using the “N” word unacceptable. It will take the same kind of ongoing and constant work that has made the language of sexism unacceptable in the workplace, schools and society at large.
It will not be easy. We will be derided as being overly “politically correct” and face some stiff resistance. But we must make the effort.

Otherwise the bullying will continue and perhaps become worse.

So what do we do? My suggestion is to start with our own behavior.

Every time we start to deride someone for being too nelly, or dressing too flamboyantly or looking too butch, we need to stop and ask where that voice is coming from.

Most likely it comes from the inner bully that lives inside us. Our own internalized homophobia expresses itself in catty remarks and snide comments. It is a dirty little queer secret that we all sometimes share.

When we become flustered by someone’s gender identity, most likely it is because we have succumbed to the bullying of the hetero-normative society in which we live. That means anyone who doesn’t conform to the heterosexual model, who doesn’t conform to some archetype of female or male throws a monkey wrench into our reasoning.

We listen to that voice inside us that says, “He or she is different from what I expect, therefore I should ridicule them.” It’s our inner bully speaking and it harms not only us but our community as well.

OK, I know this all sounds a bit Kumbaya and idealistic, and quite frankly it is. Idealism is something that is often the punch line of jokes, but without it we are just fumbling along hoping things will get better. Without a goal, an ideal, we will end up lost, and like those lost souls who end up as the schoolyard bullies, we will do more harm than good.

Beginning with our own lives, we can stop the root causes of bullying. Then we can begin to change it wherever we find it in our community and the greater community as well.

My parents used to tell me that the bullies who taunted me were cowards. Though it did little to comfort then, I now see they were right. Bullies pick on the weak, the different kids and those less likely to fight back.

They do it to feel more important, or to prove themselves to their peers, but inside they do it because they are scared. They fear kids who are different, who don’t fit their adolescent world view.

For some reason they feel the need to dominate someone to prove themselves and rather than excel at something important, to actually achieve something they can be proud of, they take the easy way, the coward’s way.

So next time you hear a politician or preacher or comedian make a snide remark about LGBT people, remind them of their cowardice. Write them, call them and let them know you find their remarks distasteful and unacceptable.

It’s a small step, but with enough people taking a stand, things will change.

As the old folk song says, “Freedom’s name is mighty sweet … keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.”

Hardy Haberman is a longtime local LGBT activist and a member of Stonewall Democrats of Dallas. His blog is at http://dungeondiary.blogspot.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 22, 2010