Re-published at The Huffington Post
Recently I had PTK surgery on my eye to fix recurrent corneal abrasions due to an underlying condition. A day later I had my post-op appointment, and everything went exceedingly well. Since I still couldn’t drive yet, my husband Matt had to bring me and our youngest son Charlie decided to tag along. After my post-op appointment (which was out of town, took an hour longer than we expected, and we were all starving afterwards), Charlie asked if we could go to IHOP for brunch. It was just Matt, me, and Charlie since our older son Jack was in the mountains with friends for spring break, and our daughter Kate was spending her spring break in driving school.
So, we went with intentions of having a nice, relaxing, casual brunch, just the three of us – a rare special occasion. Besides, successful eye surgery was something to celebrate, considering my extreme phobia of anything coming remotely close to my eyes.
After we got seated and placed our drink orders, Matt and Charlie needed to head to the bathroom. Now, Matt is a regular ole’ stereotypical, cishet, white male. Typically doesn’t encounter any issues on the way to or from, or inside of public bathrooms. Our 11-year-old Charlie, though, has had female gender expression since the age of 2.5, and we have supported that. In third grade, Charlie heard the story of CJ, of Lori Duron’s blog and book, Raising My Rainbow, and proclaimed that he was also “gender creative.” Charlie began testing the waters by wearing non-typical “boys” accessories to school like multiple strands of sparkly, colored Mardi Gras beads.
By fourth grade, Charlie was carrying a glittery “girls” backpack, toting Lisa Frank notebooks, and shimmery pink & purple pencil pouches. That summer, Charlie ventured into the territory of wearing “girls” shoes, and shortly after, wearing all “girls” clothing from the tween girls clothing store Justice – Just For Girls!
During fifth grade at age 11, Charlie came out as “genderqueer” and told us he feels neither male nor female, but something else altogether. Though he doesn’t right now want to change his gender or become female, he admittedly errs on the side of feminine gender expression, sort of like a Native American two-spirit, I suppose. In his own words, Charlie explained, “It’s as if God took one girl, one boy, and mashed them all up together to make one ME.” When asked, “Do you feel more like a boy or more like a girl?” Charlie invariably answers, “I feel more like just a person.” At the time that Charlie told us he was genderqueer, he also told us that he prefers going by they/them pronouns.
So this day in IHOP, Charlie was wearing their typical outfit: pink & teal “girls” sneakers, bright pink Justice sweatpants, plain T-shirt, and giant pink floral headband to accommodate their longer growing hair.
When Matt & Charlie walked past one of many tables of 4, from one booth there arose wild laughter, and someone at the table loudly shouted, “OH, HE’S GAY!!” This was followed by more wild laughter, and one person practically falling out of the seat with laughter. Matt and Charlie ignored and kept walking. Matt admitted he wasn’t sure what to do, because he is rarely in this situation. I see and hear it all the time, though, because I’m simply with Charlie more.
There was a time when I used to keep walking and ignore it too, but I learned that that’s not always best.
Because when we ignore harassment we give it permission to exist.
I now prefer stopping, facing the people, and calmly relaying, “We heard you. Why would you say that? Why would you make fun of or laugh at another human being?” Charlie actually prefers this response, and also has used it on their own as well. It’s beyond time to start holding people accountable for being bigots. I’ve found that, particularly in this current political and social climate where 45 has set the precedent for abusive language being acceptable, we should and we must counter these ignorant engagements.
Just to set the record straight, you cannot say, “Well, if you don’t want people making fun of you, then don’t dress that way in public to begin with.”
There is a term for that. It’s called “victim-blaming.”
We don’t get to make fun of or harass someone, and then when they get upset, tell them it’s their fault.
Any time someone defaults to questioning or criticizing what a victim should’ve or could’ve done differently to prevent something harmful done to them, then they, too, are participating in this unfortunate socially acceptable culture of victim-blaming, and it simply has to end.
Bullying is never the target’s fault. The responsibility for bullying and its after-effects invariably belongs to the bully.
People who are in any way “different” do not need to change in order to avoid being bullied. Change is always and without a doubt the burden of the bully.
Largely, when harassment, bullying, or even violent crimes like rape happen, our society likes to point out what is wrong with the victim rather than recognizing that the real problem lies with the bully/attacker and their own choices to harass, verbally abuse, or attack in the first place.
A lot of times, my son gets the “he’s just too sensitive” comment, or, “he’s got to learn to toughen up in the real world.”
First of all, my son IS tough. Charlie is tough enough to persist in wearing “girls” clothes and a headband with giant pink flowers to school every single day, despite the taunting that happens, and Charlie is tough enough to persist in wanting to live authentically rather than wanting to live merely please others. Others may not be aware, but it takes balls of frickin’ steel to be that brave in 5th grade – and I don’t know how much “tougher” it gets than that.
Further, statements like, “he is just too sensitive,” are classic victim-blaming statements. When people make comments like this, they are excusing the bully’s behavior by indicating that there is some type of shortcoming in the victim, and it implies that the victim’s reaction is somehow neither normal nor natural.
Saying that someone who is “different,” or of a marginalized group needs to “toughen up” or “man up” may actually be the worst possible thing that we can say about the victim of bullying, because it minimizes what they have experienced; it mutes their narrative. And we must begin listening to the narratives of “different” people, because they are here to change the world for the better.
Also, we can’t just tell these victims of harassment or bullying to simply “get over it. Childhood and teenage bullying is not something a person can just happen to “forget” one day. We have the research to know that harassment and bullying have significant consequences and lasting impacts that go with people into adulthood.
Again, the victim of bullying does not need to change, the bully does.
So, instead of perpetuating the cycle of victim blaming, how about we start being better role models for our children, and teaching them not to make fun of, harass, attack, or bully other people to begin with?
Are you, as an adult or a parent, making fun of others’ physical appearances, demeanors, or abilities in front of your child? The overweight woman pushing a cart out of the grocery store that you just made a snarky comment about with your child in the backseat, listening? The mumbling you did at the old man driving slowly in front of you, trying your patience? The group of tattered looking teens standing around that you just called “punks?” The flamboyant boy in pink sweatpants you just called “gay?” As if there was something wrong with being gay in the first place? Do your kids or your relatives hear you talk like this? Think about that.
Indeed there are certain life skills we can teach victims of harassment and bullying to learn like resilience, assertiveness, perseverance, and self-confidence. But lacking these skills, or not having mastered them yet are not reasons to excuse the bullying and harassment at all.
Instead, we need to focus on teaching bullies how to take responsibility for their own actions. This has got to start at home, but we know the reality; that doesn’t always happen. Therefore, it must happen, and must be reinforced in the community, in school, and in various public or private social situations. Don’t be a bystander. Be a part of the village and stand up to bullying and harassment whenever you see it or hear it.
All people, but especially those who are somehow “different” or marginalized, must have the freedom to move about in this world without fear of being attacked or bullied.