Friday, October 1, 2010

Kids are Dying: Can Stories Help?

I blogged last week about the suicide of 15yo Billy Lucas after homophobic bullying. I also wrote about Seattle activist Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project - a youtube platform to help LGBT teens hear the stories of adults who made it past high school, who are living happy and productive lives. In my mind, Savage, like YA writer David Levithan, is literally changing the narrative of what it meant to be an LGBT teen in America.

You would think one death would be enough of a wake up call. But in the wake of Billy's death, have followed others in a matter of days: Tyler Clemente, Seth Walsh, and Asher Brown each committed suicide after homophobic teasing and bullying. Yet, the press coverage has been relatively slim - except around the death of Tyler, a bright Rutgers University student. And here, the press has mostly focused on Tyler's roommate invading his privacy through hidden cameras - and then outing him on the internet. Rarely, is the mainstream press linking Tyler's death to Seth's or Asher's or Billy's. That is, except a moving, now viral video by Ellen DeGeneres that calls this spate of deaths a countrywide epidemic and a cultural failure on all our parts to protect young people from bigotry, harassment and violence stemming from intolerance. (hear hear Ellen!)

I too, in my own small way, feel compelled to speak again. Because, yes, the tormenters who provoked Tyler's death were Asian American young people. For those of us in the broader Asian American and South Asian communities, we must confront homophobia in our youth and in ourselves.

In addition, I want to ask out loud: If kids are dying, can stories help? Dan Savage's project, and my work these many years in the field of narrative medicine, convince me that yes, stories DO make a difference. This lesson, that SILENCE = DEATH, that THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL, that giving voice to our private experiences can galvanize social movements and create social change is a vital one handed down to us by the civil rights, feminist, AIDS activist and other movements.

So what is the responsibility of storytellers - novelists, poets, journalists, advocates? To speak and speak and speak again. I hope the YA writing community, of which I am a new member, can galvanize in the same way it did around the issue of book banning and free speech when Laurie Halsie Anderson's aptly titled novel Speak came under attack and at risk of being banned in one midwestern school district.

If kids are dying, what can stories do?

1. Raise awareness/Tell untold stories: Stories like Mitali Bose Perkins' Bamboo People raise awareness around issues that may not garner much U.S. press attention at all. In the case of Perkins' novel, that is the experience of child/teen soldiers in Myanmar (Burma).

2. Create communities of support/Galvanize Action: Ellen's video, which has been posted and re-posted in facebook and twitter, not only raises awareness about the spate of LGBT teen suicides, but it has galvanized a cybernetic community of responders. Some post links to anti-bullying bills, others call for community wide forums to discuss the deaths and show the "It Gets Better" video. Some colleagues at Columbia University are organizing such an event right now.

3. Name oppressions: By labeling the death of Tyler a result of primarily cyber-harassment, the mainstream press misses a chance to 'call out' homophobia and intolerance.

4. Change the Narrative: Stories that portray otherwise marginalized young people in a different light - ie. LGBT teens or teens of color - as not solely ostracized, depressed, oppressed, and suffering - change the narrative for us all. A prime example of a YA text that does this is David Levithan's Boy Meets Boy or his co-written Will Grayson, Will Grayson. Similarly, Malinda Lo re-imagines Cinderella as queer in her Ash -thereby creating a space in an otherwise heteronormative and traditional tale. She, like Levithan, changes the (cultural) narrative.

I hope that in my own small way, my narrative here contributes to a nationwide chorus of voices who call for a change in this cultural story. Voices that say one child dying as a result of bigotry is too many.

Voices that honor Billy, Tyler, Seth, and Asher and any other child who feels lost, silenced, voiceless by speaking up for them and with them and saying, no more.

Not a single child more.


  1. Amen.

    I think anti-bullying education should be multi-faceted -- as I said in my Tablet column, there’s an elementary-school teaching approach called the Responsive Classroom that I think is also a great parenting approach. The principles include valuing kindness and empathy as much as academic achievement. (Too many of us convey that good grades are responsibility number one—what if we insisted that values were?) And it involves thinking about consequences, as well as understanding that humans learn through social interaction. So when our kids see us bullying a telemarketer, making a fat joke, treating workers dismissively, calling someone stupid, they’re learning from us. If they don't see us walking the walk -- actually standing up for the downtrodden by volunteering and being kind, not just talking about it -- they learn that words mean nothing. And finally, I think we've gotta talk about cooperation (you need to work with and respect people who may not be like you), responsibility and self-control. And finally (hi, I'm longwinded!) I worry about demonizing those kids who videocammed Tyler Clementi or bullied Phoebe Prince, which is what's happening now. If we make them The Other, we're saying that could NEVER be us or our kids, and we miss an opportunity for self-examination.

    Perhaps most important of all, I think we need to talk to our kids about being bystanders. The girl who giggles when her friend teases someone, even if she doesn’t engage herself, or the boy who says “dude, lay off” when his friend calls another kid a faggot -- they've chosen to be allies instead of bystanders. The first kid has allied with the bully, and the second has allied with the victim. The latter kid is displaying the behavior we should model and talk about at home.