There is a line in the Guy Clark song "Stuff That Works" that has tormented me for days. It says, "I've got a tattoo with her name right through my soul." Clark is talking about the woman he loves, but his poignant description made me reflect about three young boys we lost in September 2010. Their names are Asher, Billy and Seth. I have a tattoo with their names right through my soul this week, and it is raw and refuses to heal because I am ashamed of our nation and our churches and myself and how we failed them.
Asher Brown was 13, an eighth grader who killed himself on September 23. He shot himself in the head after suffering relentless harassment from a small group of students at Hamilton Middle School in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Houston, Texas. Billy (William) Lucas was 15, a student at Greensburg Community High School in Greensburg, Indiana. He hanged himself. Friends say that he had been bullied by other students for years. Seth Walsh was 13. He hanged himself from a tree in his Bakersfield, California backyard after years of being tormented by his peers.
The parents of these boys could not get school officials to do anything to protect them. This makes sense when you look at the community climate that is pervasive in much of our nation, where intolerance and exclusion and rejection are status quo for young people (and most adults) who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. These climates are fed most often on Sunday mornings in local pulpits where fundamentalists serve parishioners a steady diet of homophobia and bigotry that is sanctioned by the some of the largest churches in the world, notably Mormon, Catholics and Evangelical mega-churches that fund anti-gay programs in places like Uganda and the Bahamas.
Asher, Bill and Seth are victims of the trickle-down effects of these churches in the "one man/one woman" camp. Heterosexism, patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia and racism all fuel these organizations and ultimately result in the targeting of gay people.
When authority figures say things like "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve," they drive a stake through the hearts of kids like Asher, Bill and Seth, and they incite their children to bullying. Even worse is the "Love the sinner, hate the sin" rhetoric of churches. Kids have a hard time discerning this difference. They just hear, "God hates me. My Pastor hates me. My family hates me." If you haven't seen Prayers for Bobby yet, check it out. I know of no better example of the bitter outcome of religion-based homophobia. In truth, Bobby was "bullied" to death by his church and his mother's inability to accept him as he was. Some say this is an inevitable rite of passage for kids who "come out" in fundamentalist families and churches and conservative communities. More and more, it may be a last rite for them.
Police investigators who interviewed students who harassed Seth the day he hanged himself said the students broke down into tears. Police said the tormentors never expected an outcome such as this.
That's where we are in our country right now -- schools and churches full of unbridled bullying and homophobic rhetoric leading to violence. The outcomes are actually very predictable. Children and teenagers are going to die. Grownups are going to die. Some will take their own lives in despair. Others will be killed by people who identify as Christians who believe the Bible tells them it is ok to rid the world of homosexuals and abortionists.
I believe that most of the murderers will have grown up in schools and Sunday School classes where it was ok to call Asher a faggot in gym class or on the way to Communion. One of the young boys who tormented Asher was a "born-again Christian" who performed mock gay sex acts on Asher while observed by his peers and his teacher. That young man will never outlive what he did to Asher or to himself.
What can we do?
Let me use an old fashioned word that fits. We need to repent. Then, we need to call our local school superintendents. Call our state representatives. Leave a message for our Governors. Tell the Tea Partiers and the Democrats and the Republicans and the Libertarians. They all have children and grandchildren. Heaven forbid that a bully mistakes one of theirs for gay.