At bullybloggers, the blogging site that Lisa Duggan, Jose Munoz and Tavia Nyong’o and I sometimes call our internet home, we believe in bullies. No, not those kinds of bullies, not Tennessee Williams’s no-necked monsters, the brutish boys who make it their business to keep everyone else in line. We believe in a queer breed of bullies, bullies who bash back. In actual fact, lots of queer girls (and I speak from experience) do begin their lives as bullying types as they fight their way out of the restrictions of femininity. Some find queerness to be a refuge from the ravages of teenage heterosexuality. And their queerness, especially if it comes with certain forms of social rejection from boys, while sometimes putting them in the way of violence, also shelters them from many of the treacherous dangers of teenage girlhood — teen pregnancy, recruitment to the role of feminine dependent, plummeting sense of self-worth, eating disorders and so on. While being a lesbian is no silver bullet, and while lots of lesbians also have body image issues and suffer through the indignity of being seen as essentially unattractive, there are advantages and liabilities to checking out of toxic heterosexual sociality.
Indeed, the quick distinctions that the media draws between bullies and queers make it seem as if every queer child is sad, lonely and isolated and pondering a hard choice between everyday violence and suicide. By the same token, we are led to believe that every team sports guy is waiting to ram a sissy boy’s head down the toilet. These media myths focus on the gay teen while ignoring the fact that we are actually talking about violent relations between boys in the context of highly competitive masculinities and far less often are we talking about girls. The problem is not so much teen suicide in this context but toxic masculinity that never faces social disapproval.
The reality of bullying and gay teen suicide is probably quite different from these media-engineered showdowns. First, just because a teen is gay and kills himself, does not mean that he killed himself because he was gay. Second, looking for hard and fast reasons for suicide, particularly in young people, is a fool’s game and it ignores the multiple pressures facing young adolescents on account of the messed up worlds that we adults pass on to youth. Finally, the representation of adolescence as a treacherous territory that one must pass through before reaching the safe harbor of adulthood — and this is the explicit message of the “it gets better” campaign — is a sad lie about what it means to be an adult. In fact, to distort the saccharine message sent out by Dan Savage and his boyfriend, sometimes “things get worse”… or to quote my friend Jody Davis, at any rate, “things get different.” In fact only a very small and privileged sector of the US population can say with any kind of confidence: “It gets better!” One can rarely say this to youth of color or to teenage moms or to victims of sexual abuse and, for the most part, unless one is talking to silver spoon in the mouth gays, one cannot promise to most queers that “things get better.” The touchy-feely notion embraced by this video campaign that teens can be pulled back from the brink of self-destruction by taped messages made by impossibly good looking and successful people smugly recounting the highlights of their fabulous lives is just PR for the status quo, a way of patting yourself on the back without changing a thing, pretending to be on the front lines while you eat caviar and sip champagne in the VIP lounge. By all means make cute videos about you and your boyfriend, but don’t justify the self-indulgence by imagining you are saving a life. Bully out.
J. JACK HALBERSTAM, Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity and Gender Studies at University of Southern California.