Friday, November 5, 2010

Because those who are bullied often become bullies themselves...

For the last month, GLBTs and GLBT allies have been rallying around anti-bullying efforts, in the wake of a rash of gay suicides.  We've seen celebrities and non-celebrities alike make videos for the “It Gets Better” project, and the topic of bullying has been making its way around the television/radio talk shows, blogs, and podcasts.  As someone who spent most of his middle school and early high school years in a perpetual state of gastric distress because of peer bullying, this dialog is both welcome and overdue.  Both physical and emotional bullying has been one of the dirtier little secrets in the American education system, and I hope that recent cultural discussions actually do something to start to bring it under control.

That having been said, the discussions about bullying in the GLBT community need to be broadened out into a larger context.  We forget that bullying is learned behavior—kids either pick it up from adults (or other kids who picked it up from adults), or through passive authority figures who either are too timid to intervene or play the observed bullying off as a childhood rite of passage: kids will be kids.  Moreover, like Wagner learns bullying behavior from Faustus, then proceeds to bully Robin and Dick   in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, bullying perpetuates a cycle that often sees bullying victims become bullies of weaker targets.  So really, the question needs to focus less on why various teens and early twentysomethings bullied young gay men to the point of suicide and more on who either taught or allowed the various teens to become bullies in the first place?

Ours is a bully culture in the United States.  At some point in the last thirty years, public civility died a slow death, and no bothered to have a funeral for it...or even put on a wake.  It was forgotten like a childless, elderly aunt or uncle sent off to a nursing home.  We remember that they were around in the past, but few actually remember to visit on a regular basis...until the call comes in that the relative's been dead for two days, and someone needs to pay for disposal of the body.  In the 80's and 90's, AM talk radio became more abrasive and aggressive with programming, in hopes of trying to compete against the FM alternatives.  In the late 90's and subsequent decade, the Internet allowed both anonymity and lightspeed exchanges of thoughts and ideas via instant messengers and the World Wide Web, transforming people into handles and words on a screen instead of human beings.  The retail mantra about customer satisfaction became carte blanche for a generation of over entitled shoppers to badger retail clerks with the phrase “the customer's always right,” and eager corporations were almost always happy to concede in the name of commerce and a heavier bottom line.  Meanwhile, our cultural shift from a manufacturing to a service-based economy has put us in far closer quarters with each other than before, and we're finding it harder and harder to tolerate everyone's own little idiosyncrasies.  So we attack.  We complain. We send snarky text messages and emails to friends and allied coworkers. We flood chatboards and blogs about the people who annoy us.  One need only look at the attack ads in an election cycle to see thirty and sixty second symptoms of our bully culture in the US. 

So as the GLBT community grapples with a rash of suicides, and discussions spring up about the topic of bullying, I was dismayed to tune in to Sirius/XM's “OutQ” channel on Tuesday (October  26) and hear open attacks against the overweight on the morning show.  Host Larry Flick was interviewing Bryan T. Donovan, a recent contestant on “Thintervention with Jackie Warner.”  Warner's show is the latest in a series of “Biggest Loser” clones, and Bravo's latest attempt to stay relevant after losing “Project Runway” (and becoming little more than the spoiled housewives network): Take a group of fat people, add an abrasive trainer with a guarded soft spot for her charges, season with exploitative emotional breakdowns in therapeutic settings, and serve with dramatic weigh ins.  This is, of course, until the contestant leaves the show, leaves the regimenting of a regular trainer and structure of a planned diet, regains the weight, and then uses the rebound weight as a means of trying to jumpstart a reality TV career on another season or another show entirely.  Ryan Benson or Erik Chopin, anyone?

Before Flick and Donovan even met in the studio, the week began with a media attack on the obese.  In an October 25th article entitled “Should Fatties Get a Room (Even on TV?),” Marie Claire writer Maura Kelly wrote: “The other day, my editor asked me: ‘Do you really think people feel uncomfortable when they see overweight people making out on television?’”  What followed was a tirade that could best be summarized as a fifteen year old girl squealing euuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu! At the thought of seeing two fat people kissing.  (This of course makes me wonder if Ms. Kelly’s head would explode if she saw the contents of a file on my hard drive that I’ve simply labeled “the stuff,” in an attempt to throw off prying eyes of roommates or a parent who might borrow my Macbook.  Seeing images of fat people kissing would be the least of Maura’s concerns…)  According to her line of thinking, fat people choose to be fat, and the solution was an easy blend of dieting and exercising.  As someone whose yo-yo dieting through his teens, twenties, and thirties has left him with nothing but gallstones, I would disagree with the “ease” of Ms. Kelly’s weight control plan.  In the article, she went on to try and fend off criticism, even going as far as to play the “I’m not a sizeist, but…” line (protip, Maura: if you have to preface a sentence like that, you are one..just one in denial), but the backlash was overwhelming.  According to an article in yesterday’s Boston Phoenix, 28,000 letters had been sent to Marie Claire, and 3,300 posts were made in response to the article.  Few were sympathetic to either Kelly or her cause.

So not even a day after the Marie Claire article hit the web, I’m listening to two men make vicious comments about obese people, as Donovan tried to keep his post-reality-TV publicity momentum going.  Congratulations and backstage gossip about the show soon gave way to venom slinging, as both Donovan and Flick compared weight loss stories and reflected upon their old bodies.  “Who wants to see a fat person being sexy?” Donovan asked, snidely adding after “well, unless you're a chubby chaser...”  It was like Donovan and Maura Kelly had some sort of self-loathing psychic link or something.  The interview continued for fifteen more minutes, as Donovan and Flick mutually masturbated one another's egos over their weight loss and the superspecialness of their own superspecial journeys.  (Really, journey?  Is that how we're framing weight loss now?  A trip of self discovery? ‘I went to Tokyo for my holiday, how about you?’ ‘Oh, I lost fifteen pounds! Wonderful me!’ ‘Oh, wonderful you! What a journey!’ Seriously, when did Jenny Craig become Sarah Palin?   Does that mean that we refer to backsliders like Benson and Chopin as people who had taken a round trip?) No wonder Flick and Donovan were so self-absorbed—they had an radio audience for their own little narcissistic circle jerk...  It never fails to amaze me how hatefully arrogant some fat people become once they’ve lost some weight…as if self loathing and lack of self esteem was stronger driving force in their body issues than the weight itself.

The segment ended, and I started to think about the bigger picture: the month of suicide awareness in the GLBT community in the wake of anti-gay bullying—young men who were made to feel inferior, belittled, and worthless because of who they were; men who were singled out because they didn't conform to socially-constructed rules and codes, and emotionally abused to the point of self destruction.  I reflected back on the conversation between Flick and Donovan…who proceeded to choose a segment of the population (of which there are many gay men included…just ask any bear) and engage in speech that not only belittled and demeaned them, but used Flick’s media pulpit to sanction it—giving the message that it’s okay to attack others based on physical difference.  After all, people can diet and exercise to be thin, right?  When I hear that, why do I hear echoes of Exodus International hiding in the subtext?

A caste culture built on body fascism, unrealistic beauty myths, and social divisions based upon them has always been the dirty little secret of the gay community. Yes, we all see gay men wrap themselves up in rainbows (signifying diversity) in June.  We hear the speeches about a need for tolerance and acceptance of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and the transgendered by the mainstream.  But at the same time, I’ve always wondered if a karmic effect doesn’t hold the gay community back.  For all the cries demanding tolerance and acceptance I hear from gay political leaders, I hear rhetoric from gay men that makes me cringe when the parades have disbanded, the media has left, and the camera phones aren’t documenting events for Youtube.  Can we really move on as a group, when we’re still oppressing others because they don’t look like an American Eagle cover model?  The conversation caught between Larry Flick and Jason T. Donovan was a symptom of a larger problem.

Yes, Virginia, fat people are prone to suicide too, and though they may not spur the same sympathetic pathos as young, muscular, boyish gay teens and twentysomethings, their loss to despair and eventual self destruction spurred on by hopelessness is no less sad or tragic…even if they don’t meet society’s beauty standards.

The gay community needs to stop bullying and discriminating within its own ranks before we should expect others to stop bullying us. I truly believe that oppression is a Venn diagram of concentric circles, all working in tandem, feeding into and off of one another.  Sexism, racism, sizeism, homophobia, classism, transphobia, and other forms of discrimination are the same essential mechanism, just dressed differently for respective occasions.  Oppression in any form seeks to establish a norm and majority that can then define and control others based on its respective axis.  I was listening to another OutQ host , Michelangelo Signorile, do some analysis of Tuesday’s election this afternoon.  He cited a presentation that Karl Rove made in the wake of the 2008 elections—the notion that if the majority’s role was to govern, the minority’s role was to become the majority.  From this idea, we can see the cogs of any oppressive structure—maintain power and keep those out of power from attaining it.  The obesity “epidemic” is one that’s been well hyped in the news.  After all, what’s a better way to get viewers during sweeps week than to scare television viewers with some statistics and pictures of fat people (usually dressed sloppily, and almost always headless, due to some savvy cropping).  Anyone can become fat, right?  If the statistics are correct, the rising numbers of the obese in society can only suggest that the numbers of the “fit” are descending proportionately.  Thus, those who profit (socially or financially) from diet and fitness trends need to increase awareness of the declining societal beauty myth…and roll out shows that make it look easy to lose weight.  Thus, what we really heard on the 26th was Flick and Donovan both trying to take their place in the sizeist majority by throwing the community they’d recently left under the bus.  It was Uncle Tom’ery at its best, if you think about it—attack the group that you just belonged to, in order to gain acceptance into a new, more socially powerful group.  Others will listen in, and the chances of mimicking the behavior increases, as they’re hearing a “celebrity” doing it.  The cycle of bullying begins anew.

Simply stated, bullying is learned behavior—sanctioned by passive authority figures and fueled by the low self esteem and projected shortcomings of those who engage in it.  Flick’s celebrity status (as celebrity as one can get on a niche satellite radio channel) gives him the power to influence the behaviors of others.  Yes, Flick openly advertises his disdain for the concept of a gay “community” and frequently uses this as an excuse to divorce himself from controversy, yet he has to realize that by taking the lead on a show on the only national GLBT radio outlet, he's a community leader by default.  He has a direct hand in using his media access to shape hearts and minds in his (*cough*GLBT*cough*) audience.  His interview with Bryan T. Donovan only fostered attitudes and beliefs that contribute to the emotional abuse and social exclusion of gay men of all ages.

Why do gays get bullied?  We need to look at ourselves as gay men before we start casting stones at heterosexual teens.  The gay male culture is one that openly promotes a bully mindset towards otherness (race, class, body type, among the big factors), while trying to hide behind victimhood in a larger heteronormative context.  When our own dirty laundry's off the line, we can start dealing with others.

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