|Dan Savage (right) and his partner Terry|
The word is ‘gay’.
In When I Was Joe (spoiler alert) Ty’s friend Arron bullies him, by calling him ‘gay’ and ‘pretty boy’. Ty worries about his own sexuality, although he can never quite bear to articulate his doubts and concerns. When he is with girls he is relieved to discover that he is - as he thinks - definitely not gay – yet his thoughts invariably turn to Arron. Gay thoughts and feelings are perceived by Arron and Ty as something to fear and hate, something that can be bullied out of existence. Arron maintains control over Ty by labelling all sorts of things as gay - foreign languages, for example. To become a man, according to Arron, all things gay must be reviled and avoided.
Now, in writing this I was reasonably sure that I was accurately portraying the harsh world of many teenagers, and the confusion that many boys feel about their own innermost feelings and sensations as they change from boys to men. I worried, however, that in reflecting this I would make gay teens feel worse.
In Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery, which I've just about finished, there’s a boy who is different. The question of whether he might be gay is again a subject for negative speculation (you'll have to wait until the summer to find out if he is or not) In reflecting the homophobia that I believe often exists amongst teens, could I make things worse?
I honestly don’t know the answer, but I hope that the books I write make readers think and reflect about these matters, as I do when I write. In the meantime I am moved beyond measure by the It Gets Better project. What a simple and clever idea – in response to the suicides of several gay teenagers in the US, writer Dan Savage set up a website where people can reassure bullied teens that their lives will change, that things will improve. The hope is that their stories willprevent other suicides, will bring hope and solace to scared and isolated teens.
The site contains moving testimony from adult survivors of bullying. Some are gay, some are lesbian. Some are bisexual or transgendered. Others are heterosexual, but they have been bullied themselves or know that their words will help and inspire. Barack Obama has made a video, so has Hillary Clinton. Ben Cohen, the English rugby player is big, butch and beautiful – he’s not gay himself, but he’s very happy to have a gay following, and he’s made his video for them. Dan Savage and his partner Terry talk on their video about being bullied at school, and how their families came to accept them. It’s a website with incredible power and beauty. It could and should change and save lives.
I know how it feels to be bullied by the culture. When I was growing up, ‘spastic’ was a playground term of abuse, thrown around thoughtlessly and regularly. Every time I heard it it was as though a knife had sliced through me. My brother - my sweet, clever, friendly, earnest, brave brother - suffers from cerebal palsy, and in those days people like him were called spastics. Today the phrase isn’t so common, but the bullying of the disabled is still part of the culture. There have been some horrendous cases reported recently of families with disabled members subject to abuse, some of which have culminated in murder or suicide.
And I’d go as far as to say that some of the actions of the current government in the name of saving money have institutionalised the bullying of disabled people. How can we reverse this? How can we create a society which accepts and supports every one of us?
It gets better. You have to believe it. And the more people who understand why it needs to get better, the better it will get.