Throwing the First Stone

“Throwing the First Stone”

10 October 2010 ©  Rev. Fred L Hammond

Unitarian Universalist Congregation Tuscaloosa

There once was a young boy who dreaded going to school.  Oh he was bright enough.  And he liked the subjects well enough.  But he did not like getting on the school bus because even though there were plenty of seats, he had to fight to get one.  The bus driver would yell at him for not sitting down immediately, oblivious to the fact that the other students on the bus would refuse to let him sit.  And then when he arrived at school, he always had his books knocked out from under his arms. This was before back packs were allowed in school.  He was told he carried them like a girl.  When he tried to carry them in the more manly fashion at his hip, they would be knocked from his arms.  The books would scatter to the floor and then others would gleefully kick the books down the hall.   He would be late for class trying to retrieve them. The teachers would then send him to the principal for being late.  No amount of explaining what happened would make a difference.  It was his fault that he was late for class yet again.

Sometimes he would just be shoved in the hall way.  Once could be considered an accident, perhaps, but five or six shoves in a row by the other boys passing by was a deliberate act.  It was thought funny by the girls.   Sometimes the shoving and knocking the books to the floor were combined.  One would shove, another knock, and a few more would kick the books down the hall.

And there would be the threats of violence after school let out.  He somehow managed to slip through the crowd to avoid those encounters, even when he planned to hang out in town instead of catching the bus home.

He tried to man up.  He tried to be tough.  He tried to let the name calling and the physical affronts to his person roll off his back.  But he could not.  He knew crying would confirm in everyone’s mind that he was indeed what they called him; a faggot, a sissy, a homo, those were the names used then.  He didn’t want to live anymore, not like this.

One day after enduring what seemed like a continuous onslaught of bullying; he entered his next class and sat sideways at his desk.  He was numb.  His whole body just vibrated numbness.  His teacher asked him to turn around in his seat.  There was no response.  His teacher asked him again, and then, the tears began to fall.  The young boy just began sobbing full body sobs.

The teacher took him outside of the classroom and talked with him.  Found out what had been happening. The guidance counselor came and also listened to his story.  The guidance counselor gave a stern lecture to his classmates about their behaviors.  Told them in no uncertain terms that their treating of this young boy was wrong and they must stop this behavior or suffer the consequences of what could happen to this young boy which would be on their conscience forever.  They would be held responsible.

Life got better for this young boy after that.  Oh he still got the verbal taunts but it was nothing compared to the daily emotional and physical torment that he received that year.

The media has highlighted several suicides of young people this past month as a result of bullying.  Whether it was verbal taunts, physical assaults, or cyber-bullying, the results were the same, the ending of a young person’s life.  These young people were either gay or thought to be gay by their peers.  Their life was driven into the ground and their possibility and the hope for shining their light brightly in the world was snuffed out.

It is difficult to know how many teens commit suicide because of homophobia.  The once touted 3 in 10 deaths is now considered to be grossly overestimated and it is now thought that the deaths of sexual minorities is no greater than in any other demographic.  But this does not diminish the seriousness or the grief these families are suffering because of the loss of their children.

And the young people that we heard about in the news do not comprise every teen that committed suicide this past month or even this past week, only those we heard about.  According to a U.S. Suicide Statistics of 2001, a young adult between the ages 15-24 ends their life every 2 hours and 12 minutes.  So that means we only heard of a very few of the young people who died this past month at their own hands out of the roughly eleven young people who died every day.  The numbers add up quickly and these are only statistics on the completed suicides, not the incompleted attempts of suicide.   It is the third leading cause of death in this age group after accidents and homicides.  It is the 5th leading cause of death in children age 5-14.
Gay, Lesbian Straight Educators Network (GLSEN) has been conducting an annual survey[1] of high school students since 1999 on bullying as it relates to sexual orientation.   Here are a few findings from 2009’s survey: 84.6% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 40.1% reported being physically harassed and 18.8% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation.

Being out in school had positive and negative repercussions for LGBT students – outness was related to higher levels of victimization, but also higher levels of psychological well-being.

On October 1 2009, a new law went into effect in Alabama mandating all schools to have an anti-bullying policy.  It is basically a good law but there are few flaws. It is only aimed at student to student bullying and did not include harassment from authority figures such as teachers or coaches.   It defines bullying as an ongoing pattern by an individual and it requires the victim of the bullying or their parent to fill out a written form to report the bullying.  A onetime bullying event or an oral report is not sufficient to bring actions against the bully-er.  Yet, as we know in the recent suicide of Tyler Clementi, a onetime event on the internet is all it might take.   The law did not specify any specific class for protection.  Focus on the Family attempted to make the case that Alabama’s anti-bully legislation would open the door for gay activists to seek special protections.

Our school district in Tuscaloosa already had a fairly comprehensive bullying policy in place which did include sexual orientation as part of its policy.  The law now reinforces their policy.  A recent news story states that Tuscaloosa is considering broadening their policy to jurisdictions beyond school property such as “when a student interferes with another student’s educational opportunities or substantially disrupts the operations of a school or school-sponsored activity.[2] This would include cyberbullying through an electronic device such as the internet and sexting, the sending of explicit photographs and texts through a cell phone.

Tuscaloosa would become the first school system in Alabama to have a broad jurisdiction policy on bullying.  It is certainly a step in the right direction.  GLSEN affirms this action as being a positive step.  Their report confirms that  “Students attending schools with an anti-bullying policy that included protections based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity/expression heard fewer homophobic remarks, experienced lower levels of victimization related to their sexual orientation, were more likely to report that staff intervened when hearing homophobic remarks and were more likely to report incidents of harassment and assault to school staff than students at schools with a general policy or no policy.[3]

There are other positive actions that could be done to reduce bullying behavior as it relates to sexual orientation and gender expression.  GLSEN stated that schools with Gay-Straight alliances increased the positive experiences sexual minority students had and reduced the reports of negative experiences.  Having safe zones and supportive teachers “contributed to a range of positive indicators including fewer reports of missing school, fewer reports of feeling unsafe, greater academic achievement, higher educational aspirations and a greater sense of school belonging.[4]

There are currently no gay straight alliances in our public high schools.  University of Alabama has two student groups, Spectrum and OUTlaw, as well as a faculty/ staff group on campus. So where are students in high school to go where they will be accepted for who they are and not fear being bullied?  –Where they will be encouraged to explore the light that is the essence of their being and nurtured to allow that light to shine bright?

I will let those questions sit for a moment.  I want to shift our attention to why this is a concern for us today. What is it about bullying, and why is bullying sexual minority youth so important for us to examine and to end it?  The reason is not just because a few individuals commit suicide, albeit a very sound reason indeed.  There is something else at work in bullying sexual minority youth and suicides are just one of the consequences of this behavior.

Iris Marion Young in her essay Five Faces of Oppression looks at oppression not in the traditional format of a few people in power oppressing the masses as in tyrannical forms of government but as a form of systems that are in place to maintain dominant culture.  She describes oppression as being structural.  There are embedded in the dominant culture “unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutional rules and the collective consequences of following those rules.[5]

So while the intent is good to pass anti-bullying legislation or passing laws protecting rights of sexual minorities for housing, employment, etc., the assumptions of what is normal behavior remains operative in the culture.  Those who affirm the dominant culture resent what they see as the deteriorating of their traditional values and norms with the passage of such laws.

While all of the five faces of oppression, Young describes also apply to homophobia and bullying on some level, there are two that I want to highlight specifically.  She describes what she calls Cultural Imperialism which is the universalization of a dominant group’s experience and culture.  This becomes considered as the norm and therefore the norm for all of humanity. So in America, up until very recently, one did not see positive images of gays on television.  If gays were viewed on television or in the movies it was in negative, often stereotypical images.  It was the gay man dying of AIDS.  It was the flamboyant gay who everyone could laugh at. It was the manipulative and weak-spirited Mr. Smith on Lost in Space who preyed upon unsuspecting young Will Robinson and therefore had to be under constant surveillance. These images sent very strong messages of what gays deserved, of what manhood was, and the dangers to our children.  They each deserved what they got.

Young writes, “The dominant group reinforces its position by bringing the other groups under the measure of the dominant norms.[6] These groups become reconstructed as deviant and inferior and as the other. The stereotype becomes the known example of these other groups.  Those who do not fit that stereotype are rendered invisible.  Young writes, “Just as everyone knows that the earth goes around the sun, so everyone knows that gays are promiscuous…[7]

We see these assumptions in operation when Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church declares that “God hates Fags” or when the Family Research Council declares “… that homosexuality is unhealthy, immoral and destructive to individuals, families and societies.[8] Those who are members of the groups targeted even if they refuse these stereotype values and desire “recognition as human, capable of activity, full of hope and possibility;[9] they must react to the dominant culture’s perception of them as different, inferior, and immoral. The further they are from the stereotype the more invisible they become because the dominant culture only sees the stereotype and not the person before them. It is assumed that they meet the stereotype even when they do not. The dominant culture does not recognize that they have a perspective on the culture that is based on their status within the culture.  Simone Weil said, “Someone who does not see a pane of glass does not know that he does not see it. Someone who, being placed differently, does see it, does not know the other does not see it.[10]

The dominant culture does not see the pane of glass through which their world view is shaped and altered.  It then is up to those who are placed differently and do see the pain of glass to point it out and demand that it be recognized as such—a perspective and not a universal truth.

Cultural Imperialism feeds into another face of oppression which is systemic violence.  Groups which are oppressed live with the reality that they “must fear random, unprovoked acts on their persons or property, which have no motive but to damage, humiliate, or destroy the person.[11]

Taken on its face, no one, not even Focus on the Family, which advocated not passing the Alabama anti-bullying bill, believes bullying behavior is good.  Their stance against the law was purely on the basis that it might condone or encourage sexual minorities to come further out of the closet.  Bullying then becomes one method to send a clear message to sexual minorities that they are not to be seen as a valued contributing member of the society. Those caught in bullying might only receive light punishment and to that extent the acts are acceptable behaviors. Bullying is therefore on some level viewed as an acceptable behavior in society because it serves the function of maintaining the dominant culture’s control.

The work that must be done to bring bullying to an end is on the cultural level.  It will take diligent and persistent messaging into the main culture stream to change what is considered boys simply being boys.  This is more than passing laws and school policies against bullying. In order to change the culture, positive interactions on the relational level with the perceived other must become the norm.  Our work for justice lies in the vigilant vanguard position of overt acceptance of different perspectives, different cultural norms across all avenues of being human.  This includes sexual orientation, gender expression, racial and ethnic, and class differences—all must be in our sights for radical acceptance in order to change the cultural norm of oppression.

To bring this back to the question asked earlier.  Where are students in highschool to go where they will be nurtured and encouraged to explore the light that is the essence of their being?   Our youth group which meets every Sunday is one place where gay teens are welcomed. Because there does not exist a gay straight alliance in schools, our youth group becomes one of the places where gay, and lesbian, transgender, bi, questioning, and intersexed teens are free to gather to ask the questions they need to ask and relax in who they are.

Many of the teens who attend the youth group are not from families from this congregation.  And so this youth group becomes our congregation’s calling card into the community.  We need to do all we can to support them in their journey.  We must listen to their experiences, honor their integrity, and show unconditional love for their dignity as people here with us.

A few weeks ago, our teens offered a worship service that was poignant and moving.  They could only have done that particular service if they knew that we loved them.  We do love them.  We must continue to love them and celebrate their lives here.  We can support them by standing up to bullying that we see in our schools and elsewhere.  We might not be able to change the nation but we can and we must do all that we can to change the culture where we live.

You might have surmised the identity of the young boy at the beginning of this sermon as my personal experience of seventh grade.  You would be right. I was very close to failing that grade level until a teacher and guidance counselor intervened.  That was all it took, two people who believed in me and acted on my behalf to turn that year around.   I still struggled with my gay identity.  I still faced random acts of taunting against me but things began to change that day.  And I found other people who also accepted me and valued me as I am and life got better.  I want to make sure that every gay teen who walks through our doors knows what I have come to know.  There are people who love them, and cherish them, and life will get better.

Not everyone in the world is looking to throw the first stone. Here is a place where stones are put aside for building bridges of hope and love.  Blessed Be.

Benediction:  In the Hebrew scriptures Leviticus states “you shall the love the alien as yourself, for you were once the alien in the land of Egypt.[12] The land of Egypt is anywhere we felt isolated and different from the dominant culture.  It is the place where we are the other, the outsider of the group, the one longing for acceptance.  We all know what that feels like; we have been there, therefore love the other as if he or she is not the other but rather us here in this setting.  Love the other as you would love yourself.  Go in peace.


[2] Jamon Smith Staff Writer “New plan to prevent bullying examined” Tuscaloosa News September 17 2010.

[5] Iris Marion Young, “Five Faces of Oppression” as accessed at http://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/young.pdf

[6] Iris Marion Young, “Five Faces of Oppression” as accessed at http://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/young.pdf

[7] IBID

[9] Iris Marion Young, “Five Faces of Oppression” as accessed at http://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/young.pdf

[10] IBID

[11] IBID

[12] Leviticus 19:34

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5 Comments

  1. Wow, Fred, I did not know you went through that. It was bloody awful. It makes my blood boil when I read stories of bullying like that. It also makes my heart sing when I know that you have gone through it and are doing what you are doing with the youth group – these groups are very important for teens to mix with people their own age to share similar life stories. It does indeed get better. Good one, Fred! 🙂 x

  2. nicely done, reverend.

  3. Very good Blog 🙂

  4. Rev. Fred, that person was a lot like me. In my case it was appearing effeminate, or back then it was being a “sissy.” Gosh, you brought back nightmares about the bus rides and nobody wanting you to sit with them.

    This brings up my pet peeve about public education. I don’t care how much money we spend on our schools (and here in SC we could stand to spend a lot more), unless you address this problem there will so many students getting a sub-par education because of bullying. Not just bullying, but social and economic status, cliques, kids not fitting into what is essentially an artificially created community. (It’s not the real world.)

    It happened to me…I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there, and wanted nothing to do with college because I thought it would be more of the same. I ended up joining the Navy which really didn’t make me a man, but it did provide a break with the past. And 30 years later I’m doing pretty well with my tenth-grade education (the last two were a waste).

    I’m a new UU from Columbia, SC (please don’t hate me), and I’m happier than I’ve been in years.

    Jim, I am sorry to hear that you experienced this as a child. No child or teen should have to experience these events. I hope these words also brought some measure of healing for you as well. And welcome to Unitarian Universalism. Blessings,

  5. I was the target of frequent psychological (and minor physical) bullying in eighth grade, had a partial respite in ninth grade, then dealt with “new” bullies in tenth grade, my first year of high school.

    During eighth and tenth grades, I cannot remember a single day when part of me was not apprehensive about going to school. In tenth grade, one of my favorite electives was followed by a mandatory class I shared with bullies, so I never enjoyed the elective as much as I would have otherwise. . .I was always dreading the upcoming bullies. Anyone who claims bullying does not affect academic performance has obviously never been bullied.

    One of the classes I shared with bullies was a mandatory twice-weekly “study hall” where almost no one studied but gossiped instead. The teacher/monitor, well aware that I was being bullied on a regular basis, was generally a nice person but essentially did nothing to intervene. Partway through the school year, I devised my own solution: students assigned to study hall were
    allowed to obtain library passes; I began to request them regularly. Ultimately, the joke was on the bullies: library pass in hand, I eventually spent all my study-hall hours in the student lounge with an older friend who had a free period! Had I been caught, taken to the principal’s office, and disciplined, I probably would have said, “Why don’t you focus on bullies instead of students who lie about going to the library?” (Fortunately, no one ever caught me.)

    Perhaps because I didn’t fit in with any particular clique or group, no one really knew where to place me on the school’s social ladder. Academically I was above average, but lacked the overall 3.5 GPA needed to be considered an honor student. My family was solidly middle class, so I generally had nice (but not trendy) clothes and lived in a good neighborhood. Although not otherwise attractive, I probably had the best complexion in my class. On the downside, I was VERY introverted in most social situations, didn’t care much about popular culture, hated team sports, and had stringy hair, thicker-than-average glasses, and an intermittent slight limp. Certainly not “cool,” but not entirely hopeless. Nevertheless, some of the “losers” considered me own of their own, and when they saw my not-infrequent successes in extracurricular activities, they sometimes joined as well. . .much to my chagrin. Couldn’t they see I had talents they did not? Couldn’t they see I wasn’t really one of them? Even at the time I was ashamed of myself for thinking such thoughts, but I knew I could not risk being assigned to the “loser” group on a permanent basis. Also, I liked one or two “losers” but not the others. Ultimately, I didn’t want to be friends with a group of people who were friends only because everyone else rejected them. . .the old Groucho Marx problem. My “solution” was to be civil to the “losers,” but for the most part I did not encourage their friendship. As a UU I am still troubled by this, but if it happened again today, I don’t know that I would act any differently.


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