Last week, my friend Laura McMaster sent me an e-mail about an episode of Oprah that dealt with the topic of sexual bullying. Among other guests, the show featured an expert named Dr. Dorothy Espelage. This quote comes from Oprah’s website:
Sexual bullying is really a form of sexual harassment, Dr. Espelage says. “Sexual harassment is calling others these names of ‘gay’ and ‘fag,’ and when you do that, directed to boys, it’s the most hurtful thing you can do to attack their masculinity,” she says. “When you call a girl a ‘whore,’ a ‘lesbian,’ it serves the same purpose.”
Um… wow. That’s a loaded statement. After the jump, and with permission, I’ll post Laura’s e-mail to me on this attitude and Oprah’s treatment of the subject in general. Laura sensed a lot of biases in the episode, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on what she brings up.
E-mail from Laura McMaster, received May 7, 2009
I was watching Oprah today, and the topic was sexual bullying. She interviewed mothers who had recently lost their school-aged sons to suicide following taunts of being gay, or faggy, or any of a host of other slurs which accused the boys of being less than masculine. At least, that was the opinion ofÂ the featured psychologist, Dr. Dorothy Espelage. I could not helpÂ but focus on the premise of the expert’s opinions and Oprah’s passive acceptance of the premise.
In this momentÂ in our culture, it wouldÂ seem that America is at a crucialÂ stage in which homosexuality is moving closer and closer to a legitimate place in the romantic and family-building imagination of mainstream society.Â If this is truly the case,Â why is it acceptable to underscore these bullies’ insultsÂ by suggesting that their intent of emasculation is effective?
By taking this angle, health professionals and media moguls add fuel to the fire of homophobia by nullifying a young gay person’s right to celebrate who he or she might truly be. Having lost these boysÂ to suicide, we will never know what their sexual orientation or adult lives would have finally been, but I think examining the language with which we are addressing such tension-filled incidents might create a better-rounded discussion for young children struggling with this very issue.
Dr. Espelage stated thatÂ childrenÂ are using sexual slurs because they are being exposed to sexualized material at a younger and younger age. I disagree. I think that queer and questioning children are in the very difficult position of defending themselvesÂ against bullies who sense that American culture has changed. Bullies attack what frightens them, and at this moment, some bullies are afraid tha the adult world is making space for a new kind of love, a new kind of marriage, and a new kind of family.Â In my opinion, the bullying of children for a life they do not yet leadÂ is actually a sign of true change in the culture these children will inherit.
It is noÂ surprise that young people are hearing the vocabulary having to do with the battles for LGBT equality and misusing the snippets to which they are exposed in a variety of mediums. However, it is not acceptable to take this misuse of information and use it to further propelÂ the term “gay” as an emasculating insult.
The real mission with young people is to usher them into a future in which their orientations and proclivities and curiosities are treated with respect.Â DespiteÂ the good intentions of the episode, it perpetuated Americans’ puritanical and sensationalized view of sex coupled with homophobia.
Rather than imply that homosexuality is degrading when named aloud, we have to help pre-teens understand thatÂ any type of orientation between cosenting adultsÂ is fine to explore and understand. There is no sexual insult which should be given the power to grow and fester in the way it obviously did for the children who tragically took their own live. The vocabulary of sexual orientationÂ is not a weapon for embarrasment, hatred, and fear.
—I agree, Laura. Being called gay doesn’t have to be insulting. We can teach ourselves to remove the word’s power.