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Sadly, kids aren't the only cruel bullies on the block

May 6, 2012

After you’ve seen an 11-year-old pallbearer shouldering his best friend’s casket, and after you’ve heard the story of his friend’s suicide, how he hanged himself in the closet of his family’s home, you can'’t really get the image — or the story — out of your mind.

I just saw "Bully," the new documentary designed to educate people about the agony some people face at the hands of cruel people. Eleven year-old Tyler is just one of the kids whose story is told in the film.

Besides all the unfortunate bullied kids, the students around them have to witness the torture. Many kids at school exist in bullying’s icky atmosphere, being in the tough place of deciding whether to speak out and risk attracting the bully’s gaze, or stay quiet and ignore someone in need of help.

For a lot of kids, it's a no-brainer: Stay quiet. The pressure for kids to not stick out is intense and it keeps many silent. But the adults portrayed in the film are often no better. It takes courage for a kid to go to an adult for help, and in the film we see adults fail time after time. They fail to believe there's a problem, they fail to take bullying seriously, and they fail to communicate care to the distraught victims.

These teachers and school administrators are, in effect, protecting the bullies by quieting those who try and stand up for themselves or others. One clueless administrator even describes the bullying students to the victim’s parents this way: "Those kids are good as gold."

Very often, homophobia is part of bullying. Kids who are gay or appear gay are tormented and harangued simply for being as God made them. Or kids who are different in some other way find themselves tagged with gay epithets by the bully, simply because the bully is a bigot, and not a very creative one.

Not all bullies are kids, though, nor are all the victims. Having more to work with, adult bullies can focus on race, jingoism, education level, religion, appearance, geography and anything else they dream up.

When you put religion and homophobia together, a special poison is created and the damage is intensified. When you take a religion that teaches the mistaken notion that gays choose to be gay, and you add in the opinion that God disapproves of homosexuality, the combination is often too much.

Recently, on a beautiful spring day, after services in an LDS ward house, a bubbly, sweet, funny woman was laid to rest. Over her lifetime, she had significant trouble with her religion and her God-given sexuality, trying desperately to be faithful to both, even though the church has set them up as mutually exclusive. Even in the safety of adulthood, it was too much. (Goodbye, old friend.)

I find it encouraging that LDS Church leaders are beginning to apply more nuance to their thinking regarding their lesbian sisters and gay brothers. I’m grateful the wheels of love and acceptance are finally starting to creak into motion. But even if the LDS Church gets all the way to full acceptance of homosexuality by noon tomorrow, it will come far too late for an unfathomable number of LGBT people, people who saw no way out of the religious bullying other than to take their own lives.

Whether the lost soul is Jack, the young man from Morgan County who killed himself last month, or a certain suburban mom, it's anti-gay sentiment that killed them. Sure, technically it’s suicide, but in reality it’s our cruelty, our incessant insistence on conformity and our disapproval that kill.

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Barb Guy writes a column for Sunday Opinion. She lives in Salt Lake City.

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