Bridget Birdsall is a Wisconsin-based writer, teacher and speaker who writes about issues related to race, religion, gender and sexual identity. Her young adult novel, Double Exposure, the story of an intersex teen athlete, was selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the top anti-bullying books published in 2014. Learn more about Bridget at bridgetbirdsall.com.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, close to half of all children will experience school bullying at some point.

“It Damaged Him.”

Knocked Down For Being Different

January 2015

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, close to half of all children will experience school bullying at some point.

BY BRIDGET BIRDSALL

Sticks and stones can break your bones but words can actually kill you. Seriously. It happened in our family, it could happen in yours.

My nephew Jeffrey Fehr was different.  He was handsome. He was eighteen years old. He’d been the captain of his high school’s cheer squad and he’d just finished his first semester at college when, on January 1, 2012, Jeffrey hung himself in the front foyer of his family’s California home.

Like me, Jeffrey identified as gay, but like all of us, he simply wanted to fit in and share his gifts with the world. Unfortunately, as his father told the media after his death, “For years and years, people knocked [Jeffrey] down for being different. It damaged him. It wore on him. He could never fully believe how wonderful he was.”

Teens like Jeffrey, who identify as, or who are perceived to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning or intersex are four times more likely than their peers to be bullied, to struggle with depression, or to commit suicide. Jeffrey’s death has become part of an alarming trend among young people who’ve been subjected to relentless bullying or mobbing (a group of people perpetuating bullying behaviors.)

Even with the tremendous buzz in recent years aimed at stopping the bullying, not much has changed. For seven years I worked at an elementary and middle school in Madison, Wisconsin. The two most common words I heard young people use to torment each other were “gay” or “fat.”

Often these words were used in supposed “jest” or whispered rather than shouted, or scribbled anonymously on lockers or lunch boxes. Many times the adults in the nearby vicinity, including myself, were simply too busy dealing with the daily demands of managing children to pay much attention. After all, it wasn’t life threatening. Or was it?

Now, I see things differently. Jeffrey’s death hit close to home, and with my own son just a bit older than Jeffrey, I remembered all the times he’d taken flak for having a gay mom. Moreover, as an author for books for young adults, I have come to understand that when certain words are used in certain ways, they can actually become weapons. Words can be used to harm or to heal.

Like gossip, a slow form of character assassination, vulnerable children or teenagers, who find themselves caught up in the crossfire of this all too common and too often unconscious form of word warfare begin to see themselves as unworthy of life itself.

Over and over again, they are told that who they are is not okay.

No, it may not kill them right away. But like Jeffrey’s dad said, it wears on them.

And too many of us who are in a position to raise awareness or perhaps, even change these statistics, have been programed to believe that dealing with bullies is a fact of life. That perhaps, the best we can do is to help those who are targeted develop a “thicker skin.”

Often books on bullying encourage young people to tell someone in authority about what’s going on. As someone who knows well the struggles of being different, I would argue this falsely assumes that the bullying or mobbing behavior is easy to identify. This is not always the case. Moreover, most young people worry it will make the situation worse. Or, as is often the case, that people in positions of authority will be unwilling or ineffective in solving the problem.

Furthermore, most bullying or mobbing is not obvious at all. In fact, a good deal of bullying happens under the radar. Like being excluded, judged, laughed at, called names, lied to or about.

Bullying has become so much a part of our culture that most of us don’t even see it in our families, schools, workplaces or religious communities. What we are blind to ceases to exist and thus, we become part of the problem.

Yes, Jeffrey and many others have made unfortunate or rash decisions, but these lessons may not be in vain if we can individually and collectively begin to raise awareness about the power of our words.

As parents, educators and caring human beings, we can change stories like Jeffrey’s by recognizing that most bullying or mobbing behaviors are much more subtle, stealth, and soul crushing, than a pop in the nose.

Once we understand that we too are part of the problem, we have the potential to become part of the solution. Who doesn’t have a story about wanting to fit in, about longing to belong? This is part of our human story, our human condition. Is there a Jeffrey in your life? Share your stories, listen to the stories of others or find a book that tells your story, read it and talk about it!  (Photos and remembrances of Jeffrey Fehr can be found here on his Facebook community page.)

If you’ve  participated consciously or even unconsciously in bullying behavior or you have been the target of such behavior, you are not alone. Reach out, share, listen, talk, read, find the words that will heal you—words that will help you rewrite your story!

Bridget Birdsall can be reached at birdsallbooks@gmail.com.

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