In coordination with similar groups across the state last night a candlelight vigil was held at Vulcan Park in Birmingham to remember Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender youth who have been bullied and as a result have taken their own lives. (Huntsville actually had their event on Saturday night; Montgomery's was on Sunday) Recently several such tragedies have made national news.
The event was sponsored by Alabama Safe Schools Coalition, Greater Birmingham Ministries, Southern Poverty Law Center, Stonewall Democrats, PFLAG Birmingham, ACLU of Alabama, and Equality Alabama.
Glenda Elliot represented the Alabama Safe Schools Coalition and she pointed out that the Birmingham School System is the only area system that has an anti-harassment policy that includes actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.
Former Birmingham School Board member Howard Bayless also made that point.
More than 165 people; adults, children, Black, White, Gay, Straight, Bi, Trans, took part in the vigil as the sun set. The large iron man Vulcan towered over the crowd, a symbol of the strength of the resolve of the speakers to change the hearts and minds of policy makers both on the local and state levels.
Rev. J. R. Finney said that he was bullied as a child, and then lightheartedly quipped that the bullying stopped when he outgrew the bullies. But that did not take away from the seriousness of his message. He spoke of a young African American gay man who was out and proud and happy but who still for some reason took his life.
Until our culture changes so that people believe LGBT persons are equal in worth discrimination and hate speech against the community will continue. Policy changes may not stop all the harassment, but they will make some people think twice before unleashing their venom on the minority.
Statistics show that several young people take their own life every day in this country. Statistics also tell us that LGBT youth are up to four times as likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts. Being a teenager is difficult enough without the added fear of being bullied or harassed because of one's real or perceived sexual identity.
Each of the speakers spoke of an LGBT young person who had taken their life. These individuals were from across the country, but harassment and bullying takes place in our state as well. Many in the audience, some still in school and some much older, could relate to that.
Garrett Hopkins, a sixteen year old student from my alma mater Vestavia Hills High School said he is often the target of bullying at school because he is gay. "I've been there," he said. "It's awful that so many people are being treated this way. And this kind of event, while it's good, is too late, because it happens after these people are already gone." (Birmingham News)
State Representative Patricia Todd reminded the crowd that she is only one vote in the legislature and that every person there should contact their representative and state senator to urge them to support a bill that would require school boards to include sexual orientation and gender identity in their policies.
Here is a chilling thought. There is no doubt that conservative Republicans in the state legislature will oppose such an effort, and that some religious leaders will speak out against it as well. Meanwhile, children and young adults will continue to be bullied, and at some point a death will occur in our state as a result. This could be your child. Or is your child the bully? In any case, those who oppose such a policy change should be held accountable if such a tragedy occurs in this state.
Tyler Clementi was the young Rutgers freshman who killed himself recently after video was released showing him in an intimate moment with another man. Unmentioned last night, anti-bullying measures at the school level would not have directly made a difference in this case. This points out the need for colleges to enact anti-bullying policies that include sexual orientation and gender identity as well. Of course, the people who acted against Tyler may have been bullies in high school as well, and maybe a school level policy would have made them a bit more sensitive.
So we need to direct efforts not only at our local school boards and at the legislature, but at the colleges we attend and support as well. And everyone should be a part of this effort.
As Representative Todd said, "Together we can do better."