Anti-gay bullying and stereotype threat

We seem to be in the middle of a social conversation about the meaning of the recent teen suicides involving anti-gay bias. Numerous articles are exploring many angles of the stories and there are competing attributions about the nature of the despair experienced by teens who are gay or perceived to be gay. One particularly troubling narrative is being advanced by far right social conservatives essentially suggesting that the teens we are mourning of late died due to factors of their own doing. The thinking goes like this: the gay lifestyle is inherently harmful and distressing and suicide is a possible consequence of that life.

Let me offer three exhibits. First, Linda Harvey told WorldNetDaily readers:

One wonders if any of these kids ever heard a clearly articulated warning against homosexuality. Or were they faced with a continuous onslaught of pro-homosexual diversity lessons, novels and events like the “Day of Silence”? Were they surrounded with liberal teachers as role models and the bad example of a homosexual school club? What part did any of this play in the sad belief that homosexuality was an inevitable destiny, instead of a wayward yet changeable sexual inclination? Under almost continuous pressure to accept a lie – confusion and then despair may be the predictable result.

On top of all this, then, in some young lives come the bullies. They are a part of life, especially for boys. But for the young person with same-sex attractions, this is the final straw where they feel totally trapped, with internal feelings they have been carefully taught “cannot be changed” on the one hand, and harsh peer rejection on the other. Yes, it looks hopeless indeed.

But there’s a solution. First and foremost, kids should be told the truth that no one is born gay. Despite any budding feelings he or she may have, many people who felt similarly at that age went on to change both their feelings and behavior, and to be well-adjusted adult heterosexuals, some married with children. The gay lobbyists actively prevent kids from knowing this option.

Could the stifling political correctness in certain schools be one of the reasons some kids feel utterly hopeless? Think about it. Even in the face of relentless taunts about homosexuality, many if not most kids would be able to survive intact if they saw the perpetrators punished and also knew they had a choice.

Ms. Harvey wonders if warnings against homosexuality would have helped (and links to NARTH’s misrepresentation of Francis Collins’ views). Rather, Harvey perceives schools featuring “stifling political correctness” and a “continuous onslaught of pro-homosexual diversity lessons.” However, friends and families describe regular “warnings against homosexuality” in the form of anti-gay harassment. I suspect these children might have been ok with some political correctness.

On to Exhibit B: Matt Barber, Board member of American for Truth About Homosexuality and administrator at Liberty University. Mr. Barber released a statement about the suicides picked up by the Canada Free Press. Mr. Barber advises:

“God’s message to young people struggling with same sex temptation or to those who feel the shame that naturally accompanies sexual sin is that suicide is never the way out. But there is a way out. It comes first through belief in Jesus Christ, and then through confession of sin; finally, repentance. As Jesus said to the repentant sexual sinner at the well, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.’

Mr. Barber assumes the suicides were escapes for struggling sexual sinners, rather than depressed children struggling mightily with a disparaging social context.

Finally, Tom Prichard of the Minnesota Family Council, makes the most direct link between sexual identity and psychological distress.

I would agree that youth who embrace homosexuality are at greater risk, because they’ve embraced an unhealthy sexual identity and lifestyle. These alternative sexual identifications or lifestyles deny the reality that we are created male and female. To live or try to live in conflict with how we are made will invariably cause problems, e.g. emotional, psychological and social.

These three people are making attributions about the cause of the suicides based not in facts of the cases, but based on their assumptions about homosexual persons. These commentators assert that they have really pegged the problem: these teens were gay and gays are inherently unstable. Therefore one should not be surprised. An additional problem is with the adults who did not warn them or send them to the NARTH website.

It is hard to know what facts would dissuade Harvey, Barber and Pritchard from their views. All three speak of the recent victims as if they were all gay or questioning sexuality. Some were; some were not. The common denominator in these situations was anti-gay bias, not gay identification. In some of these cases, there is no evidence or disclosures of confusion about sexuality at all. The picture of horribly miserable teens who “embraced an unhealthy sexual identity and lifestyle” just doesn’t show up when you read about the students involved. They were miserable alright, but not for the reasons given by these commentators.

This public display of confirmation bias reminded me of another social psychological concept, stereotype threat, i.e., the disruptive concern that one will be evaluated based on a negative stereotype. I believe a plausible case can be made that at least several of victims of suicide experienced regular stereotype threat which indeed was disruptive. Stereotype threat can operate even when one is not actually in the stereotyped social group, as with the young people who were perceived to be gay and suffered regular anti-gay harassment. The threat of negative stereotyping is what is required.

One does not need to look far for the source of negative stereotypes. I provided three links. The threat of being stereotyped as gay looms large to young teens. Bystanders to bullying are often so afraid to intervene because they might be assumed to be gay or a gay sympathizer. In addition to perceptions of being different, could the intensity of the stereotype threat have anything to do with the dire picture painted by churches and professional Christian leaders who may themselves not know any teens who are harassed? Rather than blame the victim, or dismiss this notion out of hand, I believe Christians should reflect on how gays are referred to in our literature and speech. We can make a difference in the climate by virtue of civil speech and self-reflection. If I don’t like being stereotyped as a Christian, then I shouldn’t do it to someone else.

I am thinking out loud with this post and welcome comments and suggestions. Some Christians are stepping up and out toward solutions but other seem to be defensive. I seek as clear an understanding of the situation as possible.