The national discourse generated by a string of recent suicides by gay teens reached a new height on Thursday when President Obama addressed the issue in a video released by the White House. The prominent attention is due largely to one of the multiple attacks against members of the gay community that have taken place locally in the past month.
Throughout the city, members of the LGBT community and advocacy organizations publicly denounced these incidents. On Staten Island, a local campaign sprouted this summer when an openly gay couple was allegedly assaulted in a Stapleton White Castle. It grew in intensity this October with two rallies protesting the bullying of gay teens. As Matthew Brim, an assistant professor of queer studies at the College of Staten Island, points out, homophobia is especially rampant in the borough.
In this interview, Brim offers his perspective as to how the phenomenon has taken shape locally and some of the root causes of the bullying of gay youth on a larger scale.
Q: The recent spate of hate crimes seems to be driving LGBT issues into the national debate in a way they haven’t been before. Do you find that to be the case?
Right now there seems to be a lot of momentum — especially that’s galvanized behind these teen suicides. The term that’s being used is bullying. And there’s this big campaign under way. A lot of celebrities are getting up there as part of the campaign. The push to be cognizant of LGBT crimes, and the push to be cognizant of the pressures on the LGBT community, that’s sort of one piece of the same ticket. There seems to be an awareness now.
The one thing I think you need to realize is that not that these things are happening, the miracle is that they’re not happening all the time. The miracle is that they’re only happening every couple of months. The world is an incredibly dangerous place for LGBT youth. Basically the world, certainly schools, all institutions—are designed to have their provocations to create suicide. And queer youth are provoked to commit suicide all of the time. Because the world wishes they didn’t exist. The world doesn’t know what to do with queer kids.
So all of the blame is put on the bullies, but the system, or the institutionalized homophobia only comes down to this very fine tip called the bully. And the bully is a pin-prick that eventually looks like it’s hurting queer kids. But a lot of things have had to happen for bullies to hold that position. And it means: “What do his parents say? What do his teachers say? What does his president say?” Every single part of the bully’s life is telling the bully: ‘Be mean to queer kids. It’s okay to do that. And you can even get rewarded for doing that.’ So why wouldn’t a kid bully when everything is telling him to do it? Why wouldn’t a seventh grader or a high-schooler gay-bash another kid when the world says: ‘gay-bash this kid.’
“So now you have, alas, this tiny little message gets better—sort of trying to oppose the message that’s written invisibly everywhere. Some places it’s written visibly, but basically it’s a cultural mandate to erase queer kids because we don’t know what to do with them. And bullies are just following the cultural mandate.
“And so, they should be held accountable. Gay-bashers are to be held accountable. But what would want to make them be a gay-basher? What are all the other pressures, the key to why they’re acting this way? That isn’t created by one person. It’s created by a culture that wants queer youth eradicated before they become adults. They aren’t financially independent. And so what queer kids have to do is rely on the very people—families, teachers, ministers, people in authority—rely on the very people who are part of the problem. And you know, you’re going to lose. This is all part of what I call the provocation of queer teen suicide. It’s a miracle that the numbers aren’t even higher.”
Q: It seems like the response to these crimes against the LGBT community has been particularly strong on Staten Island. Do you have any opinion why that might be?
“Here’s what I hear from my queer students. The College of Staten Island compared to the rest of their lives, they feel free and they feel liberated, and they feel like the college is their safest space. And they say they don’t feel like that most of the time outside their time at CSI. When I hear that, I think that is horribly sad. If they think that CSI is a place where you can really feel free, that’s really, really sad, because you never see people of the same sex holding hands on campus. You never see visible displays of homosexuality on campus. There’s a student group—the Gay Straight Allicance—but how visible is that on campus? How many students know about it? How many teachers come out a day? And this is despite the fact that a lot of faculty at C.S.I. are gay, and a lot of administrators and staff are gay. I think—the college, even if it’s the best place on Staten Island—that’s a really scary fact. Having lived all over the country, Staten Island is the most homophobic place I’ve ever lived. And almost anybody who lives there will be able to tell you exactly why. The answers are really, really, really obvious. And we’re changing that. They’re small steps in the right direction. But I would definitely not want to fool myself by telling myself a story that Staten Island is progressive when it comes to LGBT rights, or LGBT community visibility, or equality. Because that’s so far from the truth.”
Q: What are some of the examples of ways in which Staten Island is homophobic?
“Think about the family structure on Staten Island. The students I teach are very largely Italian-American. Many of them live at home well into their 20s, if not past that. It’s often the case that people come out to their families and very often they get kicked out of their house. It happens all the time. If you were taught that family is the most important thing, you need them, you rely on your mom to wash your clothes and cook the meals, and you live in the basement, and that is part of your mindset, then there is a much greater disincentive for coming out. Because coming out presents a greater risk for your style of life. There’s a family-home culture on Staten Island that puts coming out at risk.”
Regarding Hate Crimes:
“Culture teaches people to bully. And I wouldn’t even use the word bully. There’s a big problem with that. The way we’re focusing on that right now is this tiny, tiny, tiny little individual called the “bully.” But the bully is thrown into that position by all the forces putting him there. He’s responsible but we have to look beyond that. We have to look beyond the person who commits the hate crime to what prepared that person to commit the hate crime. And that’s difficult because it’s never going to be somebody saying: ‘hey you should hate gay people, go bash one of them.’ I mean, actually that does happen sometimes, but usually the messages are more subtle, more implicit, and even invisible, but they’re still powerful. So hate crimes are not only a product of a hateful person, but a hateful culture.”
Q: Is law enforcement the answer?
“What are cops trained to be if not homophobic? Cops are not there to protect gay people. Cops are in a system of power. Gay people aren’t part that system of power.”