The following essay was published Dec. 22, 2014 in the opinion pages of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal.
By Bridget Birdsall
Sticks and stones can break your bones but words can actually kill you. Seriously. It happened in my family, and it could happen in yours.
Jeffrey Fehr was different. He was handsome. He was 18 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 Jan. 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 Sacramento Bee, “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 (LBGTQ) 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 was the director of a building that housed more than 200 children from preschool through eighth grade. The two 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 actually can 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 word warfare begin to see themselves as unworthy of life.
Over and over again, they are told that who that who they are is not OK.
It may not kill them right away, but as Jeffrey’s dad said it wears on them.
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 is going on. As someone who knows all too 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 such as 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.
If you have 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, a resident of Madison, is an inspirational speaker and author of the recent book, “Double Exposure” (Sky Pony Press, November, 2014).