Bullying and Homophobia

Addressing Identity-Based Attacks While Respecting Different Beliefs

Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director

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Bullying from homophobia must be stopped! Kidpower is committed to working together to create cultures of caring, respect, and safety for everyone, everywhere. Our Bullying Solutions book describes how adults can address bullying due to prejudice. 

According to Dan Savage, advice columnist celebrity and co-founder of the It Gets Better Project, even though 50% of bullying is about anti-gay issues, only 5 of the 67 bullying prevention programs represented at the 2010 White House Conference on Bullying had been addressing homophobia as a bullying issue. Thankfully, in the years since, this has been changing rapidly but too often more leeway is still given to teasing and bullying about sexual orientation and gender identity than most other issues.

Since being established in 1989, Kidpower has been addressing LGBTQ bullying and other violence – and has been helping families, organizations, and schools to do the same.

Many adults are not sure how to address bullying when the subject is about issues where people in their school or organization might disagree.  Within Kidpower, we give ourselves permission to agree to disagree about many beliefs – and focus on our common ground – safety. While individuals in our organization have potentially conflicting cultural, religious, and political beliefs, we are united in agreeing that all people deserve the information and skills to protect themselves from bullying in all of its forms, as well as knowing how to advocate for themselves and others, and that identity-related bullying is just as dangerous and wrong as other forms of bullying.

While we welcome people of all kinds, we do not welcome unsafe behavior of any kind.  On an organizational level, we manage this complex position by having an inclusion policy that contains the strong boundary in bold letters. This policy, as stated on our website in our values, is: Inclusive. We welcome people of any age, culture, religion, race, gender, political belief, nationality, sexual orientation or gender identity, marital status, any kind of disability, or level of income who share our commitment to integrity and safety for everyone and who can join us in upholding our values.

We teach workshops to thousands of children, teens and adults each year and are saddened by the pervasiveness of intense bullying at all ages and for a multitude of reasons. Too often, children and teens (and also adults) feel alone and isolated due to bullying or harassment. Too often, adults in positions of leadership allow prejudiced comments like, ‘That’s so gay!” because it is “just a joke.” Too often, without leadership from the top, people within a group  find it difficult to speak up against identity-related bullying because this is being treated as a socially-acceptable way of teasing or joking. And too often, children, teens, and adults are afraid of speaking up because they fear possible repercussions.

We also have the privilege of working with courageous individuals, families, schools, organizations, and communities, often holding widely different beliefs, that are taking an active stand each and every day to help combat bullying and create places of safety, caring, and respect for their members.

In our programs, we teach positive and effective skills such as how to: stay in charge of what you say and do no matter how you feel inside; notice and speak up about unsafe or disrespectful behavior;  de-escalate confrontations; use target denial to avoid potentially dangerous situations; advocate for yourself and others; persist in getting help when you have a problem; and use self-defense techniques in emergency situations.

We give students practice in different ways they can advocate for respect. For example, suppose you see someone teasing another person by making hurtful comments. Practices include how to:

  • Say calmly, firmly, and respectfully, “That joke sounds prejudiced to me. I don’t think it’s funny!”
  • Get the attention of a busy, distracted adult in a position of authority and explain the problem assertively and persistently.
  • Make an anonymous report if being known seems unsafe.
  • Reach out to the person being bullied later in private and let him or her know you care.

Making a plan, acting out what to do, and rehearsing the words to say and how to say them mentally prepares people to take effective action instead of doing nothing, trying something tentatively that is easy to overlook, or overreacting in a way that is likely to backfire.

Our curriculum provides strategies and skills to address prejudice for any reason. The skills for awareness, intervention, advocacy, and personal safety are the same regardless of the reasons for needing these skills. Our workshops are tailored to the needs of the specific group we are serving in the moment, and we ensure that our students have the opportunity to practice their safety skills using examples relevant to their own lives. In our teen and adult workshops, we use each of these identity-related examples along with other forms of insults or threats to show students how to protect themselves in the face of different kinds of verbal attacks. If these issues come up with younger children, we give them tools for staying safe and getting help using age-appropriate examples.

However, each issue does not require a completely separate curriculum.  We find that it helps to educate everyone when homophobia is simply included as a form of prejudice along with racism, sexism, attacks related to physical or mental ability,  culture, religion, ethnicity, educational choices, body size or shape, or other differences. While the ‘-isms’ are different, attacks for these reasons are similar in that they are attacks based on identity. Staying centered, acting wisely, and getting to safety in the face of any one of these attacks requires the same skill set and can be taught in a context of shared values of safety for everyone, regardless of differences.

As more and more research studies are showing us,  bullying and harassment can cause lasting harm.  Teasing that perpetuates prejudice is also unsafe, even if the people involved say they are okay with it. As adults, our job is to ensure the emotional and physical safety of all of the young people in our care, no matter what our personal beliefs might be. We cannot take a strong stand against bullying and other kinds of violence by saying that some kinds of attacks and insults are wrong and then ignoring or perpetuating other forms of identity-based bullying, teasing, or harassment.

See our LGBTQ page to learn more about how Kidpower helps people of all ages and abilities to protect themselves from hate-based or bias-based emotional and physical assaults.



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About the Author

Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, the Kidpower Safety Comics series, the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults, and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.
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