News & Politics

Jewish American Bullies

When I was 12 years old, I attended a high-priced sleepaway camp in the Poconos for über-wealthy Jewish kids from Long Island and the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Activities included go-karting, horsebackriding, waterskiing and ziplining. The parents that didn’t arrive in Jaguars and Mercedes on visiting day landed their helicopters on the back baseball field. It was like Camp Mohawk in “Meatballs,” only with kosher food.

meatballs

My family was not über-wealthy. I was only able to go because my dad worked there, so I was a “staff kid,” the most despised of all camper subgroups. I did not own the name-brand clothing the other girls carted in by the trunkload. I wore hand-me-downs from my older cousin, who was 11 years my senior. “She’s very fashionable,” my mother reassured me. But by 1983, preppy was in, bellbottoms were definitely out.

It didn’t help that I loved sports. Baseball, basketball, hockey, volleyball, tennis—I loved them all. But I was the only one in my bunk who did, or who would admit it openly. The rest of the girls voted each day to bail on at least one sports period in favor of applying nail polish and writing letters on glittery stationary back in the bunk. My protests did not earn me any street cred.

To make matters much, much worse, my father did not have a respectable staff position at camp, like kitchen manager or pool cleaner. He was the chinuch teacher—the religious guy who taught Bible study in the blazing sun to kids who thought anything overtly religious was as geeky, nerdy, loser-y as you could get. I can only assume that while my dad droned on about the weekly Torah portion, my bunkmates used the 45-minute class to silently plot their revenge, which would be carried out in the bunk after lights out.

There was no hitting, biting, or even shouting. As Elaine explained to Jerry and George on Seinfeld when asked how girls bully each other, “We just tease someone ’til they develop an eating disorder.”

Seinfeld.jpg

I don’t remember the exact language of the taunts, only that they made note of my hideous clothing, my obviously home-styled bangs, my freakish love of sports, the white granny underpants my mother insisted on buying at Sears. It was all wrong, all of it. I was all wrong. And I would lie there in the dark, pretending to be asleep, willing myself invisible, praying that God would open up the rustic-style floorboards and command the earth to swallow me whole.

It was bad. But I can’t even begin to comprehend how much worse it would have been if I’d been out. Really, I can’t.

Even with all the progress we’ve made over the past two decades, LGBT youth are still far more likely to be targets of bullying than the general population. They are still twice as likely as their peers to say they have been physically assaulted at school, according to a 2012 HRC report. Four in 10 LGBT youth report being harassed or bullied online, three times more than non-LGBT youth, according to a 2013 GLSEN report.  They are far more likely to drop out of school to escape harassment and while only 10% of the general youth population is LGBT, they account for 20% of all homeless youth.

Worst of all, gay youth are four times as likely as their straight peers to attempt suicide. We don’t know precisely why that is, but I would posit that it’s not because gay kids are somehow innately, constitutionally weaker. More likely, it’s because they face scorn and discrimination from every corner: from their families at home; from their clergymen; from their legislators who pass discriminatory laws that tell them very clearly: You are not as good. You are less than. You are all wrong. Is it any wonder they lack the emotional reserves to survive relentless attacks by their peers in school?

bullying

We continue to have an epidemic on our hands in the U.S. But I’m proud to report that, although New Jersey has been late to the party on marriage equality (the fantastic superior court verdict notwithstanding), the Garden State in 2010 passed the most stringent anti-bullying legislation thus far by any state in the union. The law was passed unanimously in the wake of the suicide of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi, the victim of a particularly vicious cyber-bullying episode, and thanks to the persistence of LGBT rights organizations like Garden State Equality, the Anti-Defamation League of New Jersey, and the New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention.

Tomorrow begins National Bullying Prevention Month and New Jersey’s Week of Respect starts October 7. Tomorrow night in Maplewood, NJ, we’ll kick off the month with a free screening of “Bullied,” a documentary that chronicles one student’s ordeal at the hands of peers and offers an inspiring message of hope. The event will also feature panelists like James Clementi, Tyler’s older brother, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, one of the main sponsors of the 2010 “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights,” and other national anti-bullying experts who will talk about what we can do as a community to make school a safe place for our LGBT children.

I made it through summer camp to adulthood and I know, with hindsight, it gets better. But a lot of kids out there don’t. They’re still laying there in the dark, wishing they could disappear. As parents, grandparents, teachers, friends, communities—we have to do what we can to make sure they don’t.

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2 Comments

  1. Pingback: I hate hate speech | VillageQ

  2. Pingback: Take a stand against bullying with GLAAD and VillageQ - VillageQ

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