Recent suicides have drawn national attention to the impact of bullying on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. Last week, the UNM LGBTQ Resource Center presented a Community Forum on Anti-LGBTQ Bullying to help UNM and Albuquerque communities understand the issues and find solutions.
Bullying in schools
Several panelists shared their personal experiences of anti-LGBT bullying in New Mexico schools.
Rich Martinez, UNM Queer-Straight Alliance member, came out when he was a high school junior in San Juan County. "When I did, people didn't want to be my friend anymore," he said. After attempting suicide, he went through five months of rehabilitation and returned to school, ultimately graduating first in his class despite continuing to be shunned by his classmates.
"Especially in rural communities, teachers need to be aware and know the warning signs of suicide or depression," Martinez said. He and other panelists said some of those signs include negative self-talk, self-mutilation, eating disorders, excessive sleeping, aggressiveness and requests to take care of things "if anything happens to me."
Seth Kazmar, Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico youth coordinator, organizes a safe space where transgender youth can meet and talk. "I got bullied in high school, mostly because people thought I was a lesbian," he said. "They didn't understand the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation."
Brandon Romero, New Mexico Gay-Straight Alliance Network member and Pojoaque High School graduate, said he was always teased for his perceived sexual orientation. He said high school is a terrible place for queer youth because "you're on your own, you don't realize the allies that you have."
Sometimes bullying behavior can be reinforced by school policy and the attitudes of teachers and staff. Romero tried to create a Gay-Straight Alliance at his school "and it was denied, it was blocked," he said.
Brooke Tafoya, Albuquerque Public Schools' Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative staff, stressed the importance of taking responsibility for safety in the community. "If you witness a bullying incident and you don't intervene, you're part of that violence," she said.
Safe Schools aims to reduce youth violence and improve access to mental health services generally. Tafoya said they're adding LGBT-specific resources to the Web site.
Bullying in communities
Growing up in a homophobic environment drove April Heitman to alcohol and to spend 24 years with a man, she said. "I was born and raised in a small town in the heart of the Bible belt where there's a church on every corner."
Now Heitman offers understanding to youth coping with bullying and a place to sleep to those who have been driven from their homes. She said 20-40 percent of homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
"The bullying has to stop somewhere, and it has to stop by everyone in this room educating everyone around you," she said.
Summer Little, UNM Women's Resource Center program manager, spoke about workplace bullying. She said bullying can include sabotage, intentional misinformation, unreasonable workloads and unsubstantiated accusations.
Little said that out of 1,000 respondents to a 2006 campus climate survey conducted by the Women's Resource Center, 697 reported they had experienced bullying or knew someone who had. "Bullying behavior is glorified," she said.
Cinnamon Blair, marketing director, University Communication and Marketing, said that the Internet can magnify the effects of bullying, because "everyone can see it" and because once posted, it persists online. "There are so many kids committing suicide as young as the age of nine" because of cyber-bullying, she said. "They can't take it anymore."
Blair urged standing up for victims of cyber-bullying. She calls the failure of bystanders to step in "the coliseum effect." "You have this mob mentality," she said. "As long as you're part of the larger group, you don't have to do anything about it."
Support and education are available from the presenting organizations and others. The LGBTQ Resource Center Web site provides a list of resources.
The forum was co-sponsored by UNM Office of Equity & Inclusion, UNM Student Health & Counseling, UNM Health Sciences Center Office of Diversity and UNM Women's Resource Center.