Almost a week ago, I learned about a boy in La Grande, Oregon who had attempted suicide because of anti-gay bullying. I didn’t have much for details (not even his name) because there was only one short and vague post published online. Today I learned the name of that boy: Jadin Bell.
Jadin hanged himself on the playground at Central Elementary School in La Grande. While I am still finding out the details of what happened, I know that something had to have been seriously wrong to drive a teenager to do that. And I also know that something needs to be done to prevent anyone else from feeling that suicide is the only way to get away from the abuse.
My best friend was born and raised in La Grande, so it’s a town of special interest to me. After running my Facebook page Gay Marriage Oregon for over a year, I’ve come to understand that La Grande and the surrounding communities aren’t extremely welcoming to LGBT people, including LGBT youth. (A year ago, La Grande mayor, Daniel Pokorney, made national news for anti-gay statements he made on his personal — and public — Facebook page.)
Of course, as with any town or city, there are plenty of kind and caring people, people who believe in equality for all. However, it’s not a secret that smaller communities are known, overall, for being small-minded and unkind to anyone perceived as different. In this case, non-gender conforming and non-heterosexual people often have a difficult time.
To those in La Grande and surrounding communities: How many openly LGBT people do you know in your small community? Are LGBT people able to be themselves without judgment, harsh words, and acts of bullying and harassment from others? OR are these members of your community in hiding for fear of how they will be treated by others?
How do we create a change in our small towns, in towns where strong and extreme religious views are present, views that condemn LGBT people (including our LGBT children)? How do we open the minds of those who oppose differences?
While times are changing and anti-equality minded people are starting to come around, I realize, unfortunately, that despite the fact that children and adults are killing themselves because of anti-gay bullying, minds still aren’t just going to change overnight.
But I hope we can at least reach those people by getting them to understand that the suicide needs to end, which means the bullying needs to stop. The bullying needs be addressed and fixed. No matter our differences, I think we can all agree that no one, especially a child, should ever be bullied to the point that they feel they have to take their life.
I know some will say, “I was bullied when I was a kid. It’s just part of growing up. Kids need to toughen up and learn how to deal with bullies.” While I understand that plenty of people have been bullied and made it through school without ever killing themselves, does that mean we shouldn’t try to make life easier for our children? Shouldn’t we want them to be able to focus on school? Shouldn’t we want the very best for them?
Bullying is much worse today than it was in the past, with harassment not just happening in person – it can now take the form of a text, a status update on any number of social media sites, an embarrassing photo, and so on.
So what can we do? How about we start by teaching our kids that bullying is not okay under any circumstance. Let’s teach them that even if we don’t agree with someone or like them that we do not belittle and harass them. And if we find out our child is bullying someone, how about we talk to them, talk to their school, and do whatever we can until they are no longer a bully.
How about we talk to the leaders of our schools and find out if they have any policies in place for bullying? How about we look into those policies (if they exist) and make sure they protect all children and don’t exclude LGBT kids? How about we talk to the kids and see what they think of the schools policies? Do they feel safe in school? Do they feel the situation will be handled if they are bullied by classmates?
I think if we ask these questions (and more), we will find, especially in our smaller communities, that we won’t like the answers. But, we will then have the opportunity to address the flaws in the system and make sure our children are protected in the future.
I do not live in La Grande or even near La Grande, but I urge any of you who do to do your part to make a difference. Demand change. Demand better for our children. Open up the lines of communication in your community. Think of Jadin and the thousands of children like him.
And then let’s move beyond La Grande to all of the communities in Oregon, to all of the communities in the United States. Let’s make sure all of our children are protected from bullying.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Andrea Free is a freelance writer and co-creator of the Facebook and Twitter pages for Gay Marriage Oregon. She has an MA in English from Bowling Green State University as well as a graduate certificate in International Scientific and Technical Communication. She completed her undergraduate work at Oregon State University, majoring in Liberal Studies with minors in writing and anthropology. As a gay rights advocate, she hopes to write articles that will inspire others to create a positive change.