Journal of Educational Controversy


Sunday, September 5, 2010

Ideology vs. Sensibilities

I am often amazed at the great divide between people when ideological positions become reified to the point that we are blind to the life experiences and suffering of real individuals. This morning, I read an article in the Denver Post entitled, “Focus on Family says anti-bullying efforts in schools push gay agenda.” The conservative Christian media ministry group sees efforts to confront the problem of bullying and cyber-bullying in the public schools as part of a “gay agenda.” In the post below, Warren J. Blumenfeld, an Associate Professor of Multicultural and International Curriculum Studies at Iowa State University, looks at the real life experiences of children who confront this kind of bullying and the devastating effects it can have.

My “Gay Agenda”:
A Response to Focus on the Family
A Commentary by Warren J. Blumenfeld

Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian media ministry organization, asserted in published accounts (“Focus on Family says anti-bullying efforts in schools push gay agenda,” The Denver Post,, 8/29/2010) that gay rights advocates are forcing their viewpoints (their so-called “gay agenda”) in schools in the guise of bullying prevention.

Focus on the Family spokesperson, Candi Cushman, asserted that gay activists are the real schoolyard bullies while conservative Christians are the victims. According to Cushman, “We feel more and more that activists are being deceptive in using anti-bullying rhetoric to introduce their viewpoints, while the viewpoint of Christian students and parents are increasingly belittled.”

I have been gay most of my life, probably all of my life, and I have been involved in community organizing for the past 40 years, and I still don’t understand this term “Gay Agenda.” If you talk to two random “gay activists,” you will most likely find multiple viewpoints toward social change.

If making schools safe and welcoming spaces for students, faculty, and staff of all sexual identities and gender expressions (as well as racial, ethnic, socioeconomic class, religious, ability backgrounds, ages, everyone), then yes indeed -- this is certainly part of my “gay agenda.” Let us look at the reasons why this must be part of all of our agendas, including that of Focus on the Family.

Ryan Patrick Halligan was born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1990. His parents described him as a rather shy boy growing up, who early on exhibited developmental delays in his speech, language, and motor skills. The family moved to Essex Junction, Vermont, where, by the fifth grade his peers bullied him at school on a regular basis. Rumors soon circulated throughout the school that Ryan was gay. By middle school in the seventh grade, his classmates continually teased and harassed him on school grounds and extended their taunts over email for having a learning disability and for allegedly being gay. On October 7, 2003, feeling that he could no longer live with the constant abuse, Ryan Patrick Halligan took his life. He was 13 years old.

Reports (Spero News, 2006) indicate that Ryan displayed many of the symptoms of youth targeted by face-to-face and on-line cyberbullying: he spent long hours on his computer, and he was secretive regarding his interactions on communication and information technologies. His parents saw him manifest a number of changes in his behavior: he increasingly lacked interest in engaging in social activities that included his peers, and he exhibited a pronounced change in his overall attitude, his appearance, and his habits.

Ryan’s father, John P. Halligan, established a web site in loving tribute to his son as a clarion call to prevent what happened to Ryan from impacting the lives of any other young people. John Halligan expressed his hope:

“This site is dedicated to the memory of our son Ryan and for all young people suffering in silence from the pain of bullying and having thoughts of suicide. We hope young people become less ashamed to ask for help when feeling suicidal. We hope adults gain knowledge from our tragedy. As a society, we need to find better ways to help our young people through their most difficult growing years (”

The American Psychological Association (APA) passed a resolution (2004) calling on educational, governmental, business, and funding agencies to address issues of face-to-face and cyberbullying. In the resolution, they particularly addressed acts of harassment “about race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity” (p. 1). In addition, the resolution specifically emphasized the high rate of bullying around issues of sexual identity, gender expression, and disability:

“[C]hildren and youth with disabilities and children and youth who are lesbian, gay, or transgender, or who are perceived to be so may be at particularly high risk of being bullied by their peers.”

Though too late to help Ryan Patrick Halligan as someone with a disability and who was perceived as gay, possibly this resolution can assist in developing policies and can ultimately help in the reduction of bullying behaviors.

GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) found in its 2007 National School Climate Survey of 6,209 middle and high school students that 86.2% of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students experienced harassment at school in the past year, 44.1% reported being physically harassed, and 22.1% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year, 73.6% heard derogatory remarks such as “faggot” or “dyke” frequently or often at school, 60.8% felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, 38.4% felt unsafe because of their gender expression, and 32.7% skipped a day of school in the past month because of feeling unsafe. The report also found that the grade point average of students who were more frequently harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender expression was almost half a grade lower than for students who were less often harassed (2.8 versus 2.4).

On a positive note, the survey also discovered that schools can make a marked and powerful difference when they directly and visibly address the problem of bullying and harassment.

Students who are the targets of harassment and attacks by their peers are associated with higher rates of mental health problems. Risk factors for those targeted include increased school absenteeism, school difficulties including slipping grades, and dropping out of school. Also, they have increased risk of alcohol and drug use and abuse, as well as psychosomatic symptoms. They are also linked to serious mental health problems including depression, anxiety disorders, increased fear and withdrawal from family and peers, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), low self esteem, poor body image, suicidal ideation, attempts, and completion.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are integral members of families throughout this nation and the world. If Focus on the Family is seriously concerned with improving the quality of life and is truly focusing on families, they will join us in this effort to work to secure the safety and the equity of educational outcomes for all people, including our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld, Associate Professor of Multicultural and International Curriculum Studies at Iowa State University. He is co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States.

Permission was granted to publish this commentary.

To view state laws on anti-bullying, go to:

To see an example of a Middle School Cyberbullying Curriculum developed by the Seattle Public Schools, go to:

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