Speaking of Women's Rights: Forget Hallowe’en … What’s REALLY Scary

Friday, October 30, 2009

Forget Hallowe’en … What’s REALLY Scary

Hallowe’en approaches, and with it, the usual excitement for kids (sugar! lots of it!) and trepidation for parents (sugar! lots of it!). And, of course, there’s the perennial challenge of what costume to wear.

Hallowe’en is one of the few sanctioned times that as a society, we allow ourselves to publicly transcend the constraints of reality – to imagine ourselves as something other. Yet, even then, how often do you see kids crossing stereotypical gender lines? And why does it matter?

I admit, these observations stem in part from my sadness that my little boys no longer will agree to dress as cute animals; they want to be Darth Vader, skeleton-biker-dude-with-a-sword, and other scary things. Meanwhile (though there are, of course, exceptions), their female classmates are gravitating toward the princess, fairy, and other “feminine” fantasy characters.

As children get older, they often feel a bit freer to experiment with gender transgression. For example, my white male neighbor, a Catholic middle-schooler, is dressing as a cheerleader. But note: he’s doing so because he thinks it is funny. A boy? In a cheerleader’s miniskirt? Oh ho!

But back to the question: Why does this matter? There are oodles of studies, articles, and theses about gender stereotyping, gender politics, queer politics, etc. But the rubber hits the road when people’s discomfort turns to bullying, harassment, and violence.

Under existing laws, courts are often reluctant to find that harassment based on sexual orientation is prohibited discrimination, unless sexual orientation and gender identity are explicitly listed as protected classes (which, FYI, they are in Washington’s law against discrimination). Yet there is no question that the root of many acts of discrimination and harassment against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals is gender stereotyping. The kind that begins with seemingly innocent Hallowe’en costumes and eventually turns into hardened expectations about how males and females (yes, just two choices) should act.

Nearly 9 out of 10 (86.2%) LGBT students experience harassment at school and 60.8% feel unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, according to GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s 2007 Survey of 6,209 LGBT students in middle and high school. LGBT youth are four times as likely as their heterosexual peers to attempt suicide, and 28 percent of LGBT youth drop out of school because of harassment resulting from their sexual orientation. (See here.)

Moreover, between 1998 and 2007, the FBI reported “nearly one hate crime for every hour of every day over the span of a decade," according to Attorney General Eric Holder. A little more than a decade ago, in 1998, two horrific events brought popular attention to the issue of hate crimes. On June 7, 1998, three white men chained an African American to a pickup truck and dragged him to his death. On Oct. 7, 1998, two men in Wyoming beat up a gay teenager and tied him to a fence, leaving him to die.

In honor of these two men, earlier this week, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which makes it a federal crime to assault an individual because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity, race, or religion. While seemingly simple in concept, it took over 10 years of focused effort after the deaths of Shepard and Byrd (and many more years of work before that) for this to become the law of the land.

So it’s no wonder parents are worried about what to do if their little boy wants to wear a tutu, out of fear that he will be bullied. And why it is helpful for there to be more support for kids who are questioning their own sexual orientation and coming out as early as middle school.

According to GLSEN, “It is difficult to understate the powerful impact of allies who intervene when they witness anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment. Allies play a crucial role in addressing and raising awareness about the pervasive problem of anti-LGBT bullying.”

So listen up, parents, neighbors, and others – as you look at the parade of Hallowe’en costumes this year, it’s OK to laugh or be amused by the cute gender-conforming costumes, as well as the gender-transgressing ones. But when Hallowe’en is over, and the official “costumes” are put away, let’s work to create a respectful and safe environment for kids who aren’t “dressing up” or defying gender expectations just for fun.