This week we learned that U.S. presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney, is alleged to have bullied another kid at his prep school because he may have been gay. In his defense, Romney said, “Back in high school, you know, I did some dumb things.” Alas, the victim of his schoolyard ‘prank,’ John Lauber, died in 2004 and thus cannot receive the apology that Romney needs to give if the story is substantiated.
John Lauber did in fact come out as gay some years later but for all intents and purposes this is irrelevant; the fact that a young man, who today seeks to be President of the United States, believed he had the right to talk about a fellow classmate in derogatory terms and, 48 years later, laugh it off demonstrates that there will be no “It Gets Better” video from this aspiring world leader.
A few years ago, we knew very little about the life-course of bullies. Dan Olweus, a pioneer in the field of bullying behaviour, provided follow-up case-studies of former bullies that demonstrated that they were unsuccessful in life, had a history of failed relationships, maybe even a conviction or two – nothing that would endear a presidential hopeful to his party. However, more recently, Jaana Juvonen, a professor at UCLA, has shown that bullies are very different souls. We are told:
“Most bullies have almost ridiculously high levels of self-esteem, Juvonen’s research has found. What’s more, they are viewed by their fellow students and even by teachers not as pariahs but as popular — in fact, as some of the coolest kids at school.” (UCLA Today, May 3, 2012)
This would certainly explain how Romney has soared in the estimation of his party and the majority of those who will vote for him. So, is it the case that, for many people, bullies are cool? Do they add a little “frisson” into a mundane world? Do they make life exciting for others (albeit vicariously) through the persecution of those who are perceived to be different? If Juvonen is right, and I think she probably is, then perhaps we need to rethink how we socialize kids in school and perhaps stop the young Mitt Romneys of this world from hurting others.
And what of John Lauber? We know from reports by his family that he lived a somewhat “bohemian” life and certainly was not the success his alleged tormentor became. Whether his nonconformist lifestyle was related to these alleged experiences at school it is difficult to tell, but certainly he seems to have been a man with a desire to challenge conformity – a man many of us would have liked to know.
All forms of bullying are wrong but over the past few years we have become incensed by the tragic loss of life that results from homophobic bullying in particular. It is important that we acknowledge the legacy of homophobic bullying, and understand that long-term effects it can have upon those who leave school and try to build a life after years of torment.
In the studies I conducted in the 1990′s looking at the long-term effects of homophobic bullying, I found that 53% of former victims reported contemplating suicide as a direct result of the bullying they had experienced, 40% made one attempt to end their lives and three-quarters of those made two or more attempts. We also know that isolation and a failure to develop friendships as a result of ostracism by peers can often result in truancy and a desire to leave school as soon as possible. In some cases we find a history of depression after school and symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress. Many former victims do come through their experiences; they develop relationships and build successful lives however some do not. For others the world is filled with constant reminders of childhood and the pain it represents – a pain they continue to endure:
“For a long time, I had been calling it shame, but I realized recently that I think it might be flashbacks. It doesn’t just contain shame, but also fear, pressure to be different than I am, the feeling of being scary to other people, a feeling like I’m on a slippery slope and can do nothing right, a black alone feeling, sadness, a strong self-consciousness, feeling diminished, and other things. It’s more complex than just one feeling. I can go from knowing that someone is fine with me and my gayness, to all at once, because of a look on their face or maybe even my own word choice, feeling extremely unsure of myself, feeling like I’m a big ugly sickening monster to that person, not knowing how they feel about me. It’s like a sudden realization of who I am in the world, but it isn’t who I am now, but who I was in the world back then. It feels like I’m back there.” (Jane, TN)
So, for the next few days or even weeks a debate will rage about Mitt Romney and his suitability to be the Republican nominee for President of the United States. But this debate is unlikely to rage within the GOP, it will rage in media, among Democrats and the LGBTQ community. Perhaps, in hindsight, Mr Romney feels some remorse, but with a staunch anti-LGBTQ agenda, I think the half-hearted apology for his teenage “prank” is as good as it gets.
Ian Rivers is Professor of Human Development at Brunel University, London. He is the author of ‘Homophobic Bullying: Research and Theoretical Perspectives’ (Oxford, 2011), and has researched issues of discrimination in LGBT communities, particularly among children and young people, for nearly two decades.
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