To Lynch a Child: Bullying and Gender Non-Conformity in Our Nation's Schools
Michael J. Higdon
University of Tennessee College of Law
February 23, 2010
University of Tennessee Legal Studies Research Paper No. 102
“Lynching is a terror that has many forms; there is the lynching of men’s spirits as well as their bodies.” -- Richard Wright
In January 2010, a 9-year old boy named Montana Lance hung himself in a bathroom at the Texas elementary school he attended. Although certainly shocking, such acts are unfortunately becoming less and less unusual. In fact, the suicide of Montana Lance is very reminiscent of what happened in April 2009 when two 11-year-old boys, one in Massachusetts and one in Georgia, likewise committed suicide just days apart. What would cause these children to end their lives? The answer in each case is the same: all three suffered extreme levels of victimization at the hands of school bullies - bullying that others have described as involving “relentless homophobic taunts.” And, as we can see from the fate of these three little boys, this form of harassment was obviously very traumatic.
In this article, I look at the growing problem of school bullying in America today. Now, almost all children are teased and most will even face at least some form of bullying during their childhood. However, studies reveal that some children will unfortunately become chronic victims of school bullying. Chief among that group are those children whose gender expression is at odds with what society considers “appropriate.” As my article explores, the gender stereotypes that exist within our society are frequently to blame for the more extreme levels of bullying currently being carried out in our nation’s schools. And the impact this bullying has on its victims is staggering. Earlier I mentioned three children who took their own lives as a result of bullying. These are but three examples of those who have lost their lives to gender-based bullying. However, there are countless other victims who, although not paying with their lives, are nonetheless paying dearly in other ways. Specifically, the psychological literature on the emotional impacts that befall these chronic victims of bullying reveals a whole host of resulting problems - debilitating consequences that can last a lifetime.
As a result, my article argues that bullying on the basis of gender non-conformity is, in essence, a form of lynching. First, both are driven by unwritten social codes - in one instance, white supremacy; in the other, gender stereotypes. Second, both are carried out by perpetrators who do not act in isolation but with the support and sometimes involvement of the larger community. As I explain, one of the reasons gender-based bullying is so frequent is the degree to which peers and school administrators ignore such behavior and, in some instances, even become active participants. Third, both result in extreme harm - lynching, in its most basic form, resulted in dead bodies; however, a lynching need not be defined so narrowly. In the case of segregation, for example, we had living children with “lynched” spirits. As one commentator describes, “these children [who endured racial segregation] were truly lynched spiritually, emotionally, and mentally.” As noted above, and as discussed quite extensively in my article, chronic bullying on the basis of gender stereotypes carries similar results. Finally, both lynching and gender-based bullying achieve maximum effectiveness by the way in which they generate fear in others. The clear message of both is the same: obey the “code” or become the next victim.
Although other scholars have addressed the topic of bullying, none have taken the approach that it is 1) heavily based on gender stereotypes and 2) as such, is in essence a form of lynching given the extreme harms it can cause. As a result, many articles propose remedies that focus more on the need for greater legal intervention. I argue that, first, only by recognizing this form of bullying for what it is - a form of lynching - can we even attempt to craft a solution to the problem. Second, given the degree to which social norms relating to gender animate this form of bullying, legal solutions alone will be inadequate absent some means of changing society’s adherence to these rigid and unforgiving stereotypes. Accordingly, I conclude by discussing ways in which litigation, legislation and education can work together to help try and effectuate some form of social change.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 59
Keywords: lgbt, bullying, lynching
Date posted: March 4, 2010 ; Last revised: February 17, 2011