My son is gay. Happily gay. Confidently gay with a sweet sense of humor; a strength in his kindness and an exasperating need to argue his point (whatever point) until you give up yours from pure exhaustion.
I called him Sunday after the shootings. We cried. I saw his face in that club the same way I saw his face in Matthew Shepherd. These were not random acts of violence. They were acts of hatred against people like my son. I told him what I wanted to write on my blog. He told me what he wanted to write on his Facebook. By the next day, he was telling me how upset he was to see friends and family members blaming Muslims in general for the Orlando attack.
He wrote to them, “Do not spread more hate. Many in the Muslim community mourn with us. There are fringe branches of many faiths that approve of the shootings in Orlando, but they are few and shrinking. We are many and we are growing. Let’s band together and resolve to love more. Let us never group people together and hate them because of who they are; where they were born; or where they find God. Change comes when we reject the terror and continue to love.”
I was thinking of my boy when I sat down this morning to write this. He is a strong man who learned long ago to stand up for himself with pride, and even to have compassion for those who did not accept him. But he and other LGBTQ adults will tell you the fears they faced in high school. It’s children I want to write about today.
Acts of hatred affect children in many ways. Parents and educators must be aware of what’s happening emotionally with their little ones, whether they’re preschoolers or teenagers. This act of massive hatred will cause fear in some children while others may feel emboldened to act as bullies.
There is a reason that there are laws that designate some violent attacks as hate crimes. It’s because the victim is not only the person who was physically attacked. The victim was meant to be the entire group that is hated: Latinos, African Americans, LGBTQ, Muslims, immigrants, the homeless… the list has no end. And so for our children, a hate crime like Orlando’s may have varying impacts, depending on whether or not that child belongs to the group that was targeted.
If a child is an LGBTQ adolescent, he or she may fear for their immediate safety; they may question whether they can trust others. As the names of the victims in Orlando are released, one can’t help but notice that so many of them have Hispanic surnames: Almodovar, Martínez, Fernández, Flores. The attack came on “Latino Flavor” night. Latino children, may fear that they and their families are in danger, especially as they hear a heated debate about building walls to keep out Mexicans who have been casually characterized as drug dealers and rapists.
But it’s also likely that Muslim children will fear that they will be targets. They are hearing news reports that the shooter was a Muslim with sympathies to terrorist organizations. They will fear that wearing a hijab or their Muslim name may make people who are angry about the attack, angry with them by connection.
There is fear on so many levels. But some children who are neither gay nor Muslim nor black nor Latino may be receiving a different type of message – that anyone who belongs to one of those groups is the enemy. Some of my colleagues have already told me that this year, they’ve witnessed bullying events involving very young students who have threatened Latino or Muslim students for being Latino or Muslim.
Transgender students are now in the news and the focus can bring out new allies but also new bullies. This is extremely dangerous. What children hear from adults has a profound impact on them. When they hear adults targeting groups, saying hateful things, they believe it’s acceptable for them to do the same.
It’s not, of course. But we can’t assume that our children will know that. It’s up to the adults to speak directly to the children in their care. It’s up to us to explain that belonging to a religious or racial group doesn’t make you good or bad. Your sexual orientation or gender identity doesn’t make you good or bad. We need to explain that humanity is made up of many people with different cultures and beliefs – that even within groups there are huge differences. We need to explain that diversity is not something to be feared. It’s something that’s simply human. And we are all part of that human family.
But we need to explain that there is bad in the world. Hate is bad. Violence is bad. Bigotry is bad. Bullying is bad.
Parents, educators, religious leaders, political leaders, Scout leaders, adult leaders… if you have influence on a child, you have a responsibility.
Talk to them about the bad in the world that brings fear and violence; but talk about the good in us.
Talk about the good we do when we refuse to group people together and hate them because of who they are; where they were born; or where they find God.
Tell them that it is good to reject terror. Tell them to continue to love.
NEA has posted resources to help students, educators, and families have meaningful conversations about the mass shooting in Orlando and other national tragedies at “United Orlando.”