Editor’s note: Because Sarah, the subject of this story, is a minor and discussed sensitive subject matter, we have used pseudonyms to protect her privacy.
For the past several years, a good friend of mine, who I will call Anna, has been a ‘Big’ (as in Big Brothers Big Sisters) to a girl, who I will call Sarah. Anna met Sarah when she was 12 years old. Today Sarah is almost 17 and has just begun her junior year of high school. As we all know the years between 12 and 17 are a time of huge changes—difficult even under the best of circumstances.
Sarah’s family doesn’t fit the traditional suburban ideal but these days whose family does? However, she is fortunate to be surrounded by a wide network of relatives who care about her and want her to succeed. Which is where Anna comes in. Sarah’s mother enrolled her daughter in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program because she was concerned about bullies and bad influences at school. Sarah was small for her age, somewhat soft-spoken, and other students had picked fights with her on a few occasions.
Always exceedingly polite and engaging, Sarah has grown into an unusually focused and self-possessed young woman, but the road hasn’t always been smooth. Aside from the usual teen angst over strict parents and fickle boys, Sarah has been struggling to define her own sexual orientation. Because the issue of bullying, especially where gay teens are concerned, is so prevalent in the news, I thought it would be enlightening to get Sarah’s grounded and ground-level perspective.
Mamiverse: Do you consider bullying a big problem at your school?
Sarah: People kid around and make jokes and stuff. You just have to laugh it off and keep a tough façade; if you’re too emotional they’ll use it against you. The quieter kids get picked on more…but everyone gives each other a hard time. I could see how someone coming from another place, who wasn’t used to it, might get upset.
Mamiverse: So recently every class in your school had to make an anti-bullying poster. Was there one type of behavior or issue that came up a lot?
Sarah: Most of the posters were about fighting.
Mamiverse: Anna told me that when you were younger, you pretty much accepted the fact that, because you were so small, you would have to get into at least one fight. You felt like you had to establish that you wouldn’t let people walk all over you.
[I want to interject here that Sarah is an excellent student who isn't the least bit aggressive.]
Mamiverse: What about social media? Do you think there’s a lot of bullying on Facebook and Twitter?
Sarah: Not really. The main thing is that when the girl I’m dating now gets upset about something between us, she’ll tweet about it. Then a bunch of other people will start tweeting that she’s wrong or I’m wrong and it turns into this big thing.
Mamiverse: So everyone knows your business instantly and starts taking sides?
Sarah: Yes, but a lot of people also tweeted that she shouldn’t be talking about that stuff on Twitter so it kind of goes both ways.
Mamiverse: Has anyone ever posted something about you, then other people chimed in and made you feel ganged up on?
Sarah: This past summer I was tweeting from my TV because I didn’t have my iPod and someone commented that I never leave my house. (Twitter identifies what device you’re tweeting from.) That hurt my feelings, but I guess it was true—I got over it.
Mamiverse: You waited about a year to tell your parents and Anna that you were dating a girl. What kept you from telling them?
Sarah: I wasn’t sure how my mom would react, I just didn’t know how to tell her, and I didn’t really know myself what to call it. I liked boys, I still like boys. I didn’t think of it as wanting to date girls, it was that I loved her. I only told my mom when I couldn’t hide how upset I was when we broke up. I told Anna right after I told my mom.
Mamiverse: And why did you wait so long to tell Anna?
Sarah: I don’t know, I guess I just didn’t know how to bring it up, and I wasn’t ready to explain myself.
Mamiverse: I know your mom wasn’t thrilled at first, but she’s been pretty supportive since.
Sarah: Yes, I think I’m lucky because my parents may not agree with everything I do, but they respect my decisions.
Mamiverse: Did you get any negative feedback from your family?
Sarah: My mom told my grandmother who’s really religious and she lectured me about how what I was doing was wrong. That was really upsetting. Especially because I was having a hard time dealing with our breakup and it was my first real relationship.
Mamiverse: When did you tell your friends?
Sarah: They knew after a couple of months.
Mamiverse: How did they react?
Sarah: Most of them were gay or bi so they were fine with it. A lot of the girls in my school date other girls—it’s common knowledge, no one makes a big deal out of it.
Mamiverse: Do you think it’s harder for boys who are gay when it comes to bullying?
Mamiverse: You spend a lot of time on Twitter talking to kids all around the country, have you noticed that attitudes are different other places?
Sarah: I don’t know. Most of my friends on Twitter are gay so….
Mamiverse: How is that?
Sarah: We use hashtags to find each other.
Mamiverse: Wow, so you have a whole community of kids who can relate to what you’re going through. Does anyone ever use those hashtags to target gay teens?
Sarah: No, because if someone tweets something out of line, everyone will start telling them off.
Sarah and I wrapped up by discussing how we (yes, I was bullied in my day too) survived bullying and what drives some teens to desperate measures. We agreed that in her case, having a supportive and accepting family is invaluable. No matter what happens at school, she knows she can go home and be herself without being judged. She acknowledges that without her family’s acceptance of her sexual orientation (or lack thereof), she would have had a much harder time dealing with outside pressures.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there’s a flip side to the mob mentality of social media. We hear a lot about Facebook bullying, but we don’t hear as much about the fantastic support systems Facebook and Twitter provide. Twitter, ironically because of its public nature, often feels like a safer place for kids to be themselves (under the guise of their Twitter handles of course) because inappropriate behavior is immediately apparent to the group and isn’t tolerated.
There’s no easy solution to bullying and there’s no magic formula that will tell us why some kids are bullies and why some kids are consumed by it. All we can do is listen and learn, make a concerted effort to give our children the tools to be the best individuals they can be, and love them unconditionally.