When I got to sixth grade, kids who had been my friends for several years in school began to cast a doubtful eye on me. I went from playing football and kickball with boy classmates, and being just as friendly with the girl classmates, to having my every move picked apart, ridiculed and laughed at. Because societal gender expectations are often associated with sexual orientation, my slight body, “swishy” mannerisms and my close friendships with girls (and disinterest in inappropriately groping them) earned me the f-word title. I never told my family about the taunting and I spent those years till high school living in fear for my safety.
I suffered in silence.
Carl Joseph Walker Hoover endured the same type of torment, but he never made it to high school. One year ago today, Carl excused himself from the kitchen table, went to his bedroom and hung himself with an extension cord.
He was only eleven years old.
While there was significant media coverage of Walker’s death from Oprah to Ellen to Anderson Cooper, where was the outrage about his death in the black community? Carl never identified as gay or straight, and it doesn’t matter. Too many children grow up understanding that the best way to denigrate and socially outcast boys is to call them the f-word.
As we approach the one year anniversary of Carl’s death, we need to remind ourselves of the damage that homophobia has on the lives of black children. And let me be clear, the bullying of black lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender students (and those who are perceived to be LGBT) is not rare.
The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) released a study last year about black, Latino, Asian, and Native American lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, and found that “more than 80 percent of students reported being verbally harassed in school in the past year because of their sexual orientation, with African-American and Asian/Pacific Islander students being somewhat less likely than other students of color to report such experiences.” Carl was brave enough to tell his mother, and Sirdeaner Walker fought hard for the school to resolve the problem, but that’s the exception to the rule. The study found that African-American students were less likely than most other students of color to talk to their families about the harassment because of sexual orientation.
Is it any wonder? I don’t believe the black community is more homophobic than white America necessarily, but I think we do have a real obsession with masculinity – we’re always correcting our boys for how they walk, talk, hold their hands – even if they cry or not. And when their behavior doesn’t replicate 50 Cent, we verbally abuse them and strip away their self-esteem.
So speaking up for themselves seems to do more harm than good.
Our music doesn’t help either. Hip-hop is riddled with gay slurs, and last year, even Donnie McClurkin, gospel singer and a so-called “ex-gay” felt the need to derail a sermon to a C.O.G.I.C. youth revival to rage on for 30 minutes referring to LGBT youth as “vampires.” How is what McClurkin did any different from the abuse that Carl suffered?
Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover’s suicide was preventable, but hopefully it was not in vain. We should be as outraged by deaths caused by homophobia as much as we do about deaths caused by racism. If students were calling him the N word, we’d have every black civil rights organization raising hell about it. Why is this any different?
All of our children need to be loved, protected and valued—not just the ones who identify as being straight. We can’t allow such abuse to go on anymore—not in our schools, not in our music and not in our churches.
Words hurt, and in some cases, they can even kill.
Carl, may your name never be forgotten.
To learn more about safer schools for all children, please go to glsen.org