Two weeks ago a 13 year old Minnesota girl committed suicide by hanging herself. Rachel Ehmke’s parents say she had suffered months of abuse at school:
The constant name-calling started sometime in the fall, Ehmke said.
“She’d say you’d walk by girls in school and they’d holler out things like “slut.” Stuff like this. It was just relentless,” Ehmke said.
At one point the bullies put gum in his daughter’s books and all over her locker, he said.
In a story by the Austin Herald, Rachel’s older sister says the word “slut” had been written on her locker, as well.
Like the bullying of LGBT kids, which sometimes drives them to suicide, this stuff doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Even if parents and adult authority figures don’t explicitly teach kids that gay people are wrong and female sexuality is shameful, it’s inevitable that kids are going to absorb those ideas from the larger culture. It hasn’t helped that abstinence-only sex “educators”, armed with millions of federal and state dollars, descended upon the public school during the Bush administration and continue to operate their misleading programs in districts across the country today, promoting unbelievably retrograde gender stereotypes and homophobia. In the meantime teen pregnancy and STD rates are highest in areas where abstinence-only sex ed dominates the curricula, and there are reports of an uptick in school bullying since 2001.
That’s part of what made yesterday so important. President Obama made a historic statement of equality and inclusion when he expressed support for the right of gay couples to marry. In one stunning moment millions of Americans had their rights to full citizenship validated by the most powerful figure in the nation. Doesn’t erase centuries of bigotry or overturn marriage bans recently passed in 30 states but it’s a step in the right direction. It’s at least a small step toward making the schools safer for gay kids and less accommodating to bullies. It does matter what the people at the top say because kids are watching and listening.
Yesterday was also the day that Governor Jan Brewer indicated she was “more favorable” to allowing religious employers to deny women contraception coverage, under the pretense that it’s a purely objective religious matter and not a direct attack on the dignity of women and our status as full citizens. Brewer denies vigorously that her anti-choice legislation is harmful to women:
Brewer also rejected Democrats’ criticism of the Republican-led Legislature as waging a “war on women” through the contraception bill, one already signed by Brewer to deny government funding to Planned Parenthood for non-abortion services and other legislation.
“But we are the party of women, particularly here in Arizona,” Brewer said, citing the state’s election of female governors and female legislators. “We like women.”
Some girls learn at a young age that being mean to other girls ingratiates them with popular boys. When they grow up to be women who bully other women to impress powerful men they often find a comfortable and lucrative milieu in conservative politics. We already knew that. The waiting periods and mandatory ultrasounds and lectures abortion patients are subjected to are purely rooted in the desire to bully and shame them. And defunding Planned Parenthood is nothing if not a statement that sexually active women are wrong and bad. And again, even if they aren’t paying attention to the day-to-day minutiae of politics at the national or state level, kids pick up on the attitudes of leaders. So while the President made the country a little bit nicer and more generous in spirit yesterday with his statement on marriage equality, Jan Brewer, Republican legislators, and Cathi Herrod and her crowd have spent the entire season doing the exact opposite in Arizona in ways too numerous to recount.