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Byrd: Branstad's bully pulpit

BY MATTHEW BYRD | AUGUST 29, 2013 5:00 AM

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Last week, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad announced that he will hold a “bullying-prevention summit” in November in Des Moines in order to come up with strategies to prevent and address bullying in the state’s schools.

The governor’s announcement should be met with applause — bullying is a horrendous ordeal which far too many of Iowa’s children are subjected to. Bullying is also a severe public-health risk to the state’s children; the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has stated that bullied children are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and sleeping and eating disorders. They are also more likely to struggle academically because of the severe stress caused by bullying and, as a recent study in the journal Psychological Science has shown, bullied children are more likely to face health and financial problems well into adulthood.

While the governor’s actions are certainly a step in the right direction, a closer examination of the summit reveals two disturbing flaws; the absence of the LGBTA groups in the conference program and the governor’s own complicity in the culture that fosters bullying.

Though the conference will feature some liberal speakers, there are no LGBTA rights groups in the conference program or even sponsoring the event. This is particularly frustrating considering the fact that bullying of LGBTA youths is much more prevalent than it is in the general population.

According to a 2011 White House conference on bullying, 84.6 percent of LBGTA students have experienced some sort of verbal assault because of their sexual orientation, with 40.1 percent reporting some sort of physical harassment. The conference also showed that LGBTA youths are at a much higher risk for suicide with 45 percent of such youths reporting that they had attempted suicide compared with only 8 percent of their straight peers.

So, if bullying is such a ubiquitous issue within the LGBTA community, the governor ought to include the issue in his summit. However, the governor’s political considerations make this partnership quite unlikely.

To address LGBTA bullying in a productive manner is to chip away at the culture that allows it to thrive. The same White House bullying conference found that schools with high rates of LGBTA bullying also have a very pronounced homophobic culture. The ideas this culture presents dehumanizes LGBTA youths, making it easier for them to be marginalized and harassed by their peers.

This culture can be weakened in a few ways. Legislation eliminating the institutional barriers to full equality and community outreach partnerships between government and LGBTA organizations, to name two examples, could help to dispel negative attitudes towards LGBTAs.

Branstad, however, seems to have little interest in either of these approaches, shown both by his reluctance to add LBGTA rights groups to the summit and his attitude towards LGBTA policy. Branstad has said that he would like Iowa’s same-sex marriage statute to be repealed, and in fact, he signed the 1998 Iowa Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited same-sex marriage in the first place.

It seems that Branstad not only does not want to use his anti-bullying summit to directly address bullying in the LGBTA community but is also a card-carrying member of the conservative culture that creates these problems. If Branstad were actually serious about the epidemic of bullying in this state he would not only use his summit to highlight LGBTA bullying, but he would also stop contributing to the culture that perpetuates its existence.


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