Stand up to bullies by. . . being a bully?

Today was one of the fairly-frequent Bullying Awareness Events that school boards across Ontario (and presumably in other provinces) participate in. The idea was to wear pink, to celebrate the students in Nova Scotia who stood up for a bullied new student by showing up dressed in pink, the day after the new student had been bullied for wearing that colour. It’s a heartwarming story of solidarity and support and I’m very glad it happened.

I’m far less happy with the Wear Pink days that have come out of it.

The joshing in the hallway after school on Tuesday – when the principal was ensuring that everyone was in possession of one of the t-shirts she’d ordered for us, whether or not we chose to wear it – was uncomfortable. There were comments about masculinity draining away; comparisons of the colour to bubblegum, girl toys, and a certain stomach remedy that shall remain nameless; a little bit of hand-flopping of a quote-unquote fabulous nature; and general tomfoolery that had the effect of highlighting the fact that everyone there was presumably straight and such wonderful people for making this gesture. (I’m leaving aside, for the moment, the fact that their perceptions of everyone’s hetero status were incorrect.)

Then there was the reaction of the male students to being asked to wear pink. First, the request was softened to include red; then, the only boys who actually wore pink were given a jokingly wide berth in the hallways; and finally there was some pointing and laughing at the teachers who wore pink (notably, only at the male teachers.) Despite the teachable moments, the whole affair left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

The fact is, by creating an anti-bullying event that involves so much pink, we’ve effectively set up another inflexible cultural binary. Those who wore pink today were virtuous, standing up for those who were bullied, while those who did not were open to censure.

We did not challenge the association of the colour pink with femininity, gayness, or trangender issues.

We did not challenge the prevalence of the messages in our culture which encourage girls to feminize every aspect of their lives to the point where boys cannot participate on an equal footing without being accused of giving up their masculinity.

Meanwhile, boys who so much as dabble in pursuits dubbed “girly” are ostracized by their peer group. To teenage boys, nothing is worse than a boy who is not masculine – and we have not challenged that perception with this event.

I had a student a few years ago who did not fit the gender binary in grade four; he’s in grade ten now. He was sheltered, naive, and effeminate, and he got teased mercilessly. That was the first year I gave my now-standard lecture about respectful use of the word “gay” and how thou shalt not bully students on the basis of perceptions of gayness in my classroom. I wonder: if he had happened to come visit his old elementary school on Tuesday afternoon, what would he have seen? Would he have seen a bunch of basically good men, people who do their best to be welcoming and friendly and without bias, who were being asked to wear something that made them uncomfortable and were dealing with it through humour? Or would he have seen more examples of the heteronormative hyper-genderized culture that has been bullying him since before he knew what “gay” actually meant?

And if he’d seen the latter, what exactly would our wear-pink day have accomplished?