Why online bullying of Lil Nas X is proof that LGBTQ kids need your support as much as ever
When rapper Boosie Badazz became the latest person to unleash a homophobic and since-deleted Twitter rant against Lil Nas X — telling him "if you commit suicide, you would do this world a huge favor, nobody wants you here" — many people were shocked at his cruelty.
But for bullied LGBTQ youth (not to mention adults who were scarred by years of harassment throughout childhood and adolescence) the words were all too familiar, serving as a potent reminder that despite legal and societal advances regarding LGBTQ people, homophobia is alive and well — even for Grammy-winning, multimillion-dollar-net-worth celebrities.
Still, if there is a takeaway here, say experts, it should be this: Queer kids need adult support now as much as ever.
"My first thought was: What he's experiencing on Twitter is what happens in the hallways, every day, in elementary schools and middle schools and high schools," Cathy Renna, spokesperson for the National LGBTQ Task Force, tells Yahoo Life. "He is such a wonderful, unapologetically and amazingly queer artist, and he poked the bear and has brought out not just anonymous trolls but other high-profile celebrities who are clearly unapologetic in attacking him — in the same way kids in school get taunted every single day across this country."
According to the 2019 National School Climate Survey from GLSEN, a nonprofit championing LGBTQ issues in K-12 classrooms across the country, 86.3 percent of LGBTQ youth reported being targets of harassment or assault while at school. And that includes hearing homophobic remarks — and even being told, like Lil Nas X was, to "kill yourself."
"It's not uncommon," a.t. Furuya, GLSEN's Education and Youth Program director (who uses they/them pronouns), tells Yahoo Life. "I work with teens in middle school, and it's not an uncommon phrase … the harassment is really horrific."
Other stark findings: 59.1 percent of LGBTQ students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation; almost all LGBTQ students (98.8 percent) heard "gay" used in a negative way at school; 95.2 percent of LGBTQ students heard other derogatory remarks at school, including "dyke" or "faggot"; and less than one-fifth of students (13.7 percent) reported that school staff intervened all or most of the time when overhearing homophobic remarks.
Similarly, LGBTQ-youth crisis-support organization the Trevor Project has found that queer students who reported being bullied in the past year had three times greater odds of attempting suicide in the past year; transgender and nonbinary students (61 percent) reported higher rates of bullying compared with cisgender LGBQ students (45 percent); and 42 percent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including 47 percent of Black LGBTQ youth.
These harsh truths belie the beliefs of many regarding queer realities, Furuya says. "I often hear, 'Oh, well, gay folks, it's all OK now — there's same-sex marriage and all these laws, more celebrities are coming out, and everyone celebrates Pride.
"But the flip side to that," they explain, is that beyond that one celebratory month, "homophobic bullying and assault happen year-round … not to mention we still have a lot of LGBTQ-plus youth who are homeless, who are battling [anti-trans] state laws and high unemployment rates. And for students, what often comes with visibility is becoming targets. So, while it's amazing and a great opportunity to have a conversation about Lil Nas X," Furuya says that can very quickly backfire, "especially for young people, if adults aren't holding [bullies] accountable or knowing how to intervene."
What to learn from Lil Nas X's response
Lil Nas X has not backed down from being authentic in the face of attacks, brushing him off with humor.
i am truly saddened. i have never been so mortified in my life. i can’t believe disney channel has yet to play halloween town this entire october.
— MONTERO 🦋 (@LilNasX) October 23, 2021
It's prompted the Trevor Project to issue a statement from CEO and executive director Amit Paley: "The Trevor Project is proud of Lil Nas X for living his truth unapologetically and using his massive platform to normalize conversations around mental health and the LGBTQ community. For many LGBTQ young people, Lil Nas X serves as a beacon of hope, empowering them to see a bright future for themselves."
Renna adds, "Lil Nas X is very intentionally provoking people to think about these [issues], and when you do that, you're definitely going to provoke those not happy with you."
The counterbalance to that ire, though, she notes, "is the inspiration he is to the queer kids out there — particularly kids of color who might not have community or family support or are in a school environment where they might be bullied. He offers them hope and does it in a way that is very unique and authentic … talking about real things, about his own pain … and the challenge of being in such despair that you think about ending your own life. That, to me, is what makes him extraordinary."
Fans too are impressed with how the "Industry Baby" singer has handled Boosie's attacks.
Lil Nas X when Lil Boosie pulls up on him pic.twitter.com/nc6G2hONKg
— Rich (@UptownDC_Rich) October 23, 2021
This is literally Boosie vs Lil Nas X pic.twitter.com/yhCQgYSeb8
— blue haired feminist (@blaccbrry_) October 23, 2021
But it's impossible to know how he's truly feeling inside, and that's important to keep in mind when considering whether or not to suggest that bullied youth follow his lead. As of now, Lil Nas X has not issued a public statement on Boosie's remarks. (He recently told People, regarding backlash, "The love outweighs the hate by like a hundred.")
"My mom was like, 'just make jokes,' so I grew up as class comedian, but that was a survival tactic. I was funny because I had to be," Furuya, who is trans, says. "That's something I shouldn't have had to do. Sure, it's built character and strength, but for young folks, I think, everyone's healing or coping process is different." It's why finding healthy coping tools, whether "therapy, art or other creative expression," is vital.
How to support LGBTQ youth
Furuya believes the most helpful way to fight bullying is through effective intervention. "I work with educators on how to identify and what to listen for if students are being harassed — same with young people, teaching them how to be empowered to intervene. Some say, 'I don't want to become the target by sticking up for them,' so it's working through that with young folks: What does it mean to not be [just] a bystander?" Sometimes it's simply speaking the truth, such as letting the bully know: You are hurting this person.
"It sounds so simple, but it can have such an impact … using words to shut that down," Furuya says.
For educators, they add, "It's really important to figure out what safety looks like" and to know how to build a safety program. GLSEN offers guidance in many forms, including its Safe Space Kits, available to schools and offering tools for allyship; and programs like Changing the Game, to help make school athletics more inclusive, and Solidarity Week, a campaign launching on Monday to foster support for all who need it. Oftentimes, even showing through symbols, such as a prominently displayed rainbow flag or sticker, that you're a safety net for LGBTQ youth, is huge.
“You can't learn if you’re in fear," Furuya says.
Finally, no matter who you are and how you identify, it's a show of support to simply be unapologetically yourself.
"When you show up as your true self, you're giving others permission to do the same," says Furuya. "It signals to a young person: yes, there is another way to exist… and they're like, 'I didn't know this was possible!'" That's what Lil Nas X has brought to so many.
"It's not that it’s new — but it's fresh, the timing," Furuya says. "We needed something to rock our world."
If you are LGBTQ and thinking of harming yourself, call the Trevor Project for support from a counselor, 24/7, at 866-488-7386, or text "START" to 678-678.