Blog: #LetLanceDance - APsaA Commemorates #SpiritDay

#LetLanceDance

Sexual-minority youth are here – a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine this Spring showed that in 10th grade, 21% of girls and 8% of boys reported that they were not 100% heterosexual or straight or not attracted only to the opposite sex.  Consistent with prior research, this longitudinal study found that sexual-minority youth experienced higher levels of bullying and victimization across grades than other children did.  Evolving scientific evidence highlights the serious psychiatric, medical, and public health risks associated with bullying.  The consequences of bullying include serious problems such as suicidal behavior, self-inflicted and accidental injuries, school absenteeism, alcohol and drug abuse, running away, and eating disorders.

Although we assume that educators are in favor of developing safe schools through prevention and intervention anti-bullying programs that enhance mutual respect and tolerance of diversity, this is not always so, as Lance Sanderson, a senior at the all-male Christian Brothers High School in Memphis, Tennessee, recently found out.  When Lance asked if could bring a male date from another school to the Homecoming Dance, his high school denied the request.  Lance told the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Welcoming Schools program, “They’ve created this new rule that allows us to bring a date from another school, as long as it’s not another guy.”  Lance did not attend the Homecoming Dance with or without a date.  He just stayed home, although alumni of the school rallied at the Mid-South Pride parade for Lance.  About a week later, Lance was suspended for a week.  According to a letter Lance sent to the local paper, he was told by the administration that they “had 890 other students to worry about” and could not deal with him.  He also said that he was told that the school was sending him home because it was getting bad press.

Although Lance had done nothing wrong, a local elected official, Clark Plunk, denounced gay people and Lance on social media, posting, “I would say let the little HOMO sue all he wants!!!!!  The alumni of CBHS will meet him dollar for dollar and lawyer for lawyer.  This is a threat to our values, our Christian values.” 

As psychoanalysts, we are keenly aware of the dynamics of bullying. Bullies will only do what bystanders allow – it is a group process and a social dynamic that grips a victim’s entire world.  As part of the American Psychoanalytic Association's expertise in these matters, we view bullying as a triadic (three party), rather than dyadic (two party), process in which there are interactions between bully, victim and bystanders.  The bully does not act only as an individual.  Via complex and often hidden psychological forces, the bully becomes an “agent” of the bystander audience and together they create a complex and destructive power dynamic.  In Lance’s case, his high school and his community were unable to create a safe atmosphere for him, one that would enhance respect, empathy, and tolerance of diversity.  

We see the effects of bullying in the lives of our young patients, in the current lives of our adult patients, and its repercussions in the lives of our adult patients.  The threat of physical aggression and social scorn can have a devastating effect on development and progression in life.  The potential for a positive self-image and identity is lost and what can emerge instead is an identity built on internalization of the hatred and loathing of the aggressors.  Although it is less obvious, bullies and bystanders also suffer destructive consequences due to their participation in bullying.  These negative effects on all participants are preventable.

Susan McNamara, MD, is a psychiatrist in private practice in Middletown, CT, and a psychoanalyst-in-training at the National Institute for the Psychotherapies-National Training Program in New York.