Sunday, December 4, 2011

An Open Letter to NBC and "The Sing Off"

I love the television program, "The Sing Off."  Love may not be an adequate enough word, actually.  Perhaps "I am obsessed with 'The Sing Off'" or "I weep silent tears of darkness into my pillow if the DVR fails to record 'The Sing Off'"are better statements.  As a former choral/vocal music educator and a current professional ensemble singer, I am thrilled to tune in each week to a program that celebrates strong a cappella ensemble singing.  Nowhere else in mass-market media will you find this, and I am thrilled that NBC is willing to shine a light on this genre of music.

However, I am also a school counselor who works with high-school students on a day-to-day basis.  The issue of bullying within our schools is currently receiving a great deal of public attention.  Thus, I was very glad to see that the vocal group, Pentatonix, decided to work with The Trevor Project.  For those of us familiar with the organization and the issues of bullying and harassment, we know:
"The Trevor Project is the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth." (source: www.trevorproject.org)
This statement is at the very top of the homepage of "The Trevor Project," and quite clearly states that its services are geared towards LGBTQ youth.  Yet, when the segment was aired showing "Pentatonix" visiting and working with "The Trevor Project," there was no mention at all of the fact that the organization works with this very specific population.  The reason that an organization like "The Trevor Project" exists is because the adolescent LGBTQ community is at a higher risk of bullying and harassment.  In the 2009 National School Climate Survey conducted by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network):
  • 9.1% of LGBT students missed a class at least once and 30.0% missed at least one day of school in the past month because of safety concerns, compared to only 8.0% and 6.7%, respectively, of a national sample of secondary school students.
  • Nearly two-thirds (61.1%) of students reported that they felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation, and more than a third (39.9%) felt unsafe because of their gender expression. 
  • 84.6% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 40.1% reported being physically harassed and 18.8% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation. (source:  2009 National School Climate Survey at www.glsen.org)
Further, there have been multiple suicides/violent incidences in the last several years involving bullied and harassed gay youth--Tyler Clementi, Jamey Rodemeyer, and Larry King are but three names amongst many that have lost their lives due in part as a consequence to repeated taunting because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. 

Thus, on the one hand, any exposure that an organization like "The Trevor Project" gets on a national platform is positive--it raises awareness that there are people out there working to help prevent future bullying and harassment within our schools and serving as a resource for adolescents who may be struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide as a result of the actions of others.  However, my concern is that by removing any connection between "The Trevor Project" and LGBTQ youth, there is again a message being sent that being gay or transgender is not something we talk about in an open forum, that it is something better left to be discussed behind closed doors.  Further, many LGBTQ youth who are bullied or harassed may feel that traditional resources for all bullied or harassed students may not apply to them--they need to know that an organization or a resource is specifically gay-friendly.  For example, an anti-bullying bill recently debated in Michigan was going to include a clause that would have exempted adult-and-student bullies alike from any repercussions if the bullying and harassment was based on a religious or moral belief of some kind.  That clause was ultimately removed, but I believe that it is understandable that many LGBTQ youth may be skeptical of just any anti-bullying organization unless it has some clear text or mission about working with their specific population.

While I do not know for sure what the discussion or reasoning was behind leaving out any mention of "The Trevor Project's" LGBTQ ties, I do know that on NBC's rival network, ABC, there was a prime-time show the same week that also featured "The Trevor Project" and "GLSEN."  Friday's episode of Extreme Home Makeover told the story of Carl Walker, a young boy who hung himself because of the harassment he was facing at school.  Some of the boys made fun of him and apparently told him to "stop acting like a girl" and called him "gay."  (source:  abc.go.com/shows/extreme-makeover-home-edition)  The show did not shy away from explaining this.  Further, when the large group of people came marching down the street in support of the Walker family and to help build their new home, "The Trevor Project's" banner, including its LGBTQ affiliation, were clearly able to be seen.  While this episode of "Extreme Home Makeover" also tried to focus on the issue of bullying at large, it also took moments to shine the lens on the LGBTQ aspects of this specific case.

I was a bit surprised, given that NBC was the network that in 1998 aired the show Will and Grace, only a few months after Ellen, one of the first major shows to feature a gay lead character, was cancelled due to poor ratings.  I was proud of NBC at that time for taking a risk that, whether intentional or not, was supportive of the LGBTQ community.  I feel that NBC and "The Sing Off" missed a similar opportunity in the instance of "Pentatonix" and "The Trevor Project."  With the specific issues of anti-gay bullying, suicide, and violence amongst our teenagers, including the fact that "The Trevor Project" works specifically with LGBTQ youth should have been a risk worth taking.

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