Hearings and rallies over "bathroom bill" (copy)

Protesters rally in front of the South Carolina Statehouse on April 13, 2016, opposing a bill introduced by Sen. Lee Bright that would forbid transgender men and women from using public bathrooms that match their gender. File/Staff

I watched in anger a couple of weeks ago as news trickled out of a small town in Oklahoma about adults threatening and dehumanizing a 12-year-old girl for being transgender.

It started in a Facebook group for public school parents in Achille, Okla., according to The Oklahoman.

"Heads up parents of 5th thru 7th grade girls," a parent at the school posted. "The transgender is already using the girls bathroom."

In the ensuing comment thread, grown adults called the child a "thing" and a "half baked maggot." The insults quickly devolved into threats.

"Just tell the kids to kick ass in the bathroom and it won't come back!!" someone chimed in. A man holding an infant in his profile picture suggested castrating the student, writing, "A good sharp knife will do the job really quick."

Much has been made of students bullying one another, but in this case it was parents of the student's classmates, adults in the community and a few from outside the community who jumped onto the dog pile.

It got so bad, the school had to shut down for two days.

It got so bad, the child's parents plan to move to another state.

In my parenting column last month, I looked at the steps we can take as parents to keep from raising bullies. This time, I wanted to talk about confronting our fellow adults when they are the ones doing harm.

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Paul Bowers headshot (recurring) (copy) (copy)

Paul Bowers is a father of three living in North Charleston.

So I sought advice from Melissa Moore, executive director of We Are Family, an organization that has been working to support LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and intersex) youth in the Charleston area since 1994. They have seen kids endure everything the student from Oklahoma endured — and worse — at the hands of adults, parents and church leaders. In fact, a major part of their outreach is to homeless teenagers whose parents kicked them out of the house.

Moore's first piece of advice is to speak up.

"Call it out. Never just be a bystander, and don't let things slide when they are problematic and they are wrong," Moore said. "People need to learn, and they'll never learn if you just let things go. ... So stand up for those kids when you see something wrong."

Words have consequences, particularly when children are listening. Your kid might not care one way or the other about transgender people until you speak up, whether in support of their basic humanity or, as we saw in Oklahoma, in support of violence.

"Most transgender women of color ... they don't normally live past the age of 35, and the reason they don't live past the age of 35 is because people kill them," Moore said. "Way too often, they are murdered, and it is that kind of rhetoric that those parents were expressing on that social media feed that causes the deaths of these people."

Sadly, Moore said it's not hard to imagine the Oklahoma student's nightmare playing out here in South Carolina, where anti-transgender "bathroom bills" are a cause celebre. And powerful institutions, including the church, regularly inveigh against folks who are gender-nonconforming, gay or transgender.

"South Carolina is not a good place to be an LGBT kid," Moore said.

When an LGBT kid does need help, it can be hard to come by. Organizations like We Are Family are rare and often overloaded with casework.

Nijeeah Richardson, director of support programs for We Are Family, said that even well-meaning parents sometimes have a hard time supporting or connecting with their LGBT children. 

"My parents, who are black, can talk to me about blackness, but if my parents are straight, they can't necessarily talk to me about what it means to be queer or trans," Richardson said.

Basic things, like respecting a child's chosen pronoun (he, she, they and so forth), are a start. Peer support groups, like ones that We Are Family facilitates, are also important for a lot of kids who feel like no one can relate to their experiences.

As parents of non-LGBT kids, we also can teach our kids to be brave by setting an example and by talking about the issue in plain terms. Like any other injustice in the world, Moore says anti-LGBT discrimination is a perfectly suitable conversation for the dinner table.

"If you see it happening, discuss it in the same way that you would discuss anything else you see wrong going on in society, and encourage your kid to take a stand against those things," Moore said. "And if they see a child who's in need of support, who's being bullied, teach them how to take that kid away from the harm, whether it's stepping in and standing up to the bully or whether it's stepping in and saying, 'Hey, come with me,' and taking that person away from the people who are doing harm to them."

Unless, of course, the bully is a fellow parent. Then it's our job to take a stand.

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.